Frozen foods, mainly shrimps, continue to be the second largest export earner for the country and about a half of these exports go to the European market. An inspection team from the European Union (EU), according to a report published in this daily Monday, will be arriving Bangladesh on a ten-day visit to hold discussions with the stakeholders of the frozen food sectors, government officials and scientists. The members of the team will also pay visits to the country's two main shrimp farming zones -- Chitagong and Khulna -- and inspect 'ghers' (enclosures for shrimp culture), fish landing centres, processing plants and the government's fish inspection and quality control (FIQC) laboratories.
The shrimp exporters are, reportedly, attaching importance to the visit of the EU high-profile team because its assessment would greatly influence the future decisions of the EU countries to import frozen foods from Bangladesh. The exporters are upbeat about the visit but the government officials concerned, as usual, are least interested. Their lack of interest is manifested in their failure to make all the FIQC laboratories fully operational and stop issuance of certificates for the errant companies -- the companies whose shipments were seized many times by importing countries for the failure to maintain quality and standard of frozen foods.
The government also failed to solve yet another problem -- the presence of nitrofuran, an anti-bacterial agent considered detrimental to human health, in some of the frozen food shipments. On an average, one shipment is rejected every month by the EU shrimp buyers because of the presence of nitrofuran. The country lacks in necessary facilities to detect the source of nitrofuran. A senior official of the ministry of fisheries and livestock blamed a section of dishonest officials of the department of fisheries for issuing certificates to exporters having bad track record. The allegation sounds ridiculous since it is the job of his ministry to detect such irregularities and punish the officials responsible. It is not the EU countries only that refuse to accept some of the shrimp consignments from Bangladesh because of contamination. Many importers from the US also had rejected shipments on the same ground. Such refusal by importers has, no doubt, created some awareness about the need for maintaining quality among the exporters as well as the officials concerned. But that is yet not up to the expected level. Still some frozen food exporters resort to dubious means in the matters of export and fail to comply with quality requirements. Such acts not only harm such exporters financially but also severely hurt the image of Bangladesh among the importing countries. The officials in the fisheries ministry and the department of fisheries take the frozen food export issues as routine matters and hardly take any extra initiative to meet the frozen food exporters asking them to maintain quality strictly and ensure the best testing facilities at the government laboratories. The average annual export earning from frozen foods hovers around $350 million. With right kind of private-public initiative to increase production of shrimp and quality control, the earning could have been much higher.
With the readymade garments (RMG) sector of the country remaining vulnerable to cutthroat competition from more efficient producers like China and India, the frozen food sector has the potential to compensate for, at least to some extent, any possible decline in the export earning. But there has not been enough effort to raise both efficiency and quality of product in this sector. It is high time that all stakeholders put their heads together and try to bring about a change in the situation.