Friday July 12, 2024

NHS official blames food industry for delay in adoption of standards

By M. Waqar Bhatti
August 31, 2023

ISLAMABAD: Limiting the intake of industrially produced Trans Fatty Acids (TFAs) to less than 2 grams per 100 grams of total fats in all foods can prevent thousands of deaths from Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) every year but the Pakistani food industry is exerting pressure on policymakers and regulatory bodies to delay the implementation of the standards approved, officials claimed on Wednesday.

“One of the challenges faced by the Ministry of Health and regulatory bodies is strong resistance and pressure from the powerful food and oil industry. They are exerting pressure on regulatory bodies and policymakers to delay implementation of TFA and other safe food standards as much as possible”, Dr Khawaja Masood Ahmed, National Coordinator Nutrition and NFA at National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination (NHS, R&C) told The News at a training workshop.

Speaking at the training workshop titled ‘“Understanding TFAs, Policy, Human Health, and Reporting”, organized by the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) with the support of Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI), Dr Masood deplored that one of the major challenges was the availability of limited healthier alternatives as unhealthy palm oil had captured the market largely in Pakistan. “However, the Ministry of NHSR&C is committed to ensuring implementation of TFA standards in collaboration with national and provincial regulatory bodies”, he said and added they are in line with WHO regulations and endorsed by the government.

Other speakers said Pakistan was suffering from a very high percentage of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), most of them caused by food and beverages not fit for human health. According to a 2016 WHO study, six out of ten deaths in Pakistan happen due to NCDs, including three out of ten deaths by cardiovascular diseases (CVDs).

Similarly, according to the National Diabetes Survey conducted in 2016-17, every 4th adult in Pakistan is suffering from Type 2 diabetes, whereas the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) estimated in 2021 that Pakistan has the 3rd highest burden of Type 2 diabetes worldwide with more than 33 million cases with additional I0 million termed as pre-diabetic. Unhealthy food supply and consumption also contribute to the growing number of overweight people, they said adding that it is worrying that the number of overweight children had doubled between 2011 and 2018, and the problem may have worsened in recent years due to a lack of effective regulations or enforcement by respective authorities.

The training was conducted by prominent health experts and journalists including Munawar Hussain from GHAI, Dr. Khawja Masood, National Coordinator, Food Fortification Alliance, and Zeeshan Haider. They informed the participants about the major dietary risk factors such as the high percentage of trans fatty acids (TFAs), sugar, and sodium in the food supply and dietary practices.

They said Pakistan’s TFA intake is estimated to be the second highest in the WHO’s EMRO (Eastern Mediterranean) region, as it is about 6 percent of daily energy intake. The experts shared findings of numerous research studies, which highlight that the consumption of industrially produced trans-fatty acids (iTFAs) significantly contributes to the incidence of NCDs including diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and other chronic diseases.

Mukhtar Ahmed Ali, Executive Director of CPDI emphasized the importance of more media attention to unprecedented health-related challenges being faced by the people of Pakistan. He said that all stakeholders including media, government departments and civil society organizations must establish cooperative mechanisms to jointly work for public health, especially through public awareness, appropriate policies and regulations, and effective enforcement of food supply standards.

Afshaar Iqbal from PYCA emphasized the importance of local languages to communicate messages of TFA-free food and good health. At the closing of the workshop, Zaigham Khan said that journalists can influence attitudes on the one hand and policy on the other. They can also be a check on corporate greed”. “Therefore, they must remain alert about diseases and methods of prevention in the case of non-communicable diseases”. The workshop was attended by over 20 journalists from Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Karachi Quetta, Peshawar, and Lahore who got the opportunity to not only learn about health-related challenges and the relevant major dietary risk factors and about effective ways of reporting on such issues.