Workers make confectionery items without maintaining good hygiene on Friday at a bakery in Dhaka. -Sony Ramany
Imported packaged foods such as bakery and confectionery products continue to be in high demand as many people have little confidence in local products for safety reasons.
Packaged foods are regularly imported into 19 main categories and their sale has seen drastic increases over the past five years.
In the past five years, Bangladesh spent the highest amount of over Tk 200 crore in 2017-2018 to import 19 processed food products.
The country spent Tk 170 crore in 2018-19, the second largest expenditure on importing packaged food in the past five years, the years for which import data is available.
Five years ago, in 2014-15, import expenditure on packaged food was Tk 77 crore.
“There is no denying that the poor quality of the local food may have influenced many people to choose foreign foods,” said Abdul Alim, member of the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority.
But, Alim said, the rapidly changing economic situation of the population may also have played a role in the expansion of the imported food market.
The rapid increase in demand for expensive imported packaged foods came as food adulteration and contamination continued unabated in the country, with its campaign for safe food remaining largely ineffective.
The products that are regularly found on the list of imported foods are breads, cookies, chocolate, pasta, pastry, cakes and cereal products.
Import data shows that demand for gingerbread, a term used to describe a wide range of baked goods such as cakes, cookies and biscuits, increased to 3,164 kilograms in 2019, from 324 kilograms in 2015.
Imports of crispbread, a dry cracker made from rye flour, reached over 112 tonnes in 2019, up from 53 tonnes in 2015.
Imports of other breads, cakes and pastries exceeded 213 tonnes in 2019, down slightly from 279 tonnes in 2015.
“It’s really surprising that people choose to eat imported bread,” Alim said, explaining that the breads rot easily and have a shelf life of two to three days.
The packaged bread market has grown rapidly in Bangladesh with almost no regulations for bakeries marketing their products with false expiration and manufacturing dates.
Some of the breads eaten by low-income people are sold without an expiration date.
Bangladesh bakeries and confectioners are notorious for their disrespect for hygiene and safe food manufacturing practices.
They are often found using excessively harmful artificial colors and flavors by mobile courts run by different food safety authorities.
On December 20, the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority raided a bakery, Al Nasir Sweets and Bakery, and found it was using 11 types of outdated raw materials.
“More than 99% of bakeries have refused to improve their hygiene practices and products despite repeated warnings,” said BFSA food safety inspector Md Kamrul Hasan.
He recalled having repeatedly fined certain bakeries in Khilgaon in the recent past, with bakeries refusing to change their unsafe mode of production.
One of the bakeries, he said, stocked pastel colors in 19 jars for use in their products.
Bakeries are also notorious for using textile dyes, burnt oil and unlabeled flavors, he continued.
They also use artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and are housed in damp places, home to flies, cockroaches, rats and many other insects.
Mobile courts regularly find that bakery workers dressed only in lungi sweat profusely while making dough with their bare hands. Bakers use their full body weight to make dough by walking barefoot on it.
“You won’t even find two dozen of the thousands of bakeries nationwide that follow hygienic practices,” said Zaker Ahmed, managing director of SS Food Limited.
He said the bakery and confectionery industry is now growing with the aim of having mainly villagers as customers, who are the least aware of food safety.
“Our processed food industry is thriving and it may not initially meet everyone’s needs,” said Poly Karmoker, associate professor of food technology and rural industries at the Agricultural University of Bangladesh.
Products like pasta, she said, are consumed by wealthy people and it is only natural that they are imported.
Pasta produced in Bangladesh is of poor quality compared to imported pasta in terms of texture and content, she added.
The locally produced pasta contains more starch than it should, Poly said.
Imports of pasta in the “other pasta” category reached 1,206 tonnes in 2019, compared to just 189 tonnes in 2015.
There are three other categories in which the import of pasta has increased significantly.
Chocolate imports increased to 1,214 tonnes in 2019 against 526 tonnes in 2015.
Bangladesh imports processed foods from a number of countries such as New Zealand, Denmark, Austria, Australia, United Kingdom, United States, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Bangladesh Bread, Biscuit o Confectionary President of Prostutkarok Samity, Jalal Uddin, said that 80 percent of their 5,000 bakeries are small entrepreneurs who barely survive against many obstacles, such as rapidly rising electricity prices and gas.
“We are trying to improve our quality but we cannot do it overnight,” Jalal said.
Bangladesh’s processed food exports recently reached around Tk400 crore, with the target consumers being Bangladeshi expatriates.
“What should I feed my child when even cow’s milk is not safe? Asked Alhaj Uddin, a middle-aged banker.
“I don’t trust local products. I feed my child with imported cereals, ”he said.