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Contaminated food

11,July, 2019

Despite strict protocols, govt study shows 30 per cent of samples have failed the safety test and are adulterated

Just when we thought that food safety was finally an achievable target, what with laws and guidelines becoming more stringent and consumers demanding reassurance of the origin and processing, comes a reality check. According to government data, almost one-third of the food samples tested across the country in 2018-19 was found adulterated or sub-standard, with Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu leading the list where nearly half of the samples failed the test. What is shocking is that failed samples are now 30 per cent of the lot, which was 25 per cent over the last two years. The tests, carried out within the parameters set by the food safety regulator, FSSAI, mean that crackdowns and heightened awareness have meant little. Between 2016-17 and 2018-19, about 8,100 people were convicted for committing food tampering offences and authorities across the states collected nearly Rs 43.65 crore fine from the offenders. Which means that unscrupulous practices of diluting food quality with substitutes and additives continue unabated without fear of falling foul of the law. What it also means is that pesticides and chemicals used in agriculture have had a stubborn effect, affecting both soil and plant health, leading to unwanted spikes in harmful chemicals in food sources. There have been frequent reports of adulterated milk, frighteningly diluted with not just water but starch, groundnut milk and wheat flour. Some reports have also suggested how a majority of Indians would suffer major diseases only because of food contamination. Cooking oils continue to be mixed with low-grade palm oil, cheap edible oils and even cottonseed oil. Some of these are coloured and flavoured to avoid detection of substitutes. Even items of everyday use pose serious health risks, like tea, where used tea leaves are processed and coloured, coffee, which is routinely mixed with tamarind seed, date seed powder and chicory powder and wheat and other foodgrains, into which poisonous fungus is tossed in for volumes. Kitchen essentials like mustard are often mixed with argemone seeds, turmeric with dyes and chilli powder with brick powder.

It’s not that the laws aren’t there but what is pathetically lacking is their uniform implementation and interpretation. Many amendments have been suggested in the Food Safety and Standards (FSS) Act, including life imprisonment and penalty of up to Rs 10 lakh for adulterants. FSSAI has also proposed setting up of state food safety authorities so that this law can be enforced in letter and spirit down to the grassroots. In line with Singapore’s Sale of Food Act, the FSSAI has further proposed that the errant will have to pay fees and other expenses incidental to the analysis of any food, thereby making him/her culpable for reneging on prescribed standards. But as producers, they can hardly be expected to be altruistic or not attempt to bend the rules in collusion with local food inspectors. Besides, often the adulterants escape detection. Therefore, there need to be standardised screening protocols that can be applied for random checks and booking offenders. Food labelling has definitely led to awareness but manufacturers and companies must also be asked to vouch for the authenticity and source of food products and their components. Food is the building block of our national health and human resource and the study should really accelerate efforts to get amended laws passed in Parliament on a priority basis before more damage is done.

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