Thursday, December 31, 2009


Vietnam evokes past memories involving its long drawn out domestic war for domination between the communist philosophy and capitalistic practices during 1967-73. Eventually communism was able to prevail and the whole country was unified under one regime dominated by communist ideologies. While Russia as one sees to day is a poor shadow of the erstwhile USSR for which communism is being blamed, China projects itself as a shining example of communism as it has become a super global power, capable of challenging the most powerful nation on earth, the US, the very embodiment of capitalism. When Vietnam started its independent existence after the war, many did not give much chance for this small country to survive unless economically supported by its patron, the China. To day Vietnam is a vibrant country with reasonable economic strength and can be counted as a regional power of some importance in the Asian continent.

With a population of just 86 million, expected to go up to 120-130 million by 2030, Vietnam is second largest rice exporter, no small achievement for a country of predominantly rice eaters.

The GDP per capita of $2300 (PPP basis) is projected to increase substantially in the coming years after the economy and trade were liberalized. It is one of the few Asian countries with a literacy exceeding 92%. Its export earnings touched new heights and in 2008 the same was placed at $ 63 billion, more than 70% of its GDP, though its national debt also crossed 30% of the GDP. Besides rice Vietnam is also a significant exporter of coffee, marine foods, cashew and spices.

What is remarkable is the life expectancy enjoyed by the Vietnamese population at 72 years of age. Though there are 54 ethnic groups that co-exist in the country, there is hardly any communal disharmony witnessed during the past. Political will is reflected by the resolve of the government to banish hunger totally by 2012, boost farmer income 2.5 times by 2020 and increase average calorie intake to 2600-2700 kc per day per person.

Shifting of agricultural land to non-agricultural use in its pursuit of industrial development has shrunk the effective cultivated area by 3,60,000 hectares (ha) since 2000. The country produces 30 million tons (mt) of rice from an area of 4 million ha, the productivity touching 7.5 tons per ha, obviously due to use of modern technological tools. The grain storage capacity, so vital for cutting down post harvest losses, is scheduled to go up to 4 mt soon. Rice export which brings in substantial foreign exchange is estimated to be around 5 mt to 6 mt making the country one of the biggest exporters of rice in the world. An active policy to arrest the diversion of land use to non-agricultural activities is being put in place taking away such powers from the local authorities which is expected to keep at least 7.2 million ha for agriculture necessary to produce 40 mt of foodstuff annually.

With such strong political will and disciplined planning that ensures translation into action at the ground level, it is no wonder that Vietnam poses serious threat to Indian exports in areas like rice, marine products, coffee, cashew nuts and spices. Probably by building closer ties with this country, especially in areas like agriculture and food processing, India may be immensely benefited in the long run.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Development of technology has many facets and the innovators invariably leave the task of converting new ideas into commercialization to others better equipped to give "flesh and bone" to the basic concepts. Classical route to transform a concept into a viable technology involves proving the technical viability, laboratory scale process development, pilot production for basic data generation for designing a production system and setting up the manufacturing version with all necessary service inputs. In established industries which specialize in specific areas of food, new product development is closely related the existing product lines and very little deviation is encountered in bringing the new products into production. Such developments do not take long time and new products can be launched with least run up time. But diversification has totally different logistics and many a time external assistance may be required to evolve new production-worthy technologies.

When the R & D is done in a public funded institution, both development and transfer of technology call for greater cooperation and mutual confidence. In India as the public food R & D agencies have very little interactive relationship with the user industry, even concept generation is seriously flawed. Working on new concepts and novel ideas will have some relevance only if the ultimate user of the technology eventually viz the industry is convinced about their relevance and need from the market end. These R & D institutions with a large body of scientific personnel have ample funding from the government and since annual work out put has to be shown, they generate their own ideas based on their own perception. Such a situation is responsible for the "claimed" development of hundreds of "technologies" within the four walls of the organization with very little scope for commercialization by the industry. No hawking around will find any buyer for such technologies.

Industry has severe limitations in buying technologies from such institutions because of lack of confidence on the credibility of the scientists, most of whom would not have seen even the gate of a processing facility, let alone the production floor! As industrial ventures are investment oriented, the potential for failure of new technologies from the government agencies weight heavily with the users and in absence of any "guarantee of performance", the technologies developed in "isolation" will continue to remain on paper with no chance of transfer. It is not realized by the industry that unless there is a synergistic relationship with the technology generators, it cannot expect a matured technology to emerge from them. Unless industry appreciates the limitations of the R & D agencies and be prepared to work on the technology offered on "as is where is basis" for building up further, it is unlikely that they will succeed.

A shining example is the fruit bar process, developed in sixties of the last millennium at CFTRI, Mysore which remained as an unwanted technology for more than 3 decades, till Natura Foods, then part of the Nurtrine Confectionery group took it up for commercialization. Though it took lot of time to design the plant and start regular production, to day it is a shining example of how a responsible industry can make use of a lab process for setting up a profitable venture. The batch scale process was modified by the company into a continuous one for increased productivity and sizable exports were achieved through impeccable quality assurance creating the necessary confidence. Recent launch of sugar free fruit bars from fruits like Mango, Apple, Strawberry and others is another feather in its cap. Even the scientists who developed the original process were not able to concede that fruit bar production can be made continuous or it is possible to make it with out addition of sugar.

Though it is too much to expect every industry to play the role model, at least there must be some realization about the limitations of public research while the scientific world must come out of its "ivory tower" research mode to meet the industry half way. It is more easily said than done. For this to happen the R & D agencies must not be headed by "tunnel vision" scientists who tend to ignore the interests of industry in their pointless pursuit of so called "excellence" and industry must loosen its purse strings to support research on well identified areas of interest.


Monday, December 28, 2009


A recent report from Bangalore highlights the sorry plight of families with fixed income confronted by galloping prices for staples like rice, wheat, etc and fruits and vegetables such as Banana, Orange, Mosambi, Capsicum, Cabbage, Beans, Brinjal, Cucumber, Tomato etc. The market prices of many of these food materials have jumped by 50% to 100% for no apparent reason. It may be true that the truant Monsoon, causing drought in some parts of the country, could have played a role but it is incorrect to blame inadequate rains for the market distortion. While many consumers may get themselves adjusted to the ground reality for short periods, the consequences of such run away inflation can cause serious consequences to the health of the population. What is intriguing is that the procurement prices of most of these food materials are a fraction of the retail price raising the inevitable question as to who is cornering the major share of the retail price.

According to nutritional experts fruits and vegetables must be consumed as an essential part of a balanced diet and only such eating practices will keep many of to day's health disorders at bay. But if the current trend continues it is likely that many families will cut down on purchase of these vital protective foods to adjust their food budget. Is it not an irony that on one hand great efforts are being made to promote increased consumption of fruits and vegetables and inculcate the habit amongst children and youngsters while on the other hand nothing worthwhile is done to control the unjustified increase in retail prices? Lot of hope was raised by the National Horticulture Mission launched in the present 5-year Plan, the programs of National Horticulture Board and the Fruit and vegetables project of NDDB started in early eighties of the last millennium. But as a country India seems to have failed its citizens in providing nutrition security.

There is a considered view amongst some impartial observers that the reason for the price increase is solely due to the market manipulations indulged by the retail trade. Establishment of Agricultural Marketing Yards is supposed to improve the transparency in the dealings between traders and the farmers but the results are contrary to the expectations. With organized retailing taking its roots in the country, one would expect more uniform prices for perishable commodities since these players have the wherewithal to establish effective supply chains across the country and large scale storage infrastructure. There is a nagging suspicion that improved cold storage facilities in the country could have helped some of the retailers to manipulate the market to derive highest returns for their produce. Earlier low prices used to be prevalent in growing regions but to day high prices have pan India foot prints. Import of fruits and vegetables and retailing them at high prices have again distorted the prices of local produce because of the rising purchasing power amongst many consumers.

Added to this, the galloping prices of pulses, the only source of proteins for the poor and the impoverished population, are debilitating the strength of this country at its foundation. Is it a hopeless condition for which there is no solution? One wonders what prevents the government to take this situation seriously and do some thing radically to overcome the same within a time frame? Of course imports can serve to buffer the prices to some extent but this can at best be a short term measure. It is time that "Pulse Emergency" is declared in the country and a long term strategy is drawn to solve this in 5-10 years time. Sure food technology can find a way to expand the availability of protein products looking, tasting and nutritionally like traditional dals from oil seed meals which will go a long way to supplement the natural dals. It is possible that "designer" dals can be made at a fraction of a cost and such low cost products will naturally attract low income populations for their survival. If rice and wheat can be made available at highly subsidized rates, there is no reason why man made dals also cannot be included in this low cost "food basket". Technological challenge involved in creating dal like products can be squarely faced by the public funded food R & D agencies if a clear mandate is given with proper funding.


Friday, December 25, 2009


"Eating out" phenomenon is becoming common in India with high purchasing power of an increasingly "leisure loving" population emerging since the advent of economic liberalization in early nineties of last millennium. The family planning program to restrict the family size to 2+2 and the disintegration of joint family system have created millions of nuclear families mostly settling down in urban areas with smaller houses and kitchens where elaborate cooking is not practiced. Added to this, the modern house wife has very little time to devote to food activities with her time spent mostly for professional work that supplements the family income. Under these circumstances eating out frequently becomes an attractive and inevitable choice. In many cities the frequency of dining out is reported to have increased from 2-3 outings a month to 2-3 visits to restaurants every week.

With millions of eateries, serving hundreds of different items of food, attempting standardization, uniformity and safety can be a nightmare for any government. But consumer welfare demands that eventually these eateries as well as the foods they serve satisfy the customers without compromising on safety. Though no one knows precisely how many eateries are operating in India due to lack of dependable statistics, globally the restaurant industry is worth $ 800 billion employing 60 million people. Some estimates place Indian restaurant industry's worth at $16.7 billion or Rs 700 billion which is one fifth of what China has but this must be a gross under estimate considering the widespread operation of millions of dhabas, darshinis and small sized eateries spanning the country serving a population of almost 300 million living in the urban areas.

Eateries are generally graded either based on a star system or an 'A to C' scale or number scale or color coding through out the world and in most cases the grading reflects more on the culinary quality of foods served, ignoring critical aspects like hygiene and sanitation. A restaurant with A grade or category I or green color code is supposed to be safest and most ambient suggesting customers can derive maximum eating pleasure there. Interestingly cities like New York are reputed for their restaurants but the citizens there are reported to be not the happier lots compared to smaller places with no reputation for high end restaurants suggesting that eating out in good and reputed restaurants cannot ensure good quality life.

The move by FSSAI is indeed timely and appropriate considering that food service sector in India does not enjoy a good reputation and restaurant foods are invariably associated with bad hygiene and indifferent quality. While tourists from abroad are faced with the problem of choosing safe eating joints when they visit the country, discerning domestic tourists are also faced with the same piquant situation. Here is where chain restaurants score over others because of the reputation built by them due to their self efforts in providing good quality and safer foods to their customers. But such restaurants are far and few and a country wide system of grading needs to be put in place sooner than later in the interest of the consumers. Any grading by a government agency must be restricted to safety aspects leaving the gastronomic grading to the consumers who will flock those serving tasty and enjoyable foods.

According to the FSSAI proposal, announced recently, claimed as a 'Safe Food, Tasty Food' scheme, wants to set up specific guidelines for small restaurants and dhabas to upgrade their standard of food to international level.The scheme is expected to put in place a grading system that will rate food joints as platinum, gold, silver and bronze or A to D scale and the Quality Council of India (QCI) is supposed to do the accreditation after strict scrutiny of different parameters like quality of food, hygiene, service and a few others like hand washing, serving procedures, cleaning process, waste disposal practices etc. From the look of it the grading is not going to be mandatory as those aspiring for a grade will have to "apply" to FSSAI. The scheme appears over ambitious as it wants to give the benefit of grading even to dhabas and smaller eating joints. There may be a rush to get the top grade since it also means economic gains for those receiving good grades.

What is not clear in this novel approach is the logistics involved in translating the paper scheme into a practical, workable, reliable and sustaining operation. The primary responsibility of FSSAI is to set quality and safety standards for foods in the country and operate a workable system to implement them through state machinery with adequate qualified and experienced monitors in the field and sound infrastructure for food analysis. If FSSAI takes it work seriously, priority needs to be given to tackle the organized sector first and then spread its activity to informal sector players. Also it is not certain that the frenzy with which the scheme is announced on the eve of Commonwealth Games being organized in Delhi will be evident after the event is over, for its country wide implementation. The task is Herculean but can be achieved if there is sufficient seriousness, a long term planning, massive involvement of technical personnel and adequate investment. If any government thinks that such mammoth projects can be undertaken with the scanty staff it has for the purpose, the situation is ripe for a disaster! Probably there has to be a different approach involving accredited and reputed private agencies with earmarked responsibilities in different regions of the country to shoulder the responsibility of operationalizing the excellent concept initiated by GOI.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Packaging designers seem to be working over time in their "design" to impress the consumer through what ever means possible. The latest ploy is to use over sized bags for packing which in conjunction with nitrogen filling gives a bloated appearance and consumers are attracted to buy these jumbo packs without sparing any time to read the information on the labels. Legally no one can argue that such practices are not right but ethically it cannot be condoned easily. It is unfortunate that the Weights and Measures Act has done away with the provision in force that restricts the pack size to a particular range, making it easy for the consumer to recognize them. To day the industry can market any pack size and it is common to see an enormous range of pack sizes with no uniformity or standard weights that can be remembered by the consumer.

One can argue that the existing labeling regulations compel the industry to declare the contents either in weights or volume or in numbers in some cases. Unfortunately there is no compulsion to declare the price on a uniform unit weight basis thus giving considerable scope for playing around with the figures. Thus one can get the same product manufactured by different manufacturers apparently for the same price but containing different quantities. It is not fair to leave such a situation where alert consumers are left to fend for themselves to calculate the prices on per unit weight basis and such calculations become complex to do mentally as most the declared weights are not easily multipliable or divisible. Probably a time may come when house wives going to the market will have to carry a calculator to make the purchase decision!

This is not a phenomenon confined to India only. In some of the developed countries it is jokingly being said that,"even after being processed, breaded and frozen, fish continue to enjoy the feeling of the open ocean" because of the big size of the package containing ample air space! In a recent survey in a western country it was found that there were many products that filled as little as half their packages, a practice that, even given accurately listed weights, it may look deceptive for any discerning consumer.

There was a time not long ago when industry was striving hard to reduce the packaging cost by optimizing the design and using less of the packaging as far as possible without compromising on the functionality or the integrity of the package. Computer aided designs were once popular for evolving optimum shape of bottles and boxes that can be made using least quantity of raw materials. The unbearable taxation burden, prevailing then, which increased the proportion of cost of packaging in the final product price, necessitated such practices. The progressive reduction in taxes and duties on raw as well as finished products of the packaging industry has reduced the packaging cost from a high of 35-50% of the product cost to less than 10% to day which probably might have provided the incentive for the "bloated packs" phenomenon being seen widely in the food processing industry in the country. It is time the industry is made to declare also the prices per unit weight along with the pack price for the benefit of the consumers.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Though the "operation flood" program or the so called "white revolution" pioneered by National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) during seventies and sixties of last millennium pushed India to the top of the milk producing nations, the dairy industry has been more or less confined to handling fluid milk through various cooperative milk federations at the state level. Value added products have been far and few, restricted to butter, ghee, flavored milk beverages, ice cream, evaporated and condensed milk till recently. Of course there are some other low volume products, again pioneered mostly by NDDB, like Canned Gulab Jamun, Processed Cheese, Shrikand, Canned Rasagolla and others. In contrast the unorganized sector has been concentrating on three main semi-finished products viz Paneer, Khoa and Chaana, derived from fresh milk, prepared on a cottage scale and sold through local markets. These intermediate products are essential in making many Paneer based dish and hundreds of milk based sweetmeats by the unorganized sector and they usually have very limited shelf life.

Why the above important traditional milk products could not be brought into the main stream industry still remains a mystery, though one of the reasons could be lack of sustained R & D inputs for stabilizing their keeping quality and in designing appropriate and cost effective equipment for increasing productivity without adversely affecting the sensory attributes. Using conventional vacuum evaporators, roller driers and latest high tech scraped surface evaporators, Khoa has been made but its acceptability to the sweet meat makers and consumers was very low, especially with regard to flavor and texture. Many studies in the past have brought out the unhygienic and unclean way these products are made in open kettles, wrapped for marketing and traded in the local markets. Nothing much seems to have changed this reality during the last three decades.

Yogurt or more popularly known in India as Curd, a product universally claimed as a probiotic food world over is produced to a very limited extent in India and here again the milk federations have taken the lead to pack them under refrigerated conditions in polyethylene pillow pouches with limited shelf life. Refrigerated Yogurt in plastic tubs, produced using specialized Lactic cultures having thick consistency, is also available in some niche markets. The initiative by the Gujarat based Amul cooperative to develop and launch spiced butter milk is one of the most serious attempts to "technologise" a traditional product like "Chaas" but the product promotion and marketing efforts seem to be woefully inadequate with lot of uncertainties in its availability in many parts of the country. In all such endeavors, one can see the basic strength of the dairy industry in developing and manufacturing diversified products but intriguingly volumes refuse to rise in spite of the goodness of these products.

Entry of foreign firms like Elbit of Israel for establishing modern dairy industry in Andhra Pradesh with 10000 imported high yielding cows from New Zealand and diversification by some of the Indian players into traditional milk products like Yogurt give hope that value added products from milk will pick up critical business volumes in the near future. Punjab Milkfed's Verka brand Lassi and Kheer and Parag Dairy's "Fruit & Dahi Fusion" range of yogurts are expected to stir up the market significantly. The reported growth of 49% for Lassi and 97% for Kheer by the Verka brand in the last one year may be an indicator of the potential for their pan India presence. Yogurt and fruit combination using true fruit extracts from Mango, Strawberry, banana, Pineapple etc will be welcomed by the Indian consumer provided the price is right.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


India is universally recognized as the "spice country" because of the occurrence of a wide variety of spices, condiments and herbs which are used in culinary preparations by population across the country. However the major focus for the spice extractive industry has been on Chilli, Black pepper, Ginger, Turmeric and Cardamom. While Cardamom oil is a much valued flavor material for hundreds of food preparations and beverages, whole spice extractives, more commonly referred to as oleoresins, have become important ingredients for the food industry for incorporation in many processed food products. Oleoresins with standard and reliable "active constituent" concentration have several advantages compared to use of whole spices, hence the preference by the industry.

Oleoresin technology remained an exclusive possession of some multinational companies covered by patent protection till the monopoly was broken by India through the efforts of CFTRI, Mysore. Attempts to stifle this indigenous development were made by changing the product specifications to restrict solvent residue levels and banning some of the solvents found to be efficient in getting increased yields. It is a tribute to Indian scientists that they were able to overcome these hurdles and enabled Indian spice industry to attain dominance in the international market. With an export of 6850 tons of oleoresins last year India accounted for more than 70% of global supply in this category. To day India has the awesome capability to extract about 42 different spices to meet every demand from the industry.

Against the above background comes the news that India has imported 400-500 tons of Chilli oleoresins from China which is not known to be a major producer of spice extractives. Probably the reputation Chinese have in dumping industrial products at ridiculously low cost must have lured some users to import from China and the lax import procedures also must have helped in clearing the imports without necessary safety assessment, especially with respect to solvent residue in the product. Whether China has developed its own technology or copied from others or the product really conforms to international standards is a mute question but India must be ready to face the "Dragon" in the coming years through constant technology upgrade for which adequate R & D investment is inevitable.

The above news may be alarming because oleoresins are increasingly becoming important for pharmaceutical industry with many applications being considered effective in treating several human afflictions. Curcuminoids in Turmeric, Piperine in Black pepper and Capsaicin in Red Chilli, are the three major materials of commercial importance. These phytochemicals have been proved to be of excellent nutraceutical value capable of preempting or curing most of the disease conditions that human race faces to day. Recent revelation that curcumin and piperine are effective in killing stem cells that differentiate into breast cancer cells, is of prime importance to the medical community. Similarly capsaicin has been proven to be effective in treating prostate cancer besides an excellent resource to treat inflammation, pain relief, fight sinus infection, irritable bowel syndrome, burning body fat, reducing cholesterol and triglycerides, dissolving clot inducing fibrin, preventing platelet aggregation and protecting the heart, relief from arthritis, psoriasis and diabetic neuropathy.

If these claims are true a time may come when oleoresins may not be available to the food industry with demand from the pharmaceutical industry outstripping that from the former. Probably cultivation of crops like Chilli, B. Pepper and Turmeric may expand several fold as commercial non-food crops! Such developments may also spur synthetic organic chemists to look for synthetic routes to make these much valued substances. Already synthetic capsaicin is available in the market and time may not be far off when synthetic versions of others start appearing. The present preference for natural sources for internal consumption is the only constraint that stands in the way of synthetic analogs dominating the market.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Quality and safety of foods available to Indian citizens are assured by the Food Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI), the independent body of GOI entrusted with the above task. Earlier Ministry of Health of GOI through the Central Committee for Food Standards (CCFS) was doing the same job while Ministry of Food Processing Industries had some role through FPO, MFPO and similar other regulatory systems in overseeing some sectors of the industry. Major limitation for any centrally controlled agency to implement food laws is lack of an appropriate nation wide unitary machinery that can carry out the onerous task of monitoring the market as well as auditing the manufacturing facilities on a regular and continuous basis and dependence on the inefficient and inadequate infrastructure at the state level for execution. Only evolving suitable and appropriate standards, safety guidelines, protocols for punishment of offenders, legal aspects of administration etc are being managed by the Center. The results are there to see for every body with insignificant number of prosecutions being launched and pursued year after year with hardly any deterrent effect on the profitable "business" of adulteration

If the new pronouncements from New Delhi are to be believed the country's food laws administration is set for a major overhaul from February 2010. According the new scheme
being proposed, stricter quality and safety norms are to be introduced to prevent adulteration and contamination in some of the foods considered to be of high risk like milk, edible oils and meat. What is not clear is how the new system will be different from the one that exists to day. It is also claimed that packaged drinking water too would be covered which at present is regulated through Bureau of Indian Standards (BSI) which had evolved specifications for this product some years ago. What is intriguing is the statement that "the norms will focus on quality, safety and hygiene" as if, for the last 62 years of independence, these were not important considerations. One redeeming feature is the threat of canceling the licenses of offenders and imposing severe financial penalties on them, if and when proved of their offenses. But it is not realized that more than 70% of the industries in the food sector do not come under the purview of central licensing system.

The new enforcement system being considered also wants to lay down standards for slaughter houses, animals to be slaughtered, transportation of meat and its distribution. Retailers with more than 30-40 stores, Railways and Airlines catering, food services in airports, hotels, eating establishments and even schools are to be included for monitoring the quality and safety under the new dispensation.

With a handful of technical personnel at its disposal how FSSAI is going to accomplish the noble mission it has set for itself remains to be seen. The analytical laboratories which are an integral part of any quality monitoring system will not be able to cope with the increased demand that will be made once monitoring is taken up in right earnest. The woes of these laboratories are best brought out by the reports from the Municipal Corporations in Ludhiana and Ahmedabad where the existing facilities can hardly assess about 20-30 samples a day! There have been proposals to upgrade these labs some time back but lack of trained technical man power may still pose practical problems. Hoping that FSSAI has kept in mind these limitations before announcing the grand scheme, consumers can only wait with bated breath for the month of February 2009 to arrive for getting good quality foods with safety features beyond doubt!

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Plastics are making inroads into the machinery fabrication industry which normally prefer metals like steel and aluminum because of their strength, amenability to complicated designs and established fabrication technology. When it come to food industry most preferred construction material for processing machinery that comes in contact with the food is stainless steel. Use of plastics was far and few since they do not have many of the properties necessary for the fabrication of process machinery used by the food industry. Food grade plastics find use in limited areas like making containers, hoppers, conveyor belts etc which are not exposed to high wear and tear and temperatures beyond 100C. Of course Teflon is an exception as it has high temperature resistance and is one of the most efficient anti-friction materials available to day. But its fabrication potential is restrained as it cannot be melt processed and it has to be compressed and sintered to form useful shapes.

The advent of Acetal plastics has changed the scenario and this is one of the most sought after plastic fabrication material by the engineering industry. Acetal polymer, the polymerized formaldehyde or better known as Polyoxymethylene (POM) has every thing a fabricator can ask for and many more user friendly features. POM has superb inherent mechanical properties in respect of dimensional stability, strength, stiffness, low wear characteristics, low friction coefficient, , creep resistance, high surface hardness, low moisture absorption, dynamic fatigue resistance, inert towards aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons, alcohols, esters, gycerols, ketones, detergents, gasoline etc though it cannot resist strong acids. It can stand up to 93C temperature and can replace metal parts in many machinery through injection molding process. Complex geometric features can be achieved using Acetal plastic resins. Some of the machine parts that can be fabricated include conveyor belt components like links, pins etc, fabricated parts of many processing machinery, scrapers, turned parts, threaded components, moving mechanisms, pulleys, gears, bushings, springs, pumps etc.

POM comes as homoploymer or copolymer with slightly different characteristics and food industry prefers copolymer material because of features like increased thermal stability, better elongation properties and toughness. These properties are achieved by addition of ethylene oxide at random to the homo polymer chain. With a temperature range for operation between -40C and 80C, tensile strength of 8800 psi and a specific gravity of 1.41, Acetal plastics are here to stay as an ideal fabrication material for a wide spectrum of industries in the coming years. Coating with Teflon can further improve the performance in terms of non-stickiness and friction reduction.

Two properties now being incorporated in Acetal plastics are metal detectability with conventional detection equipment and antimicrobial features which make them much superior to other fabrication materials. Foods being processed in machinery with parts made of Acetal plastics can be guaranteed to be free from contamination with particles of POM up to a size of 3 cubic millimeter if metal detection step is part of the manufacturing system. Similarly the antimicrobial properties against bacteria, mold and yeast make Acetal plastics ideal choice for fluid food contact applications. Safety approval by USFDA for its use by food industry probably will see its wide scale use in the coming years by the food machinery industry all over the world.


Friday, December 11, 2009


The "Vision 2015" has now become the official version of GOI proclaiming the intention of the country to give a boost to the food processing sector. The contour of the projections contained in the Vision document was known for some time but with the Lok Sabha taking cognizance of the plans projected by MFPI, it is time to get down to the "bolts and nuts" details for achieving the dream targets set forth,to be achieved in 5 years

According to the statement made by the Minister for Food Processing Industries, GOI, Mr S. K. Sahay in the Lok Sabha, his ministry's "Vision 2015" plan envisages tripling the size of the processed food sector by increasing the level of processing of perishables from 6 percent to 20 percent, an herculean task indeed. It further projects to increase the value addition from 20 percent to 35 percent and boost the share of Indian food exports in the global food trade from 1.5 percent to 3 percent within 5 years. There is a fair amount of word play in the document using niche words like "integrated strategy", "vision to promote agribusiness", "strategy and action plan" for the food-processing sector, etc which do not mean anything.

Five year period is too short to achieve any thing substantial, especially in a country like India where a conducive atmosphere for unhindered growth of food industry still does not exist. A more appropriate approach would have been to evolve a "Vision 2025" mission with sufficient provision for periodic mile stones to be reached. There is a perception amongst foreign investors that too much bureaucratic control and unbearable red tapism make India a miserable destination for investment. Putting in place a transparent and truly free environment with minimum centralized control can only provide sufficient impetus for growth of any industry. Government must confine itself to only protecting the consumer from economic exploitation and the dangers of unsafe foods. Provide the right atmosphere and see how the private sector will respond and flourish.


Sunday, December 6, 2009


Indestructibility of plastic materials which are used extensively in almost all activities involving day to day life has become one of the biggest challenges facing the world to day. It takes more than 700 years for some of the plastics to be removed completely from the environment and the pollution potential of millions of tons of plastics discarded after use is mind boggling. Besides, the feedstock used viz, petroleum products, from which most of the plastics are manufactured, is not perennial and can run out in the foreseeable future. The recycling option, if practiced world wide on a large scale, could have reduced the magnitude of the problem of disposal and it would not have been so burdensome as it is to day. Unfortunately not even 5% of the used plastics enter the recycling route, increasing the accumulation of waste plastics every year to astronomical levels.

Present level of technology for making polyethylene uses 1.75 kg of petroleum material to get 1 kg of the end product and the process of conversion entails high energy making plastic truly an energy intensive product, besides contributing to significant green house gas emissions. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) based packing materials are produced to the extent of 30 million tons annually and the films made from this plastics has unique properties making it a darling of the entire spectrum of industries. Its ability to withstand temperature as high as 120C for limited time and 110C continuously and suitability to blow molding process to manufacture hard bottles and hollow goods, make it a universal choice by food and allied industry. Almost 8 million tons of HDPE are used in making bottles used by dairy, beverage and pharma industries. Though PET bottles have lately come to the fore, HDPE is still preferred by many industries.

Polylactic Acid, claimed to be a green plastic, is made from lactic acid obtained by fermentation but it has become a controversial issue, the claim being contested by some experts. Cellophane, made from regenerated cellulose obtained from wood, cotton, hemp, bagasse etc, could be truly termed a green plastic and it has the advantages such as low air permeability, oil and grease resistance and imperviousness to bacteria and other destructive vectors but suffers from its unsuitability for heat sealing. Besides it may not deserve the green label fully if the CO2 foot print of cellulosic sources used for its production is taken into consideration.

Ethyl alcohol, produced by anaerobic fermentation of sugar sources by yeast is one of the most versatile industrial raw materials man has ever known. Its oxidative product acetic acid is another industrial base from which a number of products are made. Using ethyl alcohol for the manufacture of HDPE is a new route for making polyethylene that can rightly claim to be "green" but commercial production may still be uncertain due to economic factors that still weigh in favor of petrochemical based plastics as long the latter is available cheap. It goes to the credit of an enlightened player like Tetra Pak of Sweden to come forward to start using green plastics made from ethyl alcohol. Ethylene is first produced from alcohol which is then polymerized using special catalysts to prevent branching and yield HDPE.

Brazil, one of the largest producers of sugar from cane, converts a significant portion of its crops into alcohol, mainly to make biofuels either as it is or based on blends with petroleum fractions. Its bold initiative to divert a part of its alcohol production to make HDPE is considered most welcome. In a landmark agreement Tetra Pack, largest producer of cartons for packing milk and beverage products, is supposed to buy about 5000 tons of alcohol derived HDPE per year, 5% of their annual requirement, from the Brazilian petrochemical company Brakem which is slated to start production of the so called green plastics by the end of next year. According to Brakem, alcohol based HDPE production would reduce overall green gas emission significantly compared to traditional process.

What effect such large scale diversion of sugar cane based alcohol to HDPE manufacture, will have on biofuel program or on global sugar prices remains to be seen. Countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil are being blamed for massive deforestation to reclaim land for cultivation of commercial crops like Oil Palm and Sugarcane and endangering the environment by reducing the extent of carbon sink provided by these forests. How such a dilemma can be addressed must be the concern of the whole world.



Man's continuous endeavor to unravel mysteries of Nature and unearth resources that will boost or protect health, has brought out a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, spices, herbs, cereals etc with varying claims regarding their health value besides the inherent food value. Amongst the food constituents that gained prominence during the last two decades for their special ability to improve or protect health, antioxidants were the most studied because of their supposed role in neutralizing oxyradicals generated at the cellular level which accelerate cell destruction and cause debilitating diseases like cancer in humans. Polyphenols present in many foods are admired for their ability to work as antioxidants and some of the rich sources include tea, cocoa, coffee, fruits like strawberry, grapes, pomegranate, grapefruit, apple, kiwi fruit and lychee, many vegetables kale, broccoli, artichokes and brussel sprouts, nuts like pecan, walnut and sunflower seed and cereals such as oats and barley.

Though there has been lot of excitement regarding the beneficial role of polyphenols as a group of phytochemicals, many uncertainties cloud the claims by many commercial manufacturers of polyphenol ingredients extracted from natural sources. While many of these polyphenols have been found in many studies to be of proven health value, the findings have not been consistent due to many reasons. Lack of uniformity in technical analysis of various polyphenols present in different foods, large molecular weight and complex molecular structure of these compounds, insufficient knowledge about their fate in the GI tract of human beings, difference in the behavior of different polyphenols in different foods in different individuals consuming variable diets and extent of circulation of effective polyphenols in the blood etc make it difficult to predict their effect precisely.

Against the above background, promotion of Lychee fruit as a miracle source of polyphenols with 'fat bursting' properties, needs to be viewed with some caution. According to the available information Lychee polyphenols, extracted from the fruit and processed into smaller molecular weight polyphenols, supposed to be more readily absorbed in the body, are capable of reducing waist size by 3 cm, reducing the sub-cutaneous fat area by 15% and cans significantly lower the BMI besides improving insulin resistance amongst those pone to metabolic syndrome. Women with expanded waist line are believed to be susceptible to development of dementia in later stages of life and Lychee may become extremely popular with these subjects, if the claims are proved beyond any shadow of doubt.

The process of reducing the polyphenol chain length, called oligomerization, is supposed to generate monomers and smaller molecular weight oligomers which are absorbed 3-5 times more efficiently. Whether the fat bursting property comes from Lychee itself or by the process of oligomerization is not clear. Of course Lychee is one of three top polyphenol containing fruits, others being strawberry and grapes. Also not known is whether consuming the fruit as fresh or as extracted juice will confer same benefits. However, if the claims are true, probably Lychee may become the most sought after tropical fruits in the world.

Oligonol, a commercial product made from Lychee extract, is being promoted as an elixir of life with some supporting evidence and probably may become a GRAS chemical because it is obtained from a natural fruit which has more than 2000 years of history, being the favorite fruit of the Tang Dynasty of ancient China. Nutritionists and health pundits always maintain that, for best effect of any phytochemical in the body, blends of natural foods containing different nutrients are the most desirable route and isolated ingredients may not have the same effect always with all the people. Oligonol from Lychee must be subjected to further scientific scrutiny before considering it as a universal health supplement.


Saturday, December 5, 2009


That the scientists, big and small, cannot resist photo-ops for getting easy fame is borne out by many sensational development news which later turn out to be a damp squib. Incomplete development, half baked technologies, recycled past works and fictitious patents are becoming a part of the scientific world and their credibility is at its lowest ebb to day. In India one can see even the heads of R & D agencies vying with each other to project themselves as super achievers based on R & D works of their colleagues which are still incomplete with questionable claims. Here is the latest example of an Indo-American scientist claiming to have developed technology for making bread and biscuits from cotton seed flour and predicting that cotton seed flour would be available in the market in 10 years, sufficient to feed 500 million people!

It is known that cotton linters, the short fibers, covering the seed coat is used by the ice cream industry as a source of cellulose but it is limited to a minuscule of the industry that makes specialty health foods. Cotton seed is a major by-product during the processing of cotton into textiles and for every kg of cotton fiber extracted 1.6 kg of seed is obtained. Cotton seeds are a good source of edible oil, about 21% and moderate quality protein, about 23%. If world has not seen proper exploitation of this material as human food, it is due to the presence of a toxin by name gossypol in the seed which can harm the liver and the heart in humans, if consumed. Gossypol, a polyphenol compound, also affects non-ruminant animals precluding the use of cotton seed or its flour in most types of animal feeds.

About 4 decades ago a physical process ( Dorr Oliver Process), more popularly known as Liquid Cyclone Process (LCP), was developed to remove gossypol from cotton seed flour without affecting the quality of proteins present and a commercial unit was established in Hubli, Karnataka which could not take off due to poor demand from the food processing industry. Even the interest evinced by the Food and Nutrition Board of GOI to use gossypol free cotton seed flour as a protein source in foods developed for applied nutrition programs could not translate into any practical application. Availability of other de-oiled seed flours from soybean and groundnut at lower price did not help the cause of cotton seed flour at that time. But the attractive color, an acceptable nutty flavor and relatively high protein content can still make cotton seed flour and its concentrates a good ingredient for food industry provided it is freed from gossypol. But it can be only as a supplementary source, being deficient in Lysine and Methionine, the two essential amino acids human body cannot make.

Bt Cotton varieties which have become popular in some countries are reported to be gossypol free but the genetically modified versions do not find favor as far as food use is concerned. Incorporation of the boll worm killing gene into the seed makes it a suspect candidate for use in foods. But major cotton producers that include China, India, the US, Uzbekistan and Brazil have adopted Bt Cotton probably because of its high yield potential. In the US same volume of cotton is produced to day from one third of the land that was cultivated two decades ago. Of course the world production of cotton estimated at 25 million tons can yield about 3 million tons each of proteins and oil. Gossypol is now being investigated for its properties to counter act malaria, as a contraceptive and development of anti-cancer drugs and such an approach if succeeds can make the technology for edible cotton seed flour more viable.

There are international specifications for edible grade cotton seed flour with upper limits prescribed for gossypol. Regarding the claim that bread, biscuits, break fast cereals, pancakes, etc can be made using blends of cotton seed flour and wheat or corn flour, it may be technically feasible but to make the products acceptable to consumers may not be that easy. While technologically cotton seed flour of edible grade can be made as per standard specifications, the cost factor may still hamper its widespread use by the industry in the foreseeable future, even if acceptable food products are developed.


Thursday, December 3, 2009


In a country like India where vegetarian food consumption is predominant, more by economic compulsions rather than preference, milk and legumes are the major sources of proteins in the diet. Cost wise milk proteins cost almost twice that from legumes and affordability is a factor to be reckoned with. Even the grain legumes which command almost 2-3 times the price of cereals are in short supply in the country, necessitating imports in large quantities. Most preferred legume in the country is the pigeon pea or Tur which is an important component of curries in the South as well as the North. There are others like Bengal gram, Green gram, Masoor, Dry pea, etc which are also used, though not every day. These legumes are normally milled into splits for making many traditional preparations though whole legumes are used directly also.

The normal daily protein need is estimated at 50-60 gm per day and more than half of this is met from legumes, balance coming from cereals and milk in a typical vegetarian diet. For consuming 25-30 gm of proteins a day, average legume consumption has to be about 125 to 150 gm for a person. Whole country's requirement can be met only if the annual availability is about 50 to 55 million tons where as in reality the production in the country never crossed beyond 20 million tons leaving a wide gap that needs to be bridged. With India becoming the diabetes capital of the world, importance of legume as a low glycemic food will assume more importance in the coming years. The current escalation in prices of legumes is scandalous with tur dal price crossing the Rs 100 per kg mark recently, probably because of large scale hoarding by traders, making it beyond the reach of most lower middle class consumers in the country.

Efforts in fifties, sixties and seventies of the last millennium to wean people away from legumes to some extent and meet their protein needs, oil seed cakes with more than 50% proteins in them were investigated as a supplement to the legume proteins but very little came out of such attempts as consumer acceptability became a problem. Advent cooker extruder technology made it possible to produce dal looking and behaving like natural dal. Work on leaf protein concentrates, single cell proteins and other non-conventional protein sources just became a part of history, again on account of poor acceptability. But further research on these aspects and more supportive state policies may yet resurrect this option in future under more compelling circumstances of large scale scarcity and unbearable economic burden on account of high prices.

Suggestions have been made regarding the possibility of exploiting wild and underutilized legumes which have emerged as cost-effective alternatives to the unreliable supply of animal-based protein in some of the developing nations where meat poultry and fish form important part of the diet. It is true that common legumes such as pigeon pea are available in limited quantities and it is unlikely the demand for these protein-rich sources, even if they are reasonably priced, can be met under the current production scenario. Focus is now on some of the natural but wild legumes which are not being adequately exploited. According to nutritionists some of these legumes that include Sesbania, Mucuna and Canavalia possess high nutritional value besides having some medicinal value also. But how far these obscure legumes which may be nutritionally similar to traditional legumes can be grown under the current agricultural practices and uncertainties regarding the economics, may still hamper any organized plans to encourage their cultivation. The processing parameters that can give good quality splits and doubts regarding consumer acceptability are other issues to be considered.

Increasing the protein content in staple cereals like rice and wheat through biotechnological intervention may be another long term option and necessary research tools are available with the scientists but in what way such "tampering" at genetic level will influence consumer acceptance is an issue that needs to be kept in mind. Unless the serious pulse crisis that faces India is addressed with high priority, the nutritional status of a large proportion of the population may reach crisis dimension in the coming years.


Thursday, November 26, 2009


Food retailing and catering form an important part of a country's landscape and both touch the lives of people practically every day. The fact that they have to carry out their business with an eye on profit does not absolve them of their commitment to be fair and equitable to the consumers. Governments are supposed to keep vigilance over the functioning of these sectors in order to prevent avoidable harm to the citizens due to negligence, unsafe practices and deliberate fraud on the part of the food handlers. Every retailer and caterer think that, once a license is obtained from the local authorities for operating in approved premises, nothing needs to be done further to improve the business atmosphere or better the quality of products offered. Government is shirking its responsibility by not instilling in them the discipline expected in handling food materials scientifically to avoid food related mishaps.

As a model one can look at a country like the US where the food handlers know what is expected from them which is codified in unambiguous terms. A voluntary Food Code has been existing for long and it is revised every four years incorporating new developments and knowledge in food safety field. Though it does not have any mandatory force behind, it still serves as a model code and reference document for sensitizing the retail and food service segments of the food industry for safety compliance. It is true no one forces any one to follow the guidelines strictly but many use it voluntarily as a guide while some adopt it in toto. The Food Code should provide authoritative information on time and temperature control for various foods for storage, cooking and serving to ensure they do not favor growth of harmful bacteria before reaching the consumer.

There are many gray areas in food safety information which need to be revisited by food scientists and sanitation experts for evolving a comprehensive resource and reference document for the benefit of catering industry and the retailing sector. Very few members of food trade and catering service have adequate awareness about the dangers lurking in their premises in the form of microbiological and other contamination which can affect the health of their customers. Qualified and experienced personnel are neither willing to be employed nor being employed by this industry for various reasons. A comprehensive Food Code containing a series of "do's" and "don'ts" in simple language, in English as well as regional languages, will go a long way in educating the industry to improve their service dramatically. The Food Code must contain information regarding distinguishing good food from bad ones, avoiding infestation of raw materials, favorable conditions for harmful bacteria to grow and preventive regime, food storage, tips on hygiene and sanitation, safe life periods of freshly cooked foods, etc.

Lead has to come from the Central Government in formulating such a Code for adoption and implementation in the country. The question is, who will "bell the cat" since it is a multi disciplinary job involving microbiologists, toxicologists, food scientists, catering specialists and sanitation experts. Probably an institution like CFTRI is best suited to undertake such a task for which needful, time targeted mandate has to be given by GOI. Such a task, if undertaken and completed satisfactorily in time, can be more useful to the nation than the pedestrian research being carried out during the last two decades in the name of food industry. Sooner it is done, better it will be for the country.


Sunday, November 22, 2009


Biological control of harmful vectors in foods is a dream many scientists have, as it does not leave any harmful residues of chemicals used commonly to sanitize the products. Most famous example is the potential showed by Bacillus thuringensis in controlling pests in food grains. Discovery in 1917 of bacteriophage, viruses that stay within the bacteria,and kill others that cause diseases in humans is another example. Consumption of pre-biotics is also intended to increase the population of "friendly' bacteria in the GI tract providing protection against smaller population of infectious bacteria. How ever the revolutionary findings that good bacteria always exist along with bad ones and they can be used for getting rid of the latter under favorable conditions, may have potential in improving the present agricultural practices by incorporating such a biological "warfare" component to prevent contamination at field level. .

Thanks to some smart work carried out by a group of scientists in the US on controlling Salmonella contamination of tomatoes which created a furore in that country recently, a new avenue seems to be opening for using friendly bacteria to destroy Salmonella. Though the finding is mainly in tomatoes, the concept should work for many fruits and vegetables which carry contamination from the field all the way to the kitchen, posing risks to the unsuspecting consumer. Through laborious field work these scientists were able to isolate some bacterial species from the tomato farms which were found to be effective in killing harmful pathogens like Salmonella, Listeria, E.coli O15:H7, though Vibrio was found to be resistant. Similar work in baby carrot field yielded some bacteria with similar properties. If similar work is taken up seriously many "helpful" bacteria can be unearthed with potential to counteract food contamination due to many pathogenic organisms.

The trail blazers in biological control were the plant protection scientists who could develop many biopesticides for reducing use of chemical pesticides in agriculture. Biopestide preparations are to day are available based on Agrobacterium, Bacillus, Psuedomonas, Streptomyces, fungi such as Ampelomyces, Candida, Coneothyrium and Trichoderma. The pioneering work by Japanese in developing the bacterial preservative, Nisin and Diplococci from Lactic streptococci and similar products like acidophilin, lactoacidin, lactolin etc from Lactobacillus species have already established the potential in using bacteria and other microorganism to fight against food borne pathogens.

The bacterial "warfare" strategy for Salmonella deploys live bacteria instead of any extracted or purified fractions with antibacterial activity and unlike bio-pesticides they target pathogenic bacteria, instead of the pests and insects. How such isolated good organisms can be deployed remains to be seen. It could be a treatment of the produce with a suspension of the good bacteria to make the hostile ones ineffective or application of the suspension in the field itself as pre-harvest operation. Probably some more work is needed to fine tune the technology. It cannot be considered a fool proof process as those pathogens gaining entry into the produce through cracks and crevices are immune to the action of the 'basher' bacteria. None the less it is a welcome break through that has potential for adoption by the fruits and vegetables growing community in future.


Saturday, November 21, 2009


Chilli happens to be an integral part of the spice bank in any kitchen in India, being a regular culinary ingredient in the diets of the people. The 'hot' sensation one experiences during food consumption is due to presence of chilli in such preparations. Chilli can come in either fresh green form with limited shelf life or in dried red version with long life. While green chilli has not much of a commercial value for food industry, red chilli is processed into powder, blends with other spices or oleoresins for use by the food ingredient and pharmaceutical industries. The 'hot' sensation felt in the oral cavity is contributed by the capsaicinoids, numbering about half a dozen with varying 'heat' generating capacity. Pure capsaicin, a while crystalline or waxy substance of hydrophilic nature, is supposed to have a 'heat' potential measured in terms of Scoville Heat Units (SHU) and a milligram of capsaicin is equivalent to 15 SHUs.

India boasts of the hottest chilli in the world grown in Tezpur region, known locally as Naga Jolika capsicum with 8,55,000 SHUs while the next hottest is Red Savina Habanero with 5,77,000 SHUs. Guntur Chilli, commonly used in the South has a mere 53,250 SHUs! Jalepino Pepper, considered too hot for the western consumers has just 5000 SHUs. Capsaicin to gether with dihydrocapsaicin constitute 91% of the capsaicinoids in Chilli. Capsaicin and anthocyanins present in Chilli make it a popular industrial commodity and these two fractions can be separated with the latter used in food and allied industries as natural colorant. Besides the food use, capsaicin is a much sought after natural substance for its medication value as a counter irritant in controlling pain sensation in people suffering from peripheral neuropathy. Most of the pain balms available to day has capsaicin as the main ingredient at levels between 0.025% and 0.075%. Capsaicin is also being promoted as possible nutraceutical for preventing or treating some of the diseases like prostate cancer.

Capsaicin caught the attention of the world recently when it was approved for use in patients suffering from postherpetic neuralgia ( PHN) as an 8% patch, in the US and Europe. The treatment works by targeting certain pain nerves in the area of skin where pain is being experienced. Clinical studies have confirmed that PHN pain can be reduced for up to 12 weeks following a single 1-hour treatment. Up to 4 patches may be used and patches may be cut to conform to the size and shape of the painful area. It is a locally-acting, non-narcotic medication that is not known to cause drowsiness or any drug-drug interactions. Treatment can be repeated every 3 or more months as warranted by the return of pain and the simple Chili may become the symbol of a better quality life to millions of people suffering from the above ailment. Even more exciting is the possibility of using capsaicin as an analgesic to treat post-surgical and osteoarthritis through a single injection at the site of pain, giving relief for long periods. With Chilli having such healing powers, it may become the darling of the pharmaceutical industry with food industry becoming a minor user because of cost factors.

Advent of VNA, Vanillamide of n-Nonenoic Acid, better known as the synthetic capsaicin, is proving to be a stumbling block for the Chilli processors as it is available at a price, one fourth that of natural capsaicin with practically same properties.
Though VNA is not being recommended as an ingredient for internal medicines, industry finds it much more economical for manufacturing ointments, creams and patches for use as a part of topical treatment protocol. Spice processors will have to change their strategy by concentrating on high SHU chilli varieties for processing and evolving new technologies that will drastically reduce production cost of natural capsaicin in the coming years.


Friday, November 20, 2009


Jan Ahar, which is the new name given by Indian Railways to the 50 restaurants being set up in some important stations, probably means people's food and obviously it is targeted at the railway passengers who have the time and inclination to spend some time in an eating place before boarding or after alighting from a train. According to what has been reported, these restaurants are designed to make eating a pleasure with a congenial environment, yellow colored serving tables with green chairs and uniform wearing servers. The prices for various preparations offered at these outlets have also been fixed. Considering that most of the railway restaurants presently serving the traveling public in various stations do not have any uniform standard, the new move may bring in certain transparency in food catering.

One of the fundamental questions that is difficult to answer is whether railway passengers travel to reach their destination or eat and enjoy good food. It is understandable that during long haul travels, access to food is important and most of the major trains have delivery service or pantry cars for meeting the needs of passengers. There are many ordinary trains where passengers travel in crowded coaches, some time even standing and probably the eateries in railway stations do serve a purpose but whether the proposed Jan Ahar outlets can meet their needs is doubtful. Availability of a couple of minutes for snacking or less than 15 minutes for meals during halts at certain stations, does not allow any passengers, especially those traveling without reservation, to relax and eat, with apprehension upper most in their minds that train may leave while eating. A quick grab is always preferred under such circumstances and what is expected is clean food of tolerable quality..

Lot has been said and written about the Food Plazas established in many stations involving private caterers and no one knows for sure whether any thing has gone wrong or the type of response from the passengers. Jan Ahar seems to be positioned to hit the food plazas because their business is going to be adversely affected. The flip-flop in policies with change of ministers at the helm, does not bring any laurels to any body and elbowing out private players cannot be justified after inviting them to set up shop earlier. Obviously Jan Ahar can serve foods cheaper because it is run by the IR and unlike the Food Plazas, it does not have to pay heavy royalty and other charges for the facilities within the railway property. The scrapping of private catering system in running trains is another example of a government agency reversing the PPP policy apparently without any logical reason. According to IR sources, these outlets will be "managed" by IR but food will be sourced from private contractors, whatever that means. It is not clear how IR can fix the range of prices for the foods served at Rs 10 to Rs 35, if outsourcing is going to be done. Since the first outlet is going to be launched soon, one has to see how far this idea is going to be useful to the passengers.

A woman being the Railway Minister, it may be more appropriate if women's cooperatives are formed to run these food centers and the example of Lijjat Papads shows what such organized bodies can achieve if motivated. Added bonus is that the food is prepared and served by women who are supposed to have better culinary talent. IR must realize that it can also serve the society through such programs. While the intention behind the project, viz, to serve better and cheaper food, is laudable, the management and logistical restraints may still "derail" the plans. Consumer can only hope that "Jan Ahar" does not become synonymous with "Pashu Ahar", during implementation and operation of the new proposal.


Thursday, November 19, 2009


The Food Summit which just concluded has been termed as a ritual without achieving any thing substantial and repeating the same platitudes expressed in the last Summit, viz halving the number of hungry people in the Planet by 50% before the year 2015. The gross disinterest evident amongst the well to do nations is reflected by the scanty attendance of the heads of these countries. The disappointment is writ all around and the African nations were left wondering about their future with global aid not readily forthcoming to the extent needed. The statistics of hunger can make any one scary about future. According to the FAO one in six denizens in the world go hungry and their absolute number has swollen to 1.02 billion as per the latest count and 17000 children are supposed to be perishing every day due to food insecurity.

Lack of global initiative and global unity in the world is the root cause of putting in place a permanent mechanism for hunger alleviation of a durable nature. It is vital that both the developed world and the developing countries come together and extent support for a global initiative in the war against hunger. Developing countries themselves need to do more to support their farmers, especially in the African continent. Richer countries and U.N. agencies have to be very proactive in increasing funding directly to the third-world country's farmers who need quality seed, efficient quality fertilizers and enhanced access to credits. According to the FAO, the estimated financial aid that is required works out to about $40 billion for investment in agriculture annually to combat hunger which is equivalent to 17 percent of all official development aid instead of the current 5 percent

What is galling is that no specific amounts have been committed during the Summit creating some doubts about the future of aid programs originating in the developed countries. While in absolute terms aid amounts are sizable, the relative proportion invested in agricultural sector needs to be increased, if increased aid flow does not materialize, sacrificing or postponing non-food investments. Late Norman Borlaug often expressed his view that what Africa needs is a Green Revolution similar to that occurred in Asia in sixties and seventies of the last millennium and this is where investments ought to be made.

One of the critical issues is the over eagerness of multinational companies, backed by rich countries to sell GM technologies to African countries which cannot be considered viable under the conditions prevailing in the continent. It is inexcusable for the First World to tie economic assistance to GM technology in the name of modernization of agricultural sector in these poor countries. The input intensive and restrictive seed generation properties associated with GM technology, combined with uncertainties about yield and crop failure make the farmers weary about the new technology. Economic assistance must come with no strings attached, if the recipients are going to be really benefited. In the interest of a peaceful world and congenial growth atmosphere, cooperation, understanding and mutual appreciation amongst all nations are prerequisites.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Success of a consumer product depends on the ability of its manufacturer to convey to the consumer the features of his product and convince him about its USP. Intense competition in the market puts pressure on the manufacturers to make inflated claims regarding the superiority of his product. As long as these claims do not cross the line of verifiable facts, they can be acceptable. The label on the food packet has sufficient provision to print the facts about the product and information such as the identity of the manufacturer, quantity of contents, ingredients, manufacturing date, best before date, nutritional profile, MRP, method of preparation and any other relevant but truthful facts. This can give a fairly good idea to the consumer based on which first time purchase is made. Repeat purchase will happen only if consumer is convinced about the overall quality of the product and the reasonableness of its price.

While Food Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) is vested with the authority to enforce food laws prevailing in the country, its implementation arm is the concerned state which is supposed to be equipped to inspect, collect samples, analyze them and prosecute if they do not conform to the standards. How ever neither the FSSAI nor the state administration has adequate infrastructure and needed personnel in quality and number for doing a decent job. Recent reports from Ahmedabad and Ludhiana regarding large scale adulteration of food by traders expose the underbelly of FSSAI!

While monitoring of food safety and quality as it exists to day is a sham, what goes on in the advertisement area is a hoax perpetrated by some industry on the unsuspecting consumers. Circumventing regulations that bar printing unsustainable claims on food labels, small screen has become the playing field for some of the unscrupulous industry players to influence the mind of the consumer through saturated advertisements, some time involving icon personalities from sports, film world and even wayward members from the scientific field. Promoting a food claiming faster brain growth, growing stronger, sharper and taller, increasing body stamina, etc will naturally influence any mother or house wife in her purchasing decision.

It has taken the government so long to take notice of this obnoxious behavior on the part of the food industry is some thing alarming about its commitment to protect the citizens from unfair exploitation. In a recent announcement by GOI, a resounding declaration was made that it was going to come down heavily on food industry making `tall' claims about the benefits of their products

through advertisements. Further GOI wants to evolve a specific code to be followed by the industry which will restrict misleading and deceptive claims made on the effect of products on nutrition, health, exceptional intelligence or physical ability. In case of a violation of the code, the FSSAI wants to take action by publicizing the fact through the media which is considered a strong deterrent for potential violators and there is also a provision to impose a penalty of Rs 10 lakh. Lack of a legal framework in the country for regulating advertising standards on food and beverage companies, probably tempts manufacturers to indulge in such devious practices. The Advertising Standards Council has in place a voluntary code for advertisers in general, with no specific guidelines for advertising by food and beverage companies and it is rare that any one is pulled up for such unethical activities.

Consumer will patiently wait to see the words from FSSAI being translated to action in the coming days and if these utterances do not provide the needed deterrence, consumers may eventually rise against the industry as well as the government agencies for defaulting on their responsibilities to protect them from exploitation and dangers of unsafe foods..


Tuesday, November 17, 2009


In a tragic incidence of food poisoning that occurred in a remote village in Karnataka on November 16, 2009, seven persons were reported to have been killed while four others were hospitalized. The bare report by a news agency mentioned that the poor villagers ate puffed rice served to them where after one women died immediately while four lost their lives while being taken to hospital. Another two died in the hospital subsequently. Probably these deaths occurred within a span of few hours. The episode happened in Konkal village of Shahapur Taluk in Gulbarga district which affected several people and some one seems to have decided it was due to consumption of the traditional puffed rice based preparation "mandaal vaggarane". The knee-jerk reaction of the authorities was to announce ex-gratia payment to the victims, forget the entire episode and wait for the next tragedy to happen!

Several issues regarding this unfortunate incidence are baffling. Why only a total of 11 people were affected out of which 7 died, varying in age between 10 and 60 years, all from one family? Did the local hospital conduct any Post Mortem on the bodies? If food poisoning is indeed the cause, what is the type of poison that caused death so fast? Any thing has been done to trace the source of 'poison'? A dry material like puffed rice with such a low water activity cannot be a good medium for fatal microbial infection and even if so, such infections take time to develop "lethality" in human beings.

A thorough investigation involving police and toxicology experts can only bring out the real facts in this case as puffed rice with low moisture content is one of the safest foods available and as a traditional food material it has a long shelf life. True the process of making puffed rice is confined mostly to cottage scale sector and involved heating of conditioned paddy in sand medium in small batches. Though modernization efforts were made some years ago, very few artisans are willing to change their traditional practices. Possible reasons for the fatalities could be intentional homicide, voluntary suicide, accidental contamination of paddy used with poisonous agri-chemicals, storage of puffed rice along with poisonous substances or unintentional addition of poisonous ingredients during preparation of the mandaal vaggarne which was consumed by the victims.

The casual way the news was reported shows how indifferent our safety monitoring agencies at Delhi and the states are to the sufferings of citizens. Contrast this with a similar episode reported from Minnesota in USA in April last year when puffed rice and puffed wheat made by a local manufacturer caused food poisoning to just 23 people in 14 different states of the country which was immediately traced to Salmonella agona by DNA finger printing! This infection causes nausea, vomiting, fever, diarrhea, stomach cramp and can be life threatening for people with poor health and weakened immunity system. The response from the health authorities was spontaneous in pinpointing the cause, identifying the causative agent and recalling millions of packs of these products from the market as a precaution. In India we have an "Authority" at Delhi, supposed to be "looking after" the food safety concerns in the country which must lead by action in taking up such cases for detailed investigations to avoid future recurrence of such episodes, in stead of "sermonizing from the pulpit". Some hope!