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Formalinfree (2016-17)

We propose to build a tool to provide real‐time updates about the food quality in the markets in Bangladesh. Food adulteration in Bangladesh is a deliberate ‐‐ if not outright malicious ‐‐ move to contaminate food with toxic substances. It happens because there is always a shortage of food ‐‐ Bangladesh is roughly as large as the state of Illinois but has a population of 157 million people ‐‐ greater than that of Russia. Thanks to high demand and low transparency, manufacturers can hasten ripening processes with carbides and sellers can preserve fish in formaldehyde, and have little trouble finding buyers. This magic grant will quantify, monitor and relay information about these manufacturers and sellers.

These contaminants can lead to long term health consequences ‐‐ for example, formaldehyde has been classified as a probable carcinogen by the EPA. Due to a relatively low literacy rate, the consequences of consuming adulterated food is poorly understood by the public. Sometimes it simply stems from a lack of awareness about what substances are even toxic not an uncommon scenario in Bangladesh where the education system leaves much to be desired. The situation is made even more complex by the fact that big chain grocery stores are not common there ‐ people do their shopping largely from sprawling kitchen markets, which are difficult to monitor.

Bangladesh has several laws to protect consumers from adulterated food, and some have drastic sentences like the death penalty. But these laws, though severe, are rarely effective in dissuading the practice because of lack of awareness. Bangladesh passed the Mobile Court Act in 2009, empowering magistrates to deliver verdicts on food adulteration outside of a traditional courtroom setting. Currently, mobile courts raid food manufacturers and distributors randomly, test the food sold for adulterants, and deliver immediate verdicts.

However, the news on raids is delivered very late. Television broadcast happens hours after, and the newspapers publish it the next day. This provides little help to the buyers ‐‐ kitchen markets in Bangladesh are informal gathering places where sellers setup shops at random and move from one location to the next on a daily basis. In order to avoid buying or eating adulterated food, consumers need to steer clear of the location precisely when a raid is in progress. This is where the project comes in: it is designed to quantify, monitor and relay information about this difficult situation.

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