In Pakistan, while lack of access to food and the resultant malnutrition pose a grave threat to public health, the fact that a part of what we consume is contaminated adds to the dilemma. According to a study conducted by Aga Khan University and a Japanese institution, reported in Tuesday’s paper, samples of chicken sold in Karachi were found to have high levels of arsenic. Moreover, the effects of leaded petrol — phased out in the country 15 years ago — were still evident in the food chain. Both chemical elements are, of course, toxic for humans and can cause neurological problems. The research suggested that arsenic, found in groundwater, finds its way into chicken feed and poultry vaccines. These could be a source of the deadly chemical entering the food chain.

While the results of this study are indeed disturbing, as experts have rightly pointed out there is no cause for undue panic and for people to stop consuming foods such as chicken altogether. For example, hand washing can limit exposure to lead, while focusing on more rigorous food safety standards and ensuring water is safe can address the problem of arsenic in food. However, on a larger scale, interventions by the state are needed to ensure increased monitoring of food processes in order to prevent contaminants from entering the food chain. More research is required to determine the exact situation. Efforts must be made to cleanse the country’s water supply of arsenic and other harmful substances; many projects have been initiated to mitigate arsenic in different parts of the country. The federal and provincial governments need to investigate how these interventions can be replicated on a larger scale.

Also, the poultry feed and vaccines that result in arsenic contamination must be banned. In short, the state must make a much more robust effort to, in the words of the World Health Organisation, ensure that the food chain is free from contaminants “from farm to plate”.