Jail terms for food-related crimes to prevent malpractice in industry

Jail terms for food-related crimes to prevent malpractice in industry

The fake food products exposed over the past two months by the Food, Agriculture and Animal Husbandry Ministry range from honey, poultry and meat products to dairy products in Turkey. (PHOTO Sunday’s zaman, İsa Şİmşek)

June 17, 2012, Sunday/ 13:30:00/ AYDIN ALBAYRAK

In a bid to fight against unhealthy, adulterated food products, experts say the Turkish government should introduce a new bill that includes prison terms for committers of food-related crimes in the industry.

In the last few months, the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Animal Husbandry has publicly exposed the names of several food firms that produced adulterated or fake food products, but experts believe a prison sentence is necessary to efficiently combat the “terror” on food.

“At the moment, there is no prison sentence prescribed for food [crimes]. That indicates the issue is not regarded as important,” said Petek Ataman, head of the Chamber of Food Engineers, stressing that the fines prescribed in the regulations are not deterrent enough.

Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, Ataman, who believes a prison term must be meted out for food-related crimes, noted that based on present regulations, even if a food item places the public’s health at risk, it would, at most, be confiscated, or the firm producing it would be fined or forced to temporarily stop production.

This issue is currently of great importance because the Turkish public has serious misgivings about the safety of the food it consumes. And the public’s misgivings have been confirmed by the recent announcements by the ministry.

The fake food products exposed by the ministry range from honey, poultry and meat products to dairy products. Laboratory analyses conducted by the ministry had detected excessive amounts of sugar, glucose and pollen in some brands of honey, vegetable oil in some brands of cheeses, horse meat in a particular beef product, poultry in a product that was marketed as “100 percent beef,” and undefined tissue and offal in “skinless sausages.”

Mehmet İmrek, the general secretary of the Consumers Union, is also of the opinion that a prison sentence should be meted out for food safety violations. “Fake or adulterated food poses a threat to our health. That’s why it should be punishable by a prison term,” he stressed. According to İmrek, who previously worked in the food and beverage industry for about 30 years, “Almost all the food we consume contains something harmful to our health.” His statement, though ominous, is not completely baseless, considering that the number of people suffering from diseases such as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity has significantly increased in the last decade or so. In fact, a high percentage of children are currently obese.

In June 2010, penalties for fake food and adulteration cases were reviewed in a bid to clamp down on errant food manufacturers. According to the new regulations, food products that are unfit for human consumption will be confiscated by the authorities and a criminal complaint can be filed with the Public Prosecutor’s Office against those who produce or market those products. The ministry can also fine those who violate the Turkish Food Codex TL 10,000.

But these measures don’t seem to work. It has been more than three months since the ministry began exposing the names of errant food manufacturers, but food companies haven’t felt the need to stop these unlawful practices -- in fact, in early June the ministry exposed the names of 11 more food companies guilty of similar practices.

It is commonly known by most people in the food industry that audits carried out by the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Animal Husbandry are insufficient. Ataman’s summary of audits and how fines that have been applied and how they are perceived by at least some members of the food industry are rather revealing: “People from the ministry come for audits maybe once a year, if at all. If I’m caught, I just have to pay a fine.”

It is the result of such a mentality that we find gelatin derived from pigs, dyes normally used in textiles and ingredients such as margarine and soybean powder in chocolates detected in food products. Last month, Necdet Buzbaş, the president of Turkey’s Food Industry Employers’ Union (TÜGİS), announced that “there are firms which add waxy products to sugar cubes.”

But the public has misgivings not only about products in the food industry but agricultural produce as well. In April, a television program called “Deşifre” (Decipher) found that out of 29 fruits and vegetables analyzed in a registered laboratory, seven of the samples contained excessive pesticide residue. And out of 10 samples collected from supermarkets claiming to carry products grown according to “good agricultural practices,” six were found to contain excessive pesticide, which is carcinogenic.

One thing is clear: In the area of food, fines are not a sufficient deterrent in Turkey. In the UK, for crimes covered by the food code, errant food manufacturers can be sentenced to two years imprisonment and be fined 20,000 pounds ($31,000). Noting that existing fines in Turkey are not effective at all, Ataman said, “A prison sentence should also be meted out to the owner, general manager of the [food manufacturer] or to those in similar positions.”

The number of food manufacturers in Turkey is estimated to be more than 40,000. In fact, some firms are not even officially registered, which makes it even more difficult for the ministry to carry out food audits. For complaints regarding food, consumers can call the “Hello Food” line by dialing 174.

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