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Tackling food adulteration the smart way

By Bhasker  Assoldekar

Goa witnessed a turbulent last month, with fish and eggs capturing all headlines in  the newspapers and electronic media. Even several hours of the state assembly sessions were  spent discussing the same in all earnest. Since the above two items of Goa’s lifeline are already discussed in various forums in great details,  it is time to shift focus on the other common food items which are prone to adulteration.

In a recent report, the Public Health Foundation of India attributed 80 percent of all premature deaths to contaminated food and water. Food adulteration in India starts from the field itself where fertilizers and pesticides are overused. Therefore, one kind of contaminant that is present across all range of food is very high level of pesticide and fungicide residues. It would not be out of place to mention that even 50 ppm of certain organophosphorus pesticides such as malathion or monochrotophos  if ingested  could be lethal. Fungicides sprayed on apples and grapes during their growth if not washed thoroughly before consumption could have adverse effect on our health.

But pesticide residues are not the only problem. Many products used in everyday cooking, such as milk, cottage cheese and clarified butter( ghee), milk based sweets are adulterated in a brazen way. Colouring agents in spices and blending spices with cheaper additives are also major areas of concern. The use of calcium carbide and copper sulphate to make fruit ripen faster has created a number of health hazards.

The reasons for most of the intended adulteration are purely commercial and economic in nature. Cooking oils are the biggest culprits as they are relatively easy to adulterate and savings therein are huge.

Although there exist laws to control and monitor the food industry, until recently there were no uniform food regulations across all the states preventing the adulteration of food. We can hope that the new food safety and standards act will bring some positive change.

Unfortunately,  there is very little awareness among the Indian public on the types and extent of food adulteration in our day today life. People are tempted to buy cheaper food and they are likely then to purchase adulterated food items. Processed food invariably is unsafe in India. Starting from potato chips to pre cooked ready to eat food are not very safe. Unfortunately, the monitoring mechanism in our country is not that strong.

Governments should do much more to raise awareness about adulterated food among the Indian public. As most of the adulterated food is purchased unknowingly by gullible and innocent people.

Type of adulteration and its effects

Intentional food adulteration is usually done for financial gains. Some examples of intentional adulteration (even limiting to just milk & its products) are the addition of water and urea to liquid milk, paper pulp to lassi and starch powder to curd  or substitution of milk solids( removal) from the natural product and blending them with low priced adulterants..

Surveys suggest that more than 45 to 50 percent of the food items in India are intentionally adulterated. Some of the most commonly encountered adulterations are in cooking oil, turmeric or spices, etc. For instance mineral oil may be added to edible oil and fats which can cause cancers. Or lead chromate is added to turmeric powder and spices to cause anemia, paralysis, brain damage and even abortions.

So for consumers what is the way forward? The answer to this is simple tests at home to check for possible adulteration. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has released a manual for quick detection of adulterants in everyday food items. The book “Detect Adulteration with Rapid Test (DART)” lists 41 easy tests that can be done at home. With tests for items ranging from milk and milk products to food grains and spices, the book aims to create awareness about food safety.

Refrigerate coconut oil for 30 minutes to check whether it freezes. To test milk mix a small amount of water and shake it vigorously. If adulterated with detergents, the solution will form lather. Cut a piece of potato and sprinkle salt on it. Wait for a minute and add two drops of lemon juice to it. If it is iodised salt, blue colour will develop. For detection of iron fillings in tea powder move a magnet through it.

Artificial colours in vegetables is a common form of adulteration. In green peas one can see the malachite green colour ( carcinogenic) separate out when soaked in a glass of water. For vegetables like ladies finger(okra), green chilli and sweet potato, rub a piece of cotton soaked in vegetable oil( such as  coconut oil) on its surface. If artificially coloured, then you can see the cotton catch colour. You can do the test for ragi ( nachni) as well for red brown colour.

We need to remember that contamination could happen in very small amounts over a period of time and it might be impossible to detect or too late to intervene. So it is prudent that everyone of us take a special interest in this subject and educate our families, friends, and colleagues about this menace.

The state and central governments too should play their respective roles in curbing the menace by setting acceptance or rejection benchmarks for various food products and arriving at standard testing methods. Government agencies should organise awareness programs on ill effects of adulteration. But above all, the monitoring agency should be able to work freely without any kind of pressures emanating from those with money or muscle power. And if monitoring agency finds the product not acceptable then what should be the punitive measures? Obviously stringent laws will be needed with severe penal measures which should serve as deterrents to the criminals. Just rejecting a consignment (after testing) cannot stop the menace. And if this life threatening menace goes unchecked then it could continue to raise its ugly head time and again and  grow exponentially.

Both, the citizens and the  governments  have a duty & responsibility to safe guard not only our own generation but also our “innocent & gullible generation next” from falling prey to the ill effects of the brazen and uncontrolled adulteration.

*The author is an entrepreneur and managing director of Vibha Natural Products Ltd

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