BY IKE SEÑERES
MORE often than not, we tend to define food security in terms of quantity and not in terms of quality. That is the wrong way of looking at food security because what would we do with food quantity if there is no food quality?
By comparison, food quantity is easier to achieve because all it needs is to measure the volumes, but it is not that easy in measuring food quality because there are more characteristics to consider as far as that is concerned.
Flavor and nutrition content are two obvious characteristics, but there could be more, such as food safety. Above all these three, there is the factor of price, because pricing is always a criterion to consider in evaluating food quality.
Which government agency should be the recognized authority when it comes to food quantity?
Should it be the Department of Agriculture (DA), or should it be the National Security Council (NSC)? This is a very relevant question to ask, because food quantity involves more than just the production side, it also involves the importation side.
When it comes to rice, the National Food Authority (NFA) has authority that extends to the importation side, but what about the other food items? As its name suggests, the NFA should be responsible for all food items and not just rice, but so far, it seems to be addressing only the rice supplies.
If that is the case, it should perhaps revert back to its old name of National Grains Authority (NGA), but that could be a problem too, because it does not seem to be doing anything now when it comes to other grains aside from rice.
Frankly speaking, I have lost track of which Department the NFA is supposed to be under, because it has been tossed back and forth so many times between the DA and the Office of the President (OP).
Right now, it is supposed to be under the new Presidential Adviser Kiko Pangilinan, but that is difficult to understand because he is performing a staff function with a line agency now under him. I do not know what kind of coordination there will be between the DA and the OP (represented by Secretary Pangilinan) but I hope that there will be no cracks in between, because the stakes are too high in this case, especially so that we are talking about food security that would directly affect our national survival.
Which government agency should be the recognized authority when it comes to food quality? Should it still be the DA or the NFA, or should it already be the Department of Health (DOH), the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) or the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)?
It could not be all of them under a shared responsibility scheme; otherwise we would just end up with finger pointing and blame throwing scenarios.
An incident that recently happened should now teach us a lesson about how serious this problem is.
One morning when live fish escaped from the fishponds in Bulacan and ended up in the Pasig River, the DOH announced that the fish should not be eaten because the river is contaminated with mercury. In that same day, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), an agency under the DA, announced that the fish could be eaten.
A recent food scandal involving McDonald’s restaurants in mainland China has already spilled over to Hong Kong and Japan, where local food chains have already suspended orders from the Chinese supplier of the supposed expired chicken meats that were used in the production of chicken nuggets.
The scandal also affected Kentucky Fried Chicken, after it was discovered that it is also buying from the same supplier.
Take note here that the culprit, Shanghai Husi Foods is actually American owned even if it is based in China, meaning to say that it should have been following American food safety standards.
The side effects of this scandal might reverberate all over the world, because if this lapse could happen in a respectable global company, it could happen anywhere.
A few years back, our very own Bureau of Food and Drugs (BFAD) had publicly admitted that it does not have the capability to monitor and inspect the quality of food items that are being sold in this country.
I do not know whether or not they have addressed that problem already but if not, it is really a scary proposition and a threat to the national security that food items could just enter the country without our knowing whether these are safe for human consumption or not.
Considering that the BFAD is also under the DOH, it makes us wonder whether the latter is also capable of declaring whether food items that enter the country are safe to eat or not. Sooner or later, both the BFAD and the DOH have to declare whether they have already developed this capability or not.
Lawyer Batas Mauricio says that rice being sold in the local market is laced with arsenic, thus making these products unsafe for human consumption. Apparently, his claim is based on reports that the problem is caused by residues that contaminate the rice because of the arsenic ingredients in the chemical fertilizers that are being used in rice production.
Mauricio’s claim came just a few weeks after it was also reported that some rice stocks that are being sold in the market have been mixed with damaged or expired stocks, thus making them unfit for human consumption. Since then, it is not clear whether the NFA or the BFAD or the DOH have already addressed this problem.
In the midst of the confusion as to who is really responsible and accountable for ensuring food quality and food safety in this country, it would be best to just declare that in the final analysis, it should be the NSC who should be responsible, and no one else.
However, this could only happen if the members of the NSC could reach a consensus that the scope of food security encompasses not only the quantity of food supplies, but also the quality of these supplies, including of course the food safety aspect. In the end, there should be no finger pointing and blame throwing as far as food security is concerned./PN