Imported saltwater fishes – also known as marine fish – are entering the local market without the shipments being tested at ports for toxic heavy metal compounds.
Heavy metals – such as cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury – are found naturally and in industrial pollutants. Some heavy metals and their chemical compounds dissolve easily in water and are found in many seafood items, such as shellfish and pomfret, in higher levels than in other food items.
Experts, sounding a note of caution, have said long-term exposure to heavy metal compounds through untested seafood imports could lead to a host of deadly diseases among consumers – including cancer.
The Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA) launched an initiative in 2018 to test frozen marine fish, imported by sea, for heavy metals. But the move was suspended a year later due to pressure from importers, as a lack of testing facilities was creating congestion at ports.
Under the circumstances, the Bangladesh Marine Fisheries Association submitted a letter to the commerce minister on 11 February last year demanding that mandatory tests be ensured on seafood being imported from the Mediterranean region and other countries.
The letter emphasised the need for testing the imported seafood – mainly shad fish, pomfret, catfish, and mullet – for arsenic, mercury, lead, and cadmium, but the ministry has yet to take action in this regard.
Speaking to The Business Standard, Chattogram Customs House's Assistant Commissioner Zakir Hossain said, "At present, we send samples from the imported frozen seafood shipments to the Atomic Energy Centre of the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission to test radiation levels.
"We also send samples to Fish Inspection and Quality Control under the Department of Fisheries for testing formalin levels. These two tests can only determine whether the level of radioactivity and formalin present in the imported seafood meets the acceptable levels," he added.
Commenting on the issue, Bangladesh Marine Fisheries Association's President Nurul Kaiyum Khan said, "Imported seafood is tested for formalin in Bangladesh, but such a test cannot detect the presence of heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, and cadmium."
"Middle eastern countries have installed many oil rigs in the sea to produce petroleum. Fish regularly die and float in the water due to oil spills in the sea. Bangladesh is importing seafood from many of those countries," he continued.
"It is essential that the imported marine fish undergo mercury and microbiology tests. It is even more important for fish imported from Oman and its nearby countries," he added.
Mohammad Idris, professor of Chemistry at the Chittagong Haji Mohammad Mohsin College, said, "Imported marine fish should never be sold without being tested for toxic chemical compounds. Such a practice could harm public health."
"Exposure to heavy metals – such as mercury, cadmium and lead – can cause major organ failure among consumers. Their kidneys and lungs can be damaged, and they can face other deadly diseases including cancer," he added.
He added that Bangladesh is already in a serious crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and allowing imported frozen seafood to enter the market without any testing for heavy metals poses another grave threat to public health.
Not enough labs for testing
Authorities found toxic substances in 12 of the 22 containers of marine fish imported from the Middle East by local companies in 2014. Despite the presence of toxicity, importers proceeded to unload the containers at Chattogram Port and sell them.
Following the incident, the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock ordered the authorities concerned to carry out quality testing on imported fish before unloading them at the port. Then the BFSA made it mandatory to test all imported fish for heavy metals on 1 January, 2018.
The Dhaka Science Laboratory, Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR) and Fish Inspection and Quality Control Lab began testing the imported frozen seafood for heavy metal compounds.
However, the number of labs conducting the tests was too few to handle the import volume of frozen seafood, and it led to container congestion at the port, drawing protests from businesspeople.
Due to the congestion, the testing process was suspended at the beginning of 2019, said Dr Sahadev Chandra Saha, director of the BFSA.
Sources from the Chattogram Customs House said the Chattogram Fish Inspection and Quality Control office (FIQC) on 5 February, 2018 found high levels of lead and cadmium in two frozen shipments of the Ni Hao Food Company Ltd, and one of the Neyamat Shah Enterprise Ltd.
Even at the beginning of 2020, authorities had found toxic substances in at least 20-25 shipments of imported frozen marine fish, FIQC sources told The Business Standard.
Responding to a query, owner of the marine fish importer JS Trading Company Joynal Abedin said, "Our shipments used to get stuck at the port for an extended period of time because of the testing procedure for heavy metals on the imported marine fish."
"The authorities did not manage to deliver the test reports on time due to a shortage of testing facilities. So, the process was shut down in the beginning of 2019. We unload shipments by submitting test reports provided by the exporting companies of various countries," he added.
The Chattogram FIQC office sources said Bangladesh imports marine fish – from Yemen, Paraguay, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, China, Pakistan, Myanmar, and India – through Chattogram Port and Teknaf Land Port, said FIQC Chattogram office's Quality Control Officer Mizanur Rahman.
The price of imported seafood is almost half that of locally produced saltwater fish, and the imported marine fish are primarily sold to poverty-stricken areas in northern Bangladesh, sources said.
According to the Chattogram FIQC office, Bangladesh imported 26,867.63 tonnes of marine fish through Chattogram Port and Teknaf Land Port between July and November of the 2020-2021 Fiscal year, at a cost of $11,482,746.
Moreover, Bangladesh imports 90% of its marine fish through Chattogram Port and 10% through Teknaf Land Port.