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Updated on: Saturday, June 01, 2019, 01:11 AM IST

India and Food Safety: Lurking dangers in food chain

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Is India finally emerging from a “food security” groove and settling into a “food safety” mindset? Or is the action against Maggi prompted by a misplaced swadeshi mentality, which is opposed to multinational corporations as a matter of principle? The fact is that India has historically been lax on food safety norms, allowing companies – whether MNCs or indigenous — to exploit the gullibility of both food producers and food consumers.

There are two aspects to food safety: nutritional concerns and contamination. Nutritional concerns are by and large left to the consumer who should, after all, exercize greater restraint in consumption of unhealthy foods. The trouble is, they often don’t have the luxury of making an informed choice. That’s where advertising – and the responsibility of advertisers – comes in.

Back in the 1930s, the Lever brothers decided India was a great market for vanaspati ghee, to be sold under the brand name “Dalda”. It was a cheap subsititute for desi ghee, increased the shelf life of cooked food and imparted a better taste. To overcome consumer resistance to fake ghee, it was also billed as a healthier alternative. “Mothers who care use Dalda” said the advertisements.

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The ubiquitous yellow tin with the palm tree logo appeared in our kitchens and an entire generation of middle-class kids was brought up on Dalda – in cakes, cookies, puris, samosas, virtually anything baked or deep fried. A half-century later, we know there’s nothing worse for heart health than vanaspati ghee, which is loaded with trans-fats. But our mothers and grandmothers didn’t know any better, having been led to believe it was healthy.

Ice cream is another example of taking consumers for a ride. Today, 40 per cent of our ice cream market is dominated by “frozen desserts” which look and taste like ice cream but are often made from vegetables oils rather than milk. While Amul and Mother Dairy make genuine ice cream, companies like Kwality Walls and Cream Bell base their frozen desserts on vegetable fats. They are served in cups and on sticks, just like the real thing, so that consumers cannot tell the difference.

Maggi, marketed by the multinational Nestle, appears to have erred on two counts – making unsubstantiated claims on health benefits and not conforming to food safety standards, at least in some states. The now infamous Madhuri Dixit advertisement projects Maggi oat noodles as a “taste bhi, health bhi” product, entirely ignoring the fact that there is no substantial difference in the nutritional profile of regular instant noodles and the oats variety. Both fail the nutritionists’ test as a healthy snacking option.

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Why Dixit, Amitabh Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan or Aamir “Satyamev Jayate” Khan would use (or abuse) their status as role models to promote nutritionally empty and possibly health-unfriendly products among their gullible young fans is a matter best left to their respective consciences. But the advertiser can certainly be hauled up for misleading the public, particularly mothers and children.

Equally serious is the fact that samples of Maggi were found to contain MSG and lead in excess of  permitted levels. If the lab results are accurate, Nestle could face action under the Food Safety and Standards Act. It is no stranger to food recalls, having had to pull its products off the shelves in the US in several cases.

But the greatest danger in terms of food safety comes from unpackaged foods – cereals, dals, milk, eggs, vegetables and fruits – a legacy of the green revolution. In the 1960s, India became a ready market for MNCs which sold agro-chemicals, including pesticides. Farmers were sold pesticides under the exciting names of Fighter, Yodha, Bravo, Sardar, Avenge and Billo, embellished with pictures of muscle-bound superheroes and village belles. It became cool – and macho — to use pesticides. At the time, no one explained that the pesticides sprayed on crops did not just vanish – they entered our food chain and our bodies.

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Testing samples of agricultural produce for safety is low on the priority list of state governments. Unless a number of people fall sick or a study is being conducted or the produce is being exported, samples are rarely lifted. Now we are stuck with a contaminated food chain; we are aware that the juicy mango we covet has probably been sprayed with monocrotophos, endosulfan and other toxic chemicals, some of which are banned in other countries but sold in India. But there is nothing we can do about it, except to encourage farmers to shift to non-lethal crop protection agents.

The next big challenge to food safety comes from genetically modified food crops. The current policy push towards a “second green revolution” based on genetically modified food crops ignores consumer concerns about the possible health effects of GM foods. Going by the statements of NDA ministers, GM crops are “good science” and opposing them is non-science or just plain nonsense. Can the government ensure that GM rice or brinjal is appropriately labelled, so that consumers can exercize a choice as to whether or not to feed their children GM products? MNCs which want to push GM seeds are in fact opposed to labeling because consumers tend to reject GM foods.

In the new concern for food safety, labeling requirements and lifting of food samples – both packaged and unpackaged – should become the norm and not just a random exercise.

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Published on: Thursday, June 11, 2015, 12:06 AM IST
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