Sunday, November 22, 2009

India's food safety conundrum


For the millions of those who get hyped on Diwali, it was a nasty shock. Diwali is for many the festival of lights, eats and commencement of a new year. Gifts, mostly sweets, are exchanged with friends and family. This year, however, on Diwali the sweet shops had no sweets of the most popular variety, the ones made of mawa, also called khoya. Made of thickened milk, mawa is extensively used for making various kinds of Upper Indian sweets. The stuff had just disappeared from the markets. The reason was confiscations that followed detection of quintals of spurious mawa in transit by rail and road and in various storages. Made in several up-country towns, the spurious stuff was meant for various parts of the country.

Massive raids followed by arrests in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and even in Mumbai yielded thousands of quintals of adulterated mawa and other milk products. Sting operations conducted by an English language national news channel prompted the authorities to scramble for action. From what one saw on the small-screen, adulteration appeared to be widespread, more or less, regular practice. Very candid on camera, adulterators said genuine khoya is seldom available in the market. Whatever was on offer was adulterated with harmful chemicals like caustic soda, detergents, etc. The cameras picked out various nooks and corners of the so-called kitchens showing nauseating details of the entire process of adulteration in filthy surroundings devoid of any semblance of hygiene.

In the absence of any let or hindrance, the unscrupulous are free to carry on their business unmindful of the consequences of their dreadfully unethical acts on the unwary consumer. On several occasions during the recent past TV news channels had conducted sting operations and unearthed the business of adulteration of milk products. Not too long ago, some of them had uncovered manufacture of synthetic milk, mostly, in the nation’s Capital, Delhi, and its surroundings. The business had so proliferated in and around the Capital that even the most reputed and dependable dairies could not avoid purveying what was basically a harmful synthetic product. Likewise, a few months ago, thanks again to TV channels, manufacture at Jaipur of spurious ghee of a popular brand, meticulously canned with fake labels, for supply all over the state and its surroundings was caught on camera. Like on this occasion, a few arrests were made. However, most of the culprits are, probably, out on bail and have resumed their nefarious business.

Although elaborate laws have been enacted for prevention of food adulteration, there is hardly any enforcement – the enforcement staff being not only thoroughly inadequate, it is also mostly corrupt. On top of that, political connections of many of the dealers and retailers neutralise the efforts of conscientious law-enforcers. The case of summary transfer of Sanjana Jain, a junior district officer of Dewas, last summer when cholera was raging in the town readily comes to mind. She fell afoul of a minister for catching red-handed his crony, a reputed retailer of sweets, carrying on his shady business. Besides, the legal procedures are so convoluted that cases take a long time to process and, in the unlikely event of a conviction, the light penalties (two to three years of imprisonment with fines of two to three thousand rupees) hardly act as deterrents.

The field is therefore wide open for the dishonest, unscrupulous, and miscreants to play with the lives of people for their personal gains. Leave alone milk products and sweets, they have not left the spices and seasonings. Deadly dyes and chemicals are freely used as adulterants that can cause several kinds of bodily disorders, including cancer. Even vegetables and fruits, consumption of which is recommended by medicine-men for leading healthy life, have not been spared. Videos of farmers injecting chemicals into vegetables for quick and early ripening of gourds, brinjals, etc., were shown last year by a Hindi news channel. Chemically treating green vegetables and fruits to impart to the farm-fresh appearance and injecting toxic sweeteners and red dyes into papayas, pomegranates and such others are practices that are now common. Using dangerous chemicals for ripening of bananas, plums, etc. is now old hat. With traders out to injure and kill all and sundry one wonders how we manage to add millions every year!

While the demands of an exploding market and the get-rich-quick syndrome among all those involved in the business of raw food is playing havoc with the health of the people, purveyors of cooked stuff are doing no better. Consuming any cooked item away from home is generally considered risky, unless one happens to visit a starred establishment. One is neither sure of the ingredients nor of the environment in which it is cooked. The lacks of sanitation and hygiene as also use of contaminated stuff have made street-food taboo. What the myriad kiosks, push-carts, dark and ill-kept petty establishments and such offer is virtually poison. This is a depressing fact when one considers the freedom with which even the weak-stomached Westerners partake with great relish the native cuisine dished out on the streets in countries of the Middle East and South-East Asia. The reason is strict State control and supervision. In our case, for want of strict monitoring, street-food is largely patronised by the deprived and the undiscriminating.

This unhappy state of affairs is the result of almost total withdrawal of the State from this area of administration. As is evident, the vigilant TV channels have done more to expose adulteration and contamination of all that is ingested as food than any of the governments in several states. The State seems to have let go of its controls and is not even trying to re-establish its authority to ensure some semblance of governance in this area. Its manpower and other technical resources are not equal to the massive job that stares it in its face. While secretariats are overstaffed with chief and other secretaries, there are not enough food inspectors and lab-technicians to keep tabs on contaminated raw and/or cooked food put up for sale. With no attention being paid to the public health and nutritional aspects of the matter public healthcare facilities get swamped by patients.

For retrieving the situation from what looks like virtual state of anarchy at least two measures are necessary. Firstly, devising a multi-disciplinary approach, it is necessary organise a food safety and surveillance and monitoring system for the entire country with adequate qualified staff and modern laboratory equipment for regular testing of food/commodities and contaminants. Secondly, the need is to make the Food Safety Act 2005 more stringent to infuse into it adequate degree of deterrence. After all, the culprits in this villainous business are culpable of wilfully causing injury, why even of homicide.

The current situation brooks no delay. The Centre needs to immediately swing into action.
(Published by Indian News Features Alliance, New Delhi, on 22nd November 2009)