Food vendors have undergone far fewer checks this Ramazan than in previous years as officers of the new Punjab Food Authority (PFA) are still getting accustomed to their new responsibilities.
The PFA, which became operational on July 2, was set up to monitor the manufacturing, distribution, storage, sale and import of food, taking over the functions of the District Food Department.
PFA officials said that they had collected 500 food samples from around the city for testing during Ramazan. The results of the testing have not been received.
City government officials said that in previous years, their food inspectors collected some 1,200-1,400 samples for testing each month. They said in Ramazan the inspectors used to conduct more checks and close many roadside stalls for violations such as keeping food products uncovered. They said that they particularly checked milk, cooking oil, samosas and ketchup during Ramazan.
PFA officials said that it would take a while for them to come up to the number of checks made each month as they were new to the job. Also, they said they had been recently engaged in checking Ramazan Bazaars and in dengue campaigns, hence they had less time to do their work.
The district food inspectors, who have been sent on deputation to the PFA to work under food safety officers, have challenged the food authority in the Lahore High Court. They say though the Punjab Food Authority Act has been enacted to replace the Punjab Pure Food Ordinance, the authority has been set up without framing any rules for how it will act. They say that the authority is currently following the old rules, which have no legal basis since the Ordinance has been repealed.
They also said in their petition that they were being forced to work in the food authority though there had been no decision on how they were to be absorbed, their status or prospects for promotion.
They said that the Punjab Food Authority was only functional in Lahore, leaving a vacuum in the rest of the province. The other districts are still following the ordinance, again without a legal basis.
PFA officials said on the condition of anonymity that new rules for the authority had been drawn up and would be notified soon. They said that the authority would start operations in Sheikhupura, Kasur and Nankana Sahib in two months. They refused to give their names because they said the director general of the authority had directed all officials not to talk to the press.
Advocate Muhammad Azhar Siddique said that the government should have framed all the rules for the authority before passing the act. He said in the current legal situation, the government would not be able to enforce a fine or other penalty on a food vendor.
A city government official said that he doubted that the PFA food safety officers could do their jobs properly, as some of them were women. “How can a female officer check small shops where people tend to get aggressive very quickly?”
He said that the former city government food inspectors working with the food authority had complained about the PFA officials to their old colleagues in the city government. He said that they were being “treated like peons”. They had also complained that they had been asked to educate food safety officers, who are their bosses.
Secretary Saeed Elahi said that the Pure Food Ordinance was redundant, but not the Pure Food Rules, which were currently being used to address food issues in districts. He said that the plan for the PFA was that it would initially concentrate on a campaign to raise awareness among food vendors about the importance of good hygiene, following which they would step up inspections and hand out fines. He said that the PFA should not be judged before it had been in operation for six months.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 10th, 2012.