Thursday, April 1, 2010


Food fraud is considered to have taken place when a premium food product is substituted by a cheap one or when the label declaration does not truly reflect the quality of product inside. In extreme versions of fraud, the lives of consumers can be at jeopardy due to the poisonous nature of the substitute or adulterant used. This is not an evil confined to any one country or region and ever since the advent of humans in this planet, food fraud has been in vogue, mostly for easy and quick economic gains. World-wide the economic dimension of food fraud is placed at $ 50 billion, though no one is sure about the accuracy of this figure. Probably the value could be for food frauds that take place in rich countries where fraudsters target high value foods for committing this crime.

While 7-10% of all foods are considered fraudulent in western countries the corresponding figure in India is any body's guess. GOI statistics claim that 15% of all samples "picked up" for testing are adulterated but the monitoring agencies at the state level do not have the wherewithal for testing more than a few hundred in a year in a country where 1.2 billion people live. A major difference in India is that fraudsters or "adulterators" do not spare any food for economic gains and are least bothered about the health risks posed by the foods they churn out. High value products like Cheese, Meat, Alcoholic beverages, Cod liver oil etc are favored targets in western countries while simple foods like puffed rice, cooking oils, sugar, coffee, tea, mustard, milk, ice cream, honey, spices, dals, vegetables, asafoetida, ghee and butter etc are frequently adulterated in India.

Monitoring frauds in foods is beset with insurmountable practical problems and ultimately the onus of avoiding such foods falls on the consumer. But how far the consumers in a semi-literate country like India can assume this responsibility remains to be seen. Added to this, the disorganized retailing where most commodities are sold loose (unpacked), consumer has no means of finding out whether they are really genuine. As the menace from this evil acts assumes alarming proportions, technological innovations in detecting such frauds are adding to the armory of the testing agencies which were not available earlier. NMR imaging, use of Radio Isotopes, genetic methods like polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and DNA finger printing are new tools that can detect adulteration in many foods though they cost heavily to procure, maintain and operate. May be it is too far fetched to imagine that the current dilapidated understaffed testing labs can ever be able to have such facilities under their roofs. FSSAI, the exalted agency with "authority" to punish fraudsters does not seem to be able to identify adequate culprits because of weak field level monitoring activities and insignificant number of food samples picked up in the market place for testing. Even in a few cases booked, the culprits live out the delays in the judicial system and come out unscathed!

Why pick on the poor FSSAI which any how has no expertise, experience or coherent thoughts on the subject, being a thorough bureaucratic organization when the much hyped FDA of the US or other similar agencies in Europe and developed countries are being hauled up for their "inefficiency" in combating the incidence of food frauds in their countries. Many food frauds have been documented in fruit juice, olive oil, spices, vinegar, wine, spirits and maple syrup, and seafood products. Victims range from the shopper at the local supermarket to multimillion companies of impeccable reputation. True, such deception has been happening since Roman times, though it is becoming the focus of attention now with more products imported under the free trade regime and a tight economy heightening competition. Interestingly organized food industry itself is becoming increasingly critical about the regulators blaming them for not doing enough to combat this social evil because the fraudsters are eating into their business.

Is there no way to face this "safety crisis"? While organized industry can exercise some self control with their brand value at stake, what about those millions of informal sector players in food processing who do not comer under the vigilance umbrella? "Hang them from the nearest pole" policy is easy to advocate but difficult to implement in any decent democratic society, though countries like China or Saudi Arabia may be able to make food fraudsters pay with their lives for the crimes committed by them. In India there is a feeling that punishments for food crimes are extremely small and further the distinction between willful and accidental adulteration in awarding punishment complicates the situation enabling most of the violators get away with a "rap on the knuckle", insufficient to be a deterrent. Compulsory registration of all food manufacturing activities, stringent monitoring of processing and retailed products, strengthening the infrastructure through several fold expansion and modernization, ban on loose vending of any foods, accelerated judicial system and product liability to compensate automatically to consumers affected by fraudulent foods are some of the minimum needs to respect the rights of the citizens to quality and safe foods.

1 comment:

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