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!