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Chemical, biological and physical contamination of foods – Safety issues

29,December, 2018

Food safety is being challenged nowadays by the global dimensions of food supply chains, the need for reduction of food waste and efficient use of natural resources such as clean water. Food safety deals with safeguarding the own national food supply chain from the introduction, growth or survival of hazardous microbial and chemical agents.  
Apart from health, food safety is vital for economic growth and progress as well. In India, the food processing industry holds tremendous opportunity. It has high employment potential, can boost exports of agro-products out of the country, and also provide better returns to farmers for their produce. However, this is possible only if food safety standards are effectively enforced in the country. This brief explores the regulatory and policy aspects around food safety in India, and also analyses potential challenges therein.
Existing and Emerging Food Safety Problems
A variety of chemical, biological and physical hazards are the major causes of food safety problems. Among these the bacterial contaminants, environmental contaminants including pesticide residues, mycotoxins and adulterants have been reported to be responsible for causing large-scale outbreaks of food poisoning and smaller incidents.
Contamination Risk
Food contamination refers to addition or entry of any foreign material into food, which is not a part of it and can be unpalatable, objectionable or harmful. Food may be accidentally or deliberately contaminated. It can be physical, chemical or biological. Physical contamination refers to objects which contaminate food as they can be source of contamination, e.g., hair, glass or metal, fingernails, jewellery, and dirt.
Chemical contamination refers to chemical substances which enter food and are foreign to it, e.g., cleaning agents, detergents, agrochemicals (pesticides, fungicides), environmental contaminants (natural toxins, minerals, metals, rat poison), veterinary medicines, processing contaminants (non-permitted colours, preservatives, chemicals migrated from packaging material, lubricating oil) and so on while biological contamination refers to foreign material obtained from living organisms such as microorganism, insects, rodents, pests and so on.
Besides this, another source of contamination is due to cross-contamination i.e., transfer of contaminants from one source to another e.g., dirty clothes, hands, utensils, improper personal hygiene, pests, mixing of cooked food with raw food, and improper waste and garbage control. Cooking can increase or decrease the toxicity of some of these contaminants but has little effect on most chemicals.
Measures to Control Contamination
There is legislation in place to regulate the levels of several chemicals in the food. Unhealthy additives and adulterants are legally not allowed for use. However, effective surveillance and response systems are required to prevent chemical hazards from entering the food supply and posing harm to the public. Most importantly, the food industries must accept the need to be more honest and upfront in producing safe commercial food products as well as protecting the public from food contamination.
Govt Initiatives on Food Safety
In India, effective food control system is undermined by plethora of fragmented legislation, multiple jurisdictions and weakness in surveillance, monitoring and enforcement, which neither assures safety, hygiene nor quality.
Food contamination can be prevented by properly inspecting the raw materials and food ingredients, following Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) such as removal of jewellery while dealing with food items, eliminating potential sources of food contaminants, practicing sanitary principles of personal hygiene, thorough washing of raw materials and so on.
Tests such as mass spectrometry could be used for detecting presence of chemical contaminants; plating could be done to detect specific microbial contamination, ELISA assay test, sensors and so on. India’s Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), a body formed under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, is working to strengthen the ability of regulators and the government to handle food contamination incidents.
The Preamble to the Act states that it seeks to “consolidate the laws relating to food and to establish the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India for laying down science-based standards for articles of food and to regulate their manufacture, storage, distribution, sale and import, to ensure availability of safe and wholesome food for human consumption.” The Act gives statutory powers to the FSSAI.
Key Functions of the FSSAI
Framing of regulations to lay down food safety standards; laying down guidelines for accreditation of laboratories for food testing; providing scientific advice and technical support to the Central government; contributing to the development of international technical standards in food; collecting and collating data regarding food consumption, contamination, emerging risks etc.; disseminating information and promoting awareness about food safety in India.
Food Laws and Regulations in India
The Indian Parliament has passed the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, that overrides all other food related laws. Such as Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954; Fruit Products Order,1955; Meat Food Products Order, 1973; Vegetable Oil Products (Control) Order, 1947; Edible Oils Packaging (Regulation) Order, 1988; Solvent Extracted Oil, De-Oiled Meal and Edible Flour (Control) Order, 1967; Milk and Milk Products Order, 1992, and so on are repealed after commencement of FSS Act, 2006.
(The authors are from Herboveda Health Care Pvt Ltd, Uttar Pradesh)

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