Treat the disease, not the symptoms

Treat the disease, not the symptoms
The recall of Maggi noodles from stores all over India has created waves largely because of who has committed the offence rather than the exact nature of the offence itself. Unparalleled in the history of Indian food safety, the ban has thrown up more questions than answers in a scenario which is murky as far as food safety laws are concerned.

The Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006 is, by Indian standards, a draconian law which demands that all food suppliers, manufacturers and distributors/retailers must be registered with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and follow strict norms while manufacturing and selling food to the populace at large.

There are very strict punishments varying from fines to imprisonment for those who violate the law, but the important part is: how effectively can these laws be delivered on the ground? Can a small field force of food safety inspectors visit and keep tabs on all the millions of eateries and food outlets, take samples and carry out tests for safety? Is this, as is already being talked about, one more avenue of corruption, nepotism and influence in high places because of unfettered powers in the hands of a few individuals?

The food chain in India, unlike in the West, has never been subject to rigorous scrutiny by the authorities, leading to a plethora of misadventures and disasters. The mixing of kesari dal (which causes paralysis to the one who consume it) with other varieties of pulses has been documented several times in the past and led to catastrophes, which are part of history. Indian fruits, vegetables and sea-food sent abroad, particularly to western countries has been repeatedly been rejected or destroyed for containing bacteria or chemicals which can harm the consumer.

This used to come as a surprise to the people in India who often joked that the Westerners were unnecessarily sensitive about trivial issues and found fault in everything that came from India. As recently as last year, the ban on mangoes came as a rude wake-up call to cultivators, though locals enjoyed the windfall of lower prices because of the ban.

It is not Indian products only which countries turn their scrutiny on. In 2011, the ban on large consignments of turkey (a delicacy to many Americans) from various sources in the USA and Europe brought to the limelight the strict vigilance being observed by the US FDA when it came to protecting its citizens. The UK also had its own share of scams and bans when horse meat was found in consignments of meat emanating from European sources.

The Indian consumer is blissfully unaware of the hazards of consuming contaminated food, particularly the ones that have long-term or chronic after-effects. People do talk of `unhygienic conditions’ when they eat food from the local roadside stall or hawker, but better hygiene (particularly in the larger cities) and acquired immunity to bacteria and viruses, have led to a situation where man and nature have reached a level of symbiotic  co-existence.

Long-term killers

The long-term killers or disablements are the ones which are ignored. Lead, for example, is used in Surma or Kaajal, which can get absorbed from the mucous membrane of the eyes. Pesticides in food are known to get deposited in human systems and cause havoc over a period of time. Heavy metals are well-known culprits which get deposited in the bones, kidneys and liver and cause crippling diseases.

The Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006 thus comes as a divine gift in this turmoil. The vast majority of our consumers,  however, have no idea that such an Act exists, leave alone its contents. Shops and establishments can be subjected to intense scrutiny on the basis of a complaint but what will be the basis of such a complaint? Can consumers have any idea of what they are eating? Is every sample of food they eat going to be subjected to a chemical and bacterial analysis for its contaminants? Whom do they approach and where to get a suspect food sample tested? Most consumers are hence nonplussed on how this benevolent Act will save them from health hazards arising from their eating habits.

The answer to the many questions lies in various forums. Self-regulation and strict enforcement of law are the obvious ones. The US legal system comes down very hard on offenders when it comes to public safely. The US government website www.foodsafety.gov has a “naming and shaming” list with an update on various foods under the scanner so that consumers can steer away from them.

What is also needed is the strengthening of standard, authorised food checking laboratories to carry out swift and efficacious checks on any item suspected to be hazardous to health. Modern technology has made it possible to detect substances like lead and pesticides in micrograms and nanograms within a few hours, and devices to carry out these tests are available off the shelf in various parts of the world. Consumer bodies and NGOs must also be empowered to take part in this long haul to improve the food chain.

The Maggi scandal is only a symptom of how an unregulated and unmonitored system can cause untold harm to health and life. It must be used as a role model for toning up our ancient and decrepit laws and systems to the twenty first century world.

What tests conducted for Nestle say

Test     Unit of     Maximum     Results    Results    Results
Parameter    Measurement    permissible     (Test 1)    (Test 2)    (Test 3)
        limit
Arsenic    mg/kg    1.1    Cadmium    mg/kg    1.5    Tin    mg/kg    250.0    3.47    0.31    Lead    mg/kg    2.5    Mercury    mg/kg    1.0    Source: Nestle

FSSAI REPORT ON TESTS ON FOOD ITEMS

Year    Samples     Non-conforming    Prosecution    Conviction/
    tested        Launched     Penalties
2011-12    64,593    8,247    6,845    764
2012-13    69,949    10,380    5,840    3,175
2013-14    72,200    13,571    10,235    3,845
2014-15*    49,290    8,469    7,098    2,701
* Data for six months

(The writer is Hon Secretary, Consumer Guidance Society of India, Mumbai)

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