Sunday, 2 November 2008
Food Adulteration Goes Unchecked: Strong Mechanism Needed
By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad: Take a teaspoon of powdered dung, a pinch of brick powder, dirt and grit, small quantity of saw dust and soap stone, and rat droppings and insects along with their eggs.
Mix them well with traces of heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, cobalt, lead and zinc. Then liberally add mineral oil with petroleum fractions. Heat the mixture in rancid ghee. To make it tastier, you may add industrial alcohol, chalk powder, washing soda and pharmaceutical residues.
This is not an exotic curry straight out of a recipe book of a witch or sorceress. Believe it or not, these foreign ingredients simply make into our daily foodstuff, without our knowledge.
Yes, we are talking about food adulteration and food contaminants. While the whole world, including small nations like Singapore and Malaysia, have initiated a series of measures to keep their citizens away from the dangers of food adulterants in the wake of reports of milk products from China being contaminated with harmful substances like melamine, Indian health authorities are content with their traditional and typical bureaucratic “chalta hai” attitude.
Of course, milk products from China are not common in Indian markets, but this does not mean that Indian authorities should keep quiet. India is hardly known to have recalled or withdrawn any contaminated food stuff either in the past. Food and health agencies in developed countries like the United Kingdom and the United States of America issue general public warning across the nation and order for recall of the contaminated or adulterated product whenever they come across reports of such foodstuff being sold there.
The problem of food adulteration in India is two-fold. First, deliberate or unintentional adulteration of food items and secondly, contamination of foodstuff by harmful substances without the knowledge of the manufacturer or trader. In both the cases, it is the consumer who stands to suffer. Moreover, the food standards followed in India are not on par with those adopted in developed nations.
“Unfortunately, authorities in India tend to believe that Indians are more resistant to diseases and thus a little high level of adulterants or contaminants will not affect their health,” says consumer activist MV Subbaiah. “While this is true to some extent, what officials forget is that certain adulterants continue to add up in our bodies, often leading to dangerous health problems. If India has to be a healthy nation, it should immediately adopt the Codex guidelines without insisting on higher limits for certain substances or residues,” he argues.
There are instances of a multinational company, known for its brand value, mixing sodium hydroxide or washing soda with its infant milk formula just to make it creamier and thicker. Imagine a small child consuming washing powder. Sodium hydroxide in milk and milk products is a common adulterant and many companies do not regret using it. Presence of nickel in chocolates is another cause of concern. Indian government has not taken serious measures to prevent nickel traces in chocolates.
The developed nations acted in tandem and ordered for recall of Chinese milk products after reports that a number of infants in China, who have consumed Chinese manufactured infant formula, are suffering from kidney stones, a condition which is rare in infants. Interestingly, America does not stock Chinese milk products. But its authorities had taken precautionary steps and warned Asian communities to avoid Chinese dairy products. So far, no such health warning has been issued in India.
No one for sure says the Chinese infant formula is contaminated with melamine, which artificially increases the protein profile of milk. “It may be contaminated”, says the FDA but since melamine is known to cause kidney diseases, the authorities in the USA did not want to take chances as far as the health of the nation is involved.
Indian government too runs a plethora of departments including a section of Codex Alimentarius on food standards. Mostly they remain dormant except for a few “public awareness” and “general health” programmes on their websites.
While adulteration can be deliberate or unintentional, contamination is mostly accidental. How many of us know that most of the leafy vegetables we consume are “richly contaminated” with heavy metals. Some plants particularly leafy vegetables have the tendency to absorb heavy metals from the soil and accumulate them in their roots, stems and leaves. This is a natural process of cleaning up the mess in the earth. But when we consume them, heavy metals, which are toxic in nature, join our blood stream and cause a number of health problems including cancer.
“If there is a problem with a food product that means it should not be sold. Then it might be 'withdrawn' i.e. taken off the shelves or 'recalled' (customers are asked to return the product). Food alerts are quite common elsewhere, but not in India. We have the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act. It is strong enough to bring anti-social elements to book. But lack of strong legal will on the part of officials quite often make the cases weaker and the unscrupulous elements escape punishment. We should do something concrete to prevent this,” says senior consumer activist PVS Ramamurthy.
According to Central Agmark Laboratories, adulteration in food is normally present in its most crude form, prohibited substances are either added or partly or wholly substituted. In India normally contamination or adulteration in food is done either for financial gain or due to carelessness and lack in proper hygienic condition of processing, storing, transportation and marketing.
Some of the common adulterants include powdered dung, methanol or industrial alcohol, fine sand particles, harmful chemicals, synthetic colours used for fabric dyeing, insects, insect eggs and rat droppings. Often exotic seeds and leaves are added to food stuffs.
The consumer is either cheated or he often becomes victim of diseases. “Such types of adulteration are quite common in developing countries or backward countries,” argue Agmark officials, but ask consumers to take adequate precaution during purchases. “It is equally important for the consumer to know the common adulterants and their effect on health criteria for selection of food,” is their general refrain.
Dr PK Jaiswal, director of laboratories, Central Agmark Laboratory, suggests that consumers should avoid taking food from an unhygienic place and food being prepared under unhygienic conditions. “Such types of food may cause various diseases. Consumption of cut fruits being sold in unhygienic conditions should be avoided. It is always better to buy certified food from reputed shop”.
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