Cancer in India: the food safety paradox

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, World Health Organisation and Global Cancer Observatory predicts that India will see a nearly 50% rise in incidence of cancer in the coming decade. Expanding this a little further, if we were to include non-communicable diseases (NCDs), it would mean that nearly one in three citizens in coming years would succumb to one of the NCD ailments. 

Why are cancers rising in our society at such an unforgiving pace? Isn’t it time for us to sit back and think what we can do to protect our health? Understandably, health is a valuable and expensive commodity in a country. About 80% of our population continues to be in rural areas with limited access to healthcare facilities.

Considering the irrefutable reality that the purchase power parity of average Indian is less than $1 a day, out-of-pocket expenditures on health are a reckoning burden even to an average middle class Indian. Adding to these complexities, we are witnessing a significant rise in younger age groups having cancer.

If we could read the mind of a cancer cell, you would see that the cancer cell merely wants to grow, invade to overcome regulation and endurance of healthy cell system. It wants to do so, instantly, unlimitedly, and more. Think back for a second, aren’t we all moving the same way? Isn’t this society in a rut for instant, unlimited and more?

Times are changing. Man searches for Instant — gratification, success, job, coffee or love, marriage or divorce; Unlimited — food in our buffet (when body needs are limited), wealth and luxury, More — the more the better, from the concept of a ‘buy 1 get 1 free’ to an evolving pursuit of ‘buy 1 get 3 free.’

Technology seems to bring him closer to all corners of the world but distances him from people next to him. Thus, I presume, we are facing a difficult time where we are innovating illnesses in this endless run for material contentment. Cancer leads this list of man-made catastrophes, distinctly defined by features of the instant, unlimited and more. A set of primordial and defining features emerge in the mind of a cancer cell at birth.

Pollution in our food, air, water and minds have deeply contributed to the creation of this cancer cascade. Most concerning among them would be the new-age diet without nutrition. It would not be inappropriate to quote here that “diet and nutrition are two different aspects of food”. Is the current state of food quality in the country a matter of implausible conjecture or a reality yet to dawn on the Indian mind?

Pesticides, preservatives, adulterants and degreening agents seem to be the trend in the new embellished diet. The intent of their use being to prolong the shelf life of our food artificially and provide instant pleasure to satiate the palate.

Export rejects

Some of the reports on food exports from India show that we rank among the top in agri-food rejects to the USA and the EU as per the UNIDO reports. The key reasons for rejects implicated in the reports were mycotoxins, microbial contamination, veterinary drug residues, heavy metals, unauthorised food additives, product composition and pesticide residues.

Ever wondered if these were the quality for exports, what could be the standards from internal consumption for us Indians? The Maggi trial that India witnessed recently opened the much-needed debate on food safety and exposed the tip of the iceberg.

Insecticide Act of India, 1968, is awaiting amendments and its implementation. The amended Act awaits clearance in Rajya Sabha. Is it not time for the manufacturers to reinstate this trust in the consumer and lay ethical guidelines to protect the consumer?

The Food Safety and Standards Act is quite comprehensive. Stringent regulation and implementation of this Act with monthly checks of 100 random food products from the shelf, selected from random shops in randomly selected areas will need to be advocated to safeguard and bring to light unscrupulous food practices.

Healthcare is often confused for disease care. In fact, health itself is a state of no disease. Despite advances in technology, science has not been able to significantly improve the cure rates in many cancers. Strengthening allegiance to public health measures is the need of the hour and an exigency for governments to consider.

A healthy society should have fewer doctors, fewer illnesses and fewer hospitals. This ideal vision for healthcare would need a pragmatic relook into the aphorism: “Destroy the poisons, than try to invent a new antidote.”

(The writer is Head Neck Surgical Oncologist & Robotic Surgeon at HealthCare Global)

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Cancer in India: the food safety paradox

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