Four children died and more than 53,000 infants fell ill in China after consuming milk, contaminated with melamine, an industrial chemical. The government recalled all milk products from the market. Most countries intensified testing of Chinese foods, and more than 12 countries, including Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Kenya, imposed bans. India, too, has slapped a three-month ban on import of milk and milk products from the country.
The incident has raised questions about the effectiveness of food standards in China. But back home, what is the Indian government doing to ensure that we eat right?
Indians are eating different now. Our ‘dietary preferences’ have changed, thanks to the rise in our purchasing power. ‘Food’ is no more just daal-chawal or roti-sabzi; it now includes pizzas, burgers, pastas, beverages, and so on. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), people are spending less on cereals and more on beverages, refreshments and processed food. And this has made India a hot-spot for the fast-growing food market. What are the upshots? Health problems, of course. But, another serious threat is that of safety issues in the food industry.
The food industry depends heavily on chemicals. Intensive irrigation and use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers are seen as the easiest way to increase food production. During processing, various chemicals and synthetic inputs are added to food items for colouring, preserving and so on. No doubt that these leave lasting effects on us.
Even miniscule doses of chemicals like pesticides, heavy metals, antibiotics and industrial chemicals present in food can accumulate and trigger major health problems like cancer, asthma, heart diseases, neurological disorder, reproductive and fertility disorders. So what do we do? We should check and control the use of these additives, and stop the use of any substance that makes food unsafe. So, the government has formulated the Food Safety and Standards Act, which will soon be implemented under the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
The Food Safety and Standards Act has replaced nine food regulations under various ministries, such as the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, the Milk and Milk Products Order, and the Fruit Products Order. So, there are no more separate laws for different food items, but one all-inclusive act. A statutory body called the Food Safety and Standards Authority has also been created to carry out its various functions. But, there are some critical flaws in the Act, which may make it ineffective in ensuring safety to the consumers. Here is one example.
The bill has weakened the very definition of ‘unsafe’ food. It has differentiated between a ‘contaminant’ and ‘extraneous matter’. A ‘contaminant’ is something that is not added to food but is already present because of production-related causes (including operations carried out in crophusbandry, animal husbandry, veterinary medicine or as a result of environmental contamination). An ‘extraneous matter’, on the other hand, is similar to a ‘contaminant’, only it does not render the food unsafe.
Say, an antibiotic is found in the milk produced by a dairy farm. Now, the antibiotic is a ‘contaminant’. But if the farm claims that the antibiotic does not make the milk unsafe, the antibiotic becomes ‘extraneous matter’. Similarly, pesticides present in soft drinks could be contaminants or they could be extraneous matter, because companies say that these do not make food unsafe.
So, even a ‘guilty’ food company may argue that the substance found in their product is not a contaminant but extraneous matter and so their product is not unsafe. And consumers will just be caught in the web of definitions, trying to find out what is safe and what is not?…
The bottom line is – food should not have any contaminant at all. So, safety standards have to be strictly followed, and quality checks must be conducted rigorously. The shortcomings of the current food regulations and enforcement have to be improved. Till then, we can just hope that we are eating right…