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Poison on your plate
By Devinder Sharma

Food adulteration has taken dangerous proportions but both consumers and regulatory bodies are completely indifferent to the risks of adulterated food products.

Synthetic milk unit unearthed in Punjab

Your food is turning into a slow poison.

From fruits to vegetables, milk to cold drinks, ghee to edible oils, wheat atta to common dal, spices to sweets --- chances are everything you are consuming is harmful to your health. Almost every eatable that you buy from the market is probably adulterated.

Food has now become your enemy.

Your favourite juicy mango is no longer what it used to be. It has been ripened with calcium carbide, a chemical that is also used in making crackers and cheap bombs. It contains traces of arsenic and phosphorous, and releases acetylene gas which hastens the ripening of fruits. The fruit is then dipped in the solution of a growth hormone which should not be used in food products and need to be kept out of reach of children. It makes the fruit look attractive and of appropriate colour.

The habit of drinking a glass of milk before hitting the bed has been running in your family for generations now. You always thought that it was your primary source of daily intake of nutrition. But for several years now, you must have also read that the milk you drink is most likely contaminated with its synthetic variant - a cocktail of urea, detergents and cheap edible oil.

Most of the vegetables we buy from the market are treated with
a heavy dose of pesticides. Some have even been dipped in harmful chemical solutions to make them look fresh and attractive. Many vegetables are given a dose of artificial colour to suit our eyes. There have been numerous reports in the recent past of some vegetables from the cucurbit family being routinely given a shot of oxytocin hormone to increase its size.

The chances are the desi ghee you buy is adulterated too. You pay a hefty price and what you get in return has no nutrition but animal fat, crushed animal bones and mineral oil. For those who can't afford desi ghee, the vanaspati too is laced with adulterants. It comes laced with stearin, a by-product of palm oil used in soap manufacture. Recently Haryana police raided a godown in Panipat and recovered 3000 kg of adulterated ghee.      

Most of the vegetables we buy from the market are treated with a heavy dose of pesticides. Some have even been dipped in harmful chemical solutions to make them look fresh and attractive.

This is not an isolated incident. Such ghee manufacturing units abound in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. It is believed that 90 per cent of the vanaspati being sold in the market violates the specifications of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act (PFA).

Such is the extent of adulteration that even pistachio used in sweets is not spared. Unscrupulous traders instead use inferior quality peanuts, cut into small pieces and then coloured with artificial colouring agents. Milk products made from synthetic milk are of course very common. Again, the north-western parts of the country dominate the trade in adulterated milk and milk

Let me now illustrate as to what happens when you eat these adulterated food products. Adulterated foods can cause all kinds of ailments and diseases. Although the doctors are unable to point to the specific after-effects unless they know for sure that you consumed an adulterated food product, the general symptoms can be confusing. This is the main reason why generally consumers remain unconcerned about food adulteration and the damage it can cause to their health.

From adulterated pistachio, for instance, you can show symptoms of acidity, severe headache, vomiting, and in severe cases it can have terrible impact on pregnant women. But by the time the child is born with deformities, it may be practically impossible to link it with food adulteration.

Synthetic milk causes irreparable damage to your body organs. It is of course a health hazard but if you are suffering from heart and kidney ailments, it will acerbate your problem. Urea is particularly harmful for kidneys, and caustic soda is a slow poison for people suffering from hypertension and heart ailments.

Calcium carbide-ripened mangoes and bananas can lead to headache, dizziness, sleepiness and in severe cases mental abnormalities. Excess lead in food can trigger brain related problems; cadmium can cause kidney ailments and cancer. The list of damages from harmful chemicals is long.

What is however disturbing is the complete indifference being shown by the regulatory bodies in checking the menace of adulterated food products, fruits and vegetables. Despite a string of television programmes in the recent past, there has been hardly any effort to launch a nationwide campaign against the fraudulent traders. Except for some routine raids and arrests, nothing meaningful has been attempted.      

The newly formed Food Safety and Standards Authority of India cannot be a mute spectator to rampant food adulteration. What is urgently needed is a massive and widespread clamp down against the unscrupulous traders and farmers.

On a TV programme the other day I was amazed when a deputy minister for health stated that the problem was because health was a state subject and the state governments were generally slow and reluctant to initiate proper action. Such casual remarks clearly point to the reasons behind the inability of the state to act. I see no reason why the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare cannot work in tandem with the state health departments to curb this dangerous trend.

What is urgently needed is a massive and widespread clamp down against the unscrupulous traders and farmers. Often the adulteration begins at the farmer's level, and it is high time the farmers are also brought to book. Since greed is driving farmers and traders to poison food, the basic necessity of life, there is a need to make the law more stringent by introducing life-imprisonment and death penalty.

The newly formed Food Safety and Standards Authority of India cannot be a mute spectator to rampant food adulteration. Even if it has still to formulate the bylaws and standards, it can use the earlier provisions of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act to treat food adulteration as a criminal offence, and use the existing machinery to act accordingly. How long can the Food Safety and Standards Authority remain indifferent?

At the same time, the Ministry for Food and Consumer Affairs and the Ministry for Food and Agriculture should launch a joint initiative to create wider awareness and a public discourse. There is a need for a collaborative initiative from the ministries concerned. When the Prime Minister does not fail to set up a Group of Ministers (GoM) for every business activity, why isn't such a priority accorded to ensure safe and healthy food for the people?

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Devinder Sharma  |  Food and trade policy analyst, columnist and activists' guide  |  hunger55@gmail.com

Devinder Sharma is an award-winning journalist, writer, and researcher globally recognised for his analysis on food, agriculture and trade policy. After completing M.Sc. in Plant Breeding and Genetics, he started his career as a journalist. A decade later, he quit active journalism to research on policy issues concerning hunger and food security, biodiversity, genetic engineering and IPRs. He writes and speaks extensively on these issues and has written more than 10,000 articles till date.

Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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