It should not come as a surprise to anyone that India has been termed as the world's worst food safety violator by Food Sentry, a global food sourcing monitoring agency. The Maggi storm (which started when excess lead and MSG were detected in Nestlé's Maggi instant noodles by UP's Food Safety and Drug Administration during routine tests), now seems to have died down after the UK, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand declared it to be safe.
However, this is not the first time that the issue of food adulteration and contamination in India has come up. A few years back, popular soft drinks such as Coke and Pepsi were reported to have very high levels of pesticides though, later on cleared as safe. In October 2003, some Cadbury chocolates were discovered to be infested with worms.
"A nationwide FSSAI investigation found that 70% of the milk samples collected were adulterated with detergent, chalk and urea."
Mustard oil adulterated with argemone (Mexican poppy) oil led to the outbreak of dropsy that killed several Indians in 1998. Deaths caused by toxic bootleg liquors are quite a regular phenomenon in the country -- the latest such incidence happened last month which killed 84 people in the Mumbai suburb of Malad. In 2004, at least 87 people died after consuming spurious liquor in another Mumbai suburb, Vikhroli. Again, food poisoning after eating out is not very uncommon.
On June 4, the FSSAI issued a list of over 500 items manufactured or marketed by Indian and multinational companies which failed to get regulatory approvals on grounds of containing high levels of sugar, salt, heavy metals, caffeine, ginseng and iron fillings. This underscores the gravity of the food and safety mess that India really is in. The Maggie contamination row is just the tip of the iceberg.
Yet, junk is sold as aspirational health food with the help of advertisements and celebrity endorsers such as film stars and cricketers. Food manufacturers and retailers often start selling their products even before getting regulatory approvals. Not only this, nutraceutical manufacturers often approach food regulators rather drugs and cosmetic regulators to escape tougher tests imposed by the latter.
Well, the packaged (junk) food items should not be our only concern. A nationwide FSSAI investigation found that 70% of the milk samples collected were adulterated with detergent, chalk and urea.
Popular fruits and vegetables are not behind when it comes to contamination, especially with insecticides. In vegetables, brinjal topped the chart for having heptachlor at 860% and cauliflower with aldrin at 320% above the permissible limits. Under the cereals, aldrin in wheat and chlorfenvinfos in rice were over 21890% and 1300% respectively above the tolerable limits. Popular fruits like apples are coated with wax and chemicals to increase their shelf life.
"[C]onsumers are being taken for a ride by both Indian and multinational food sellers. This is a silent crisis that calls for the urgent attention of citizens, food regulators and enforcement agencies."
Another study done by MS University Baroda found high levels of arsenic in cereals, pulses and vegetables. Cadmium was found in cereals, curd and fruits.
In addition, the flour we use to make chapattis is often bleached and may contain dozen of chemicals, including fumigants that can damage the liver and kidneys. There were reports of "plastic rice" made of potatoes, sweet potatoes and polymers reported to come from China.
Besides, MSG is a common ingredient (as taste enhancer) in most Chinese delicacies and many restaurants and eateries in India use colours and additives that are not likely to be healthy.
And not to forget, we are quite comfortable with snacks such as samosas or pakoras that may have been fried in stale oil, pani puri dunked in contaminated water or sweets that serve as second homes to flies. And there is almost no monitoring of street food vendors and sellers.
Most of these urban middle class indulgences -- both desi and videshi -- are unhealthy whether contaminated with harmful chemicals or not. And our sedentary life style is making it worse.
Research shows that junk food intake causes type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. At last count, India had over 50 million patients with diabetes and an increasing number of people in their late 30s or early 40s are being diagnosed with heart ailments. Singling out MNCs for our food woes, in effect, obscures the real issue.
It's quite obvious that consumers are being taken for a ride by both Indian and multinational food sellers. This is a silent crisis that calls for the urgent attention of citizens, food regulators and enforcement agencies.
In addition to strict enforcement of food regulations and periodic testing of food items - packaged as well as produce such as milk, fruits and vegetables (sold by both organised and unorganised players), it's time India introduced some kind of regulation of misinformation spread through advertisements and celebrity endorsements. Last but the not least, there are issues related to our lifestyle choices that consider junk food as aspirational. Urban Indians will need to have a serious relook at their food habits and priorities, about which the food regulator can't do much.