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India needs to wake up on food safety issues

, July 15, 2015, 0 Comments

food safety issue-MarketExpress-inIndia witnessed one of the most controversial food scare in the decade wherein a hugely popular instant noodle product “Maggi” had to be declared as “unsafe and hazardous” for human consumption. India’s food regulator, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) responded quickly by banning the sale of Maggi noodles when reports of its containing high levels of lead and Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) and Lead came out. Other noodle brands such as Top Ramen, WaiWai, Koka, Foodles, Yummy and Sunfeast Yipee have been put under the scanner.

However, these tough regulatory steps taken by India do not erase the fact that the country has been termed as world’s worst food violator by Food Sentry, a global food sourcing monitoring agency. India is 7th largest supplier of food items to the United States. And data from the US’s Food and Drug Administration published in February 2015 shows that over half of all the snack products that were banned originated from India. Most of the rejected snack products were from Haldiram, India’s major sweet and snack manufacturer on account of the presence of pesticides, mold and bacteria.

Food adulteration and contamination issues in India are not new. Over 70% of deaths in India are associated with food and water borne diseases. One can’t easily forget the outbreak of dropsy (caused by adulteration of mustard oil) that killed over 60 people in 1998. India has a long history of violation of basic food regulations that include contaminated soft drinks and infected chocolates. Unfortunate Indians keep dying after consuming adulterated food and toxic liquors but not much changes.

A wake-up call

Adulteration can be intentional, unintentional and in some cases even natural however, but investigation data shows that 25-30% of the edible food items that are sold in India are intentionally adulterated. Let us consider a few eye-opening facts about the common food adulterants. A survey conducted in 2012-13 by FSSAI found that milk is the most adulterated food item in India, followed by edible oil. Some of the adulterants that are used in milk are water, chalk, urea, bleach (to prolong shelf life), and skimmed milk, while Khoya is adulterated with paper, refined oil and skimmed milk powder and toppings in sweets are made often with aluminium foil.

Mineral oil has been traced in edible oils and fats that may cause cancer. Lead and cobalt have been found in drinking water which can cause damage to brain and heart. Non-permitted colors are the most common additives to food which can cause infertility, allergies, damage to human organs. Artificial colors and dyes are used to make fruit and their juices more colorful and attractive which are often harmful. These chemicals are also used to turn dry and yellow vegetables to appear fresh green.

Well, one can’t forget our desi indulgences such as chhole bhature, pav bhaji, samosa, vada pav and pakoras often deep fried in stale oil or contaminated pani puri that poses health risks. A research reported by the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation says that if fast food is consumed even once a week it increases the risk of coronary heart disease by 20%. If we eat fast food two-three times a week, the risk of heart disease increases by 50%, and to 80% if we consume fast food items four or more times each week. Eating fast food two or more times a week was also found to increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 27 percent. India had over 50 million diabetic patients and an increasing no of people below 40 years of age are being diagnosed with heart ailments. Thus singling out MNCs will not be enough.

Indian food sellers are using prime time advertisements and intensive marketing campaigns including brand endorsements by top celebrities to sell junks as aspirational health food. They are allocating more funds for advertising than that for quality testing. This is nothing but an indication of the lack of attention food makers are giving to the quality and safety aspects of their packaged food products which are increasingly proving to be unhealthy despite the claims to the counter.

It’s quite evident that Indian consumers are getting a raw deal when it comes to food safety by both, indigenous and multinational food sellers, that calls for urgent regulatory attention. Further, sedentary lifestyles of urban middle consumers which involve sitting in fixed position for long hours with not much physical movement and lack of physical exercise make a bad situation worse.

The Way Forward

Given the seriousness of the situation, the risk of food toxicity should be minimized at all levels of food supply and consumption. And that calls for tough action by food regulator. Food regulator will have to ensure regular testing of packaged and unpacked food items along with strict enforcement of food regulations with the provision of heavy penalties and criminal prosecution for violating norms. Packaging rules too need to be strengthened. Given their limited resources, regulators should rather focus on enforcement and implementation on the ground and allow credible third-party certification agencies to operate. Increasing consumer awareness about food safety is another needed action so does the development of healthy food habits and change in lifestyle choice to towards more physical activities.

Government and media can play a significant role in mass awareness towards promotion of healthy food habits. The government also needs to introduce regulation of misleading advertisements. India’s top celebrities – cricketers and film stars – can also a role in promoting healthy food habits a la Michelle Obama. This way, they can play a more meaningful role, worthy of there being top public figures.