KARACHI: Tons of betel nuts infested with Aflatoxin (poisonous carcinogens), and therefore required to be destroyed as per law, are lying at a local warehouse, as traders are attempting to exercise their influence to get the consignment cleared.
The nuts were found infested with Aflatoxin at 137ppb level, far exceeding the permissible limits of 30ppb, triggering calls by activists for the destruction of the commodity unfit for human consumption.
Officials informed news media that as per law, the consignment was required to be destroyed on the grounds of serious threat to public health, however, concerned traders exercising their influence have managed to get the required process halted.
The concerned importers, at the very onset, not only failed to procure Import Permit from the Department of Plant Protection (DPP) of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research but have also been unable to present a “Safety Clearance Certificate,” issued at the time of consignment’s despatch by DPP’s counterpart from the exporting country.
The two documents are mandatory for the importers of plant, fruit and other horticulture items under SRO No. 1067 issued by the Ministry of Commerce on October 20, 2017.
These are prerequisites for the issuance of Release Order of the consignment, said Director General of DPP, Dr. Waseem ul Hasan, mentioning that laboratory test of the imported betel nuts was performed at the internationally accredited laboratories of HEJ Research Institute of Chemistry.
“Alarmingly high level of toxicity makes the human consumption of betel nuts and its numerous bi-products extremely dangerous, particularly as it is established to cause cancer,” said the senior scientist.
To a query, he said laboratories tests of imported items falling under their domain were out-sourced to internationally recognised facilities so as to avoid any sort of possible ambiguity.
A concerned officer associated with Pakistan Customs mentioning that assessment of imported fruits was placed under his department in 2004, acknowledged that betel nuts consignments were largely examined in a generalized manner, with almost nil provision for laboratory testing.
“Infested nuts are outright rejected,” he emphasised.
In reply to a question about bio-safety standards of imported fruits, the official said Phytosanitary certificates issued by quarantine department of the exporting country have to be necessarily produced by concerned importers.
Activists working for the cause of “Public Health Safety Standards” and “Protection of People Against Preventable Diseases” however, expressed their serious reservation about the authenticity of the document arranged by exporters.
It was alleged that many of the times betel nuts importers produced fake documents and managed to get the product cleared at the cost of precious human lives.
Hailing the Ministry of Commerce’s decision to bring back on board the Department of Plant Protection, the activists mentioned that during the past 14 years inferior quality betel nuts had been imported from many of the countries with almost absolute impunity.
“The lacunae has resulted in drastic surge in the incidence of oral cancer cases in the country,” said Dr. Javed A Khan, a seasoned doctor working for the cause of public health.
Activists were of consensus opinion that in the present era of biological warfare no country can take any sort of risk and have to be extra vigilant with regard to plants and their products making entry into the country.
Betel nuts were said to be peculiar in particular context of South Asia, where it holds a cultural value but turned into a serious hazard due to concoctions through severe compromise on quality and chemical treatment.
In context of Aflatoxin registered in imported betel nuts, Dr. Khan said strict control is needed in the production as well in transportation of psychoactive substances including betel nuts.
Meanwhile, Haji Muhammad Nazir, representing the concerned importers claimed that livelihood of hundreds of people associated with the industry has been put on stake.
“We are willing to abandon the job related to production of gutka, manpuri, chalia and other bio-products of betel nuts provided alternatives are arranged for us,” he said.