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A Carcinogen Banned In Food, But Allowed in Water: How Does That Make Sense?

13/07/2016 1:07 PM IST | Updated 16/07/2016 1:08 AM IST
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Back in 2011, in my second year of law school, my father asked me to look up the packaged food labelling regulations in India. This was because he was attempting to get Hindustan Unilever to stop using potassium bromate (IN924a) in their bread (Modern Bread). He eventually succeeded in convincing Hindustan Unilever to stop using IN924a, which they did by 2012. This episode became my inspiration to start my food safety website, foodnetindia. Now, several years later, the Indian government has finally recognized the potential hazards of potassium bromate, and is in the process of banning its use as a food additive.

This happened after a Centre for Science and Environment study recommended that the FSSAI ban it with immediate effect. The study noted that it is a carcinogen and is banned in most parts of the world, but most bread products in India contained it. The story exploded in the press, forcing the government to take quick action. After the CSE report made headlines, the All India Bread Manufacturers Association stated that they would voluntarily stop using potassium bromate in their products.

Potassium bromate has been shown to cause kidney, thyroid and gastrointestinal cancers in animals... there may be no "safe level" of exposure to this carcinogen.


A hazardous substances notification for potassium bromate by the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services points out that it has been shown to cause kidney, thyroid and gastrointestinal cancers in animals. The notification also states that that there may be no "safe level" of exposure to this carcinogen.

However, The Business Standard recently reported that, despite banning potassium bromate as a food additive, the FSSAI recently proposed to permit limited amounts of bromates in packaged drinking water. The proposal was put up for public comments in January 2016. This does not make any sense whatsoever. The existing regulations do not permit bromates in water in any quantity. The FSSAI, however, states that the proposed change to the regulations are in line with the best international practices.

I personally believe that if the regulations are amended, the FSSAI would be making a mistake, irrespective of what international practices are. Potassium bromate is a known carcinogen and studies show that the regulations are being flouted anyway. Permitting it as a "contaminant" may just make the problem worse. I believe that this is an occasion where the FSSAI should ignore international practices. Banning potassium bromate in bread was the right thing to do. Allowing it in water most definitely is not! Why ask for trouble?

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