Saturday, July 31, 2010


Many reasons are cited to explain away the modern trend of over eating and the resultant effect on the human body as manifested by obesity and many life style health disorders like CVD, Blood Pressure, Diabetes etc. But what causes over eating? There does not appear to be any consensus on this aspect amongst scientists and sociologists dealing with this phenomenon. Food industry invariably takes the blame for manufacturing foods with high calories, fat, sugar and salt which are liked by the consumers, most of them not well informed about health implications of a diet not balanced with respect to the nutrients required for sound health. In the modern society, pursuit of money is an overwhelming avocation and any business established with resources will naturally expect decent returns for the investment deployed. Naturally food industry business also expects attractive returns which depends on the acceptability of the products made by it to the consumers. The driving force for business is the consumer demand and the dictum "consumer is the king" guides the type of products manufactured by the industry. If the food industry has been following the consumer trend and develop foods to meet that demand, probably it cannot be faulted entirely for the present alarming situation.

There are plenty of suggestions from time to time to arrest the present trend, none of which is likely to achieve the desired result. Taking a leaf out of tobacco industry some want to impose high taxes on foods which are not considered healthy but this strategy has not stopped smoking completely though the population of smokers has come down significantly during the last two decades. Same is true regarding the efforts to discourage alcoholism through making drinking illegal many years ago which resulted in driving the industry "underground" and the product becoming more expensive. If some of the opiates command astronomical prices in the underground market, it is because of the ban on use of drugs in many countries but this has not stopped the spread of drug addiction. If past experience is any guide, taxation may not make much of an impact on the desire of consumers to eat tasty foods irrespective of the damage that can occur. In spite of these constraints, industry is taking cautious steps to change the consumer perception of food through "engineering" new products with better health credentials. Modification of recipes by reducing salt, lowering sugar, increasing fiber, progressive bringing down of fat, including useful nutrients like omega-3 fats, antioxidants, phytochemical ingredients etc all point to the new direction the industry is taking to give alternate and healthier options to the consumer in the market place.

Ultimately it is the human mind that needs to be "trained" to avoid unhealthy foods, which in turn can bring out dramatic changes in the attitudes of food processing fraternity and the restaurant sector. Psychologists feel that change in human behavior can be achieved only slowly and right environment needs to be created for bringing about such a change. Some of the on-going efforts include more revealing label declarations, continuous consumer education programs, mandatory exclusion of ingredients of doubtful safety, making consumers aware of the health implications of restaurant foods, etc. Probably a jarring note on this issue is orchestrated by a section of the food industry which holds the consumer responsible for to day's food-linked health crisis because of lack of minimum physical activity resulting in accumulation of unspent calories in the form of fat in the body. While this may be true, it is an undeniable fact that human activity cannot be regimented, especially in a democratic society.

The unconscious response of human mind to environment is borne out by a recent study where it was found that women who lived near a supermarket tended to have a lower body mass index (BMI), meaning that they were less likely to be obese, than those closer to a convenient store. Convenience stores generally do not carry healthy foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables or whole-grain products. Similarly those residing in areas where restaurants are nearby were more prone to have widening waist lines and closer the restaurants higher were the BMI readings of the residents. These findings are important because of their significance in planning human habitats. Modern dwelling complexes in many parts of the world are designed to deliver more convenience and less physical discomfort to the residents which may not be desirable considering the long term implications of such mindless planning. Though the independent spirit of human beings must be admired, in to day's world some discipline, especially in eating practices, needs to be inculcated. Urban planning to subtly train the people to avoid sedentary life style through better planning, along with early stage training at childhood can be expected to progressively improve the situation over a period of time.


Thursday, July 29, 2010


Foods offered during traveling in trains or planes can at best be "edible" and it may be too much to expect high end foods during journeys. The logistics involved are so awesome that access to safe foods should itself be considered a plus point. Imagine the practicality of preparing adequate foods for more than 1500 passengers in a long distance train, especially if the travel takes more than 24 hours. Those who travel by trains expect hot foods to be served with high eating quality besides ensuring their safety. In India railway passengers in many long haul trains are served hot foods by private caterers as well as the in-house catering group of Indian Railways (IR). In a huge operation like the one undertaken by IR some degree of dissatisfaction is bound to be there but allowing the passengers to express disgust at the quality of foods served is some thing IR must avoid and it is in this context one has to understand the recent decision by IR to take over catering in all trains by the zonal railway units as an in-house operation. How far this will ameliorate the situation remains to be seen.

The old system of attaching pantry cars to important trains provided the passengers with some comfort and convenience and it is unfortunate that IR in its relentless pursuit of profit found it expedient to discontinue the pantry car system some years ago. One can only remember with nostalgia the old comfort of traveling cross country journey enjoying meals and snacks at any time with access to the pantry car through the vestibuled trains. Forming of the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation sounded the death knell for the pantry car system. IRCTC, after setting up a series of Base Kitchens in different centers was doing a reasonably decent job till it was divested of its responsibilities recently by IR accusing it of negligence and mismanagement. Such unilateral action cannot be expected to improve railway catering as the malaise is much deeper than what IR thinks.

The quality of food, its safety, presentation, delivery and customer-end service, all could have been improved if a thorough review was made to identify the reasons for the innumerable complaints filed by thousands of passengers during the last couple of years. While quality is important, more emphasis needs to be placed on minimum taste threshold acceptable and guarantee of safety and this can be achieved only through large scale deployment of experienced and knowledgeable personnel. The preparation environment in base kitchens, quality of raw materials used, mode of preparation, hygienic and sanitation aspect at all levels are not as per standard norms for large scale food preparation facilities. Besides there is no over seeing authority for bringing to books defaulters as railway catering is beyond the reach of licensing and safety surveillance authorities in the country. IR does not seem to have a clue regarding these issues.

Of course the quality of foods served in trains and planes cannot be expected to be same as home-made preparations or those offered by standard restaurants but the traveling public has a right to be assured that at leas they are free from filth and contaminants and safe with no risk to lives. While a country like India can take consolation that its technological reach and capabilities are growing slowly and there is considerable scope for improvement in future, look at the condition else where in the world. While scrutinizing the standard of catering in the aviation sector in the US where three private caterers operate 91 kitchens that provide more than 100 million meals annually to U.S. and foreign airlines at U.S. airports, several deficiencies were observed reflecting the deteriorating safety environment in these catering facilities. Some of the defaults noted include storage of food at improper temperatures, use of unclean equipment, employing workers who practice poor hygiene, presence of roaches, flies and other infestation vectors. It is to be expected that the industry would deny such wrong doings because the operating system is designed to ensure food safety though at individual levels there might be occasional violations.

Air travelers have every right to expect foods of quality comparable to restaurant foods because of the high cost budgeted for catering service by major airline companies. While the foods served by the airline companies in India are considered satisfying to most of the passengers as these are sourced from some of the best hotel chains in the country, many of the US airlines do not serve food free any more because of the present economic crunch and even for a payment only standardized unappealing food packs are offered.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Fear of pathogens contaminating the foods, especially meat based products, is becoming a major endeavor for safety authorities in many countries and billion of dollars are being invested not only to pursue newer sources of pathogens but also for evolving fool proof techniques to destroy them before gaining access to the consumer's dining table. Meat industry, the most affected by this relentless pursuit in identifying new species and their variants, is left with no choice but to follow the dictum from the authorities, reasonable as well as unreasonable, to ensure their survival investing vast resources. That many small players are not able to follow newer and more stringent safety regimes, forcing to shutter their enterprises, is another serious matter that must receive attention by the regulatory bodies.

Take the example of the much dreaded E. coli O157:H7 and billions of dollars being spent for its total eradication which the industry had to bear. Millions have been spent in research and the in-plant installation of multiple, science-based 'hurdles' to prevent the bug from entering the food supply chain while another fortune was squandered on legal disputes, courtroom expenditure losses and the recall of millions of pounds of meat costing the industry easily jumps into a few more billions. There have been innumerable seminars and serious technical meets devoted exclusively for highlighting the dangers of this pathogen in many international fora funded by the industry to really understand the seriousness of this problem. In spite of these frequent interactions amongst those involved in food safety issue, no clear understanding has emerged regarding the extent of danger by an ordinary organism like E.coli, which was considered very innocuous once upon a time, treating it at best as a marker organism for the likely presence of pathogens associated with fecal contamination.

While the much maligned O157:H7 has been extensively researched and over publicized, mostly in the US, what bothers the industry is the recent hue and and cry raised regarding the likely dangers posed by some other lesser known strains of E.coli on which focused attention is being bestowed by researchers. There appears to be six new strains of this organism which have been identified recently as responsible for a few isolated cases of illnesses in some parts of the US. It is known that hundreds of strains of E.coli live in the intestines of people as well as cattle and other animals but six strains have been found to produce a toxin similar to that from O157:H7 which probably could have contributed to a portion of about 30,000+ non-O157 E. coli cases reported annually. What is causing consternation amongst observers of food safety dynamics is the entry of trial lawyers into this murky area smelling massive money for suing the industry. The truth is that there is not enough known about which are the potentially deadly strains and testing protocols for them are shaky at best. There are not even standard testing protocols for these little known organisms and before finger pointing at the industry the testing methodology needs to be standardized.

Mandatory standards for these pathogens may be years away because in spite of sustained efforts since the last three years, the scientists have been able to evolve reasonably reliable screening procedures for only four of the six suspect strains. The reluctance to impose mandatory standards or banning these organisms in foods has to be understood against the above context. A ban at this juncture may be premature and can create a huge backlash in a meat industry suddenly charged with identifying and eliminating something for which there would be no reliable tool to do the job. The industry seems to have taken a stand that the present food safety strategies in place in processing plants at present are effective enough to take care of new pathogens also.
But the industry cannot wish away the fact that the six strains of E.coli have so far caused 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in America each year, making them a health hazard that must be faced


Friday, July 23, 2010


Increased sensitivity to safety aspects of processed foods is forcing the authorities in many country to make the regulatory controls more stringent, the intention being to preempt incidences of food related health episodes. Inspection of the manufacturing facilities is a powerful tool available to bring to books erring industries and ensure necessary precautionary measures are taken to prevent food contamination with pathogenic bacteria. While such rigid control measures are laudable, what effect it can have on the industry in general is not adequately considered.

Generally country laws require that most food sold to the public be made in licensed facilities open to government inspectors. But as more people become interested in buying local food in western countries due to some perceived advantages some countries make exemptions for amateur chefs and small processors who sell homemade goods at farmers markets and on small farms. These exemptions are without controversy as it is considered a compromise on the resolve to ensure food safety. The need to balance the desire for food safety with at least some modicum of control calls for a workable strategy that is equitable to all the take holders. It does not require too much intelligence to be aware of the burden stringent food safety regulations, designed for big commercial food handlers, can have on small-time players who just want to make a living by selling a few products in which they have some strength. But it is also true that without regulation, the public is at risk for food-borne illnesses.

The famous pickle bill in Wisconsin state in the US is an example of the compromise governments make in accommodating the humane aspect of regulatory controls. as per these laws, small vendors are permitted to sell high-acid canned foods, such as pickled fruits, salsas and sauerkraut, without a license and it is considered a calculated risk because acid foods are easily spoiled by bacteria. But the law is clear regarding low-acid canned goods, such as pickled eggs, which typically carry a higher risk of contamination. In tune with national regulations generally a license is granted for a food facility only if sound refrigeration and ventilation systems are installed which can cost tens of thousands of dollars,besides meeting with strict cleanliness standards and subjecting to regular inspections. Enforcement of HACCP and other high tech safety control measures being considered for mandatory enforcement for meat industry is predicted to shutter at least 50% of the slaughter house operations in the US because of high investment required for establishing necessary infrastructure.

In India same dilemma faced the regulators years ago when small fruit processors manufacturing hardly about 10-50 tons an year were required to take license and there was resistance from the industry, again because of cost considerations. But a compromise was struck wherein these cottage scale processors were required take license which gives the regulators at least the address of the manufacturers of products coming to the market though standards of inspection and prerequisites for license were diluted to accommodate the special needs of this sector. It is another matter that only fruit and vegetable processing industry is required to take a manufacturing license from the federal government while others come under the local municipality jurisdiction. Inspection and deterrent actions are conspicuous by their absence because of many reasons, some technical and others financial.

Big players invariably complain about the investment they have to make in establishing safety monitoring facilities and experienced technical personnel which will add to their overhead cost, eventually reflecting in the consumer price. Such a situation also gives small processors significant advantage in competing with their counterparts from the organized sector, though latter has the scale of economy benefit because of large production volume. There was a time in India when hundreds of products were "reserved" for manufacture by small industries only, another advantage enjoyed by them though this discrimination is not in vogue now. Probably policy wise this might have been a positive factor that could bring many small processors under the umbrella of a large firm with mighty mark muscle so that the lack of selling expertise with the former is neutralized for mutual benefit.


Thursday, July 22, 2010


Search for non-calories sweeteners is a continuous one as most of the sucrose substitutes being permitted to day for use in foods are not considered 100% satisfactory. Any eligible sugar alternative should have ideal characteristics like zero calorie, no after taste, easy to use, good stability at normal and elevated temperatures, no discomfort to consumers, safe for regular use and as low cost as possible. Low calorie sweeteners are gaining popularity because of historical weakness for sweet taste amongst humans and unhealthy attributes of sugar made from sugar beets and sugar cane. Weight watchers and diabetic population are constantly looking for low calorie sweeteners that can give them sensory satisfaction without affecting their health in one way or the other. Food industry has an obligation to fulfill the demand for products with low calorie load to meet such emerging need in the market. A vexing issue that bothers both the industry as well as the industry is which sweetener is the best for their use.

Xylitol, a sugar alcohol known for decades as a low calorie sweetener, did not find favor because of its low sweet "intensity" as gram for gram it is equal to sucrose and if the sugar use is to be curtailed drastically, Xylitol, probably may not be able to fill the resulting void. Xylitol is derived from fibers of fruits and vegetables involving extraction, hydrolysis and purification. Denmark is the major manufacturer of Xylitol though China and Russia are close on their heels with cheaper versions of the same product. Xylitol provides only 9.6 kC per 5 gm while Sucrose has 20 kc for the same amount. Where Xylitol has over whelming advantage is in its glycemic response as it has a very low Glycemic Index of just 13 as against 100 for glucose which means its absorption is slower and it will not create glucose surge in the blood immediately after its oral consumption.

Besides its main role as a sugar substitute, Xylitol also is fighter against dental caries and its regular consumption through products like candies and chewing gums is recommended by Association of Dentists from more than a dozen countries and scientists working in this area. Anti microbial activity of Xylitol in the oral cavity is based on the inability of infecting bacteria to metabolize 5 carbon sugars and alcohols and consequent inhibition of their growth around the teeth. There are thousands of products in the market world over containing Xylitol with claims of maintaining dental health but whether they contain sufficient amount to exert this beneficial effect is highly doubtful since for therapeutic effect one has to take about 10 gm per day. No toxicity has ever been reported consuming Xylitol though occurrence of stomach discomfort, especially at high levels of consumption, is reported. An area of some uncertainty is what effect Xylitol will have on the GI tract bacterial make up when consumed regularly as it has some inhibiting property against many bacteria.

Recent claim by an American company about development of Xylitol powder for use exactly the same way as natural white or brown sugar reflects the growing interest in this sweetener. According to them, their product branded as Ideal(R) is "world's first and only low-calorie powdered sweetener", made with the natural ingredient xylitol while its Ideal(R) Brown can measure, cup for cup like brown sugar for many operations including perfect for baking. Performing as well as brown sugar in muffins or marinades or sprinkled on oatmeal, Ideal(R) Brown is claimed to have the texture and taste one expects from traditional brown sugar. Stevia which is being promoted by large companies, after its clearance by the FDA of the US recently is considered a major competitor for Xylitol but latter does not give the peculiar after taste associated with Stevia.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Ice cream is a product simply irresistible for young as well as old consumers. But many are excluded from consuming this product either completely or most of the time for health reasons because it is one of the most calorie-rich and fat rich products invented y humans. Food technologists, while learning the basics of the subject, always remember that a good ice cream can be made only if the fat content is very high in the mix that goes for its manufacture. Besides ice cream also contains high sugar levels making it tempting, especially to children. A fantastic range of flavors and processing aids make the product highly desirable to all normal consumers.

Food regulations in many countries do not allow any product to be called an ice cream unless the fat content is not less than 10% while premium ice creams in the market can contain more than that, about 16%. It is a paradox that these standards evolved decades ago when fat and calorie rich foods were not available in plenty in the market, have not been changed in spite of mounting evidence being found about the role of these types of foods in deteriorating health conditions of more than 30% of the population world over. Continuing innovations by food scientists have made it possible to reduce the fat content very significantly without the consumer being able to find the difference in texture or taste.

It is as a compromise move that regulators have coined a new name for low fat ice cream products called "frozen yogurts" or "frozen desserts" and broad specifications have been put in place for them for use by the industry. Fat substitutes are now available that can mimic the action of fat in giving a smooth texture and high over run during the making of ice cream like products and frozen yogurt is accepted by even the normal consumers because of the presence of live pro-biotic cultures in them, considered healthy in different ways. A good pro-biotic yogurt should have a minimum of 4 million live cells of microorganisms with pro-biotic credentials. Frozen desserts do not have this advantage and their popularity is not as wide spread as frozen yogurts.

The food industry in the US has been in the fore front of innovations because of the overwhelming predominance of processed foods in the regular diet of people there. New products with pronounced health orientation are continuously being introduced in the market to cater to over weight and obese people who form more than 30% of the total population. While many such products do not provide nutrition or health attributes claimed on the label, there are a few which have to be admired for their ingenuity and consumer friendly features. The whole range of low fat, low salt, low sugar products now being marketed provide an alternative to those consumers who are sensitive about the health protecting quality of foods they consume. Recent spate of frozen yogurts amazingly are formulated with virtues like low sugar, zero fat, low sodium, zero cholesterol, suitability for lactose intolerant people besides containing different species of pro-biotic organisms.

Frozen yogurts constitute more than 20% of the ice cream market in the US and some of them like Pinkberry, Tutti Frutti, Yoforia, Red Mango, Blush, YogoBliss, Yogen Frug, TCBY, I Cant Believe It is Yogurt, Only8Frozen Yogurt etc have already established good market. The most recent one, the "Only 8" Frozen yogurt made from whey, fructose syrup, whey protein concentrate, maltodextrin and pro-biotic cultures has zero fat and just 7 gm fructose with a caloric load of only 80 calories per 100 gm of the product. As fructose has a lower GI the product has the additional advantage of being suited to sugar compromised consumers. In India frozen dessert has been in the market for quiet some time though it is a minor product in the ice cream family but it is possible that given some fiscal incentives by the government for promoting frozen yogurt which has health advantages, this category of products may yet become popular eventually.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010


The never ending debate about the desirability or otherwise regarding the entry of global retailing investors into India has several dimensions. The reluctance on the part of GOI in allowing foreign investment in retail sector has to be understood in terms of the unpredictable consequences such a policy change may have on the fate of small retailers and grocery stores that serve millions of families across the country. According to varying estimates the number of such retailers many be between 4 million and 8 million though precise statistical data are not available. A typical grocery store under to day's prevailing condition in the country may be carrying home about Rs 500 to Rs 1500 per day though there are big stores also with annual turn over of a few millions rupees. The fact that they work on small margins is well known and the income from a shop may have to support a family of 4 or 5 which reflects the bitter reality that is obtaining in the country. If these "shop owners" are to shut down in the wake of massive investments by large international retailing giants, what will happen to them is an imponderable question with no ready answer.

As far as the consumer is concerned such large retailing facilities can be expected to lower the prices of many house hold goods including food if international retailing practices are introduced. Present manufacturer driven price setting may have to yield to retailer driven price regimes and eventually there may be an equilibrium amongst the stakeholders each protecting its interests. One of the concerns of policy makers is whether these displaced "entrepreneurs" will end up as workers in the large retailing net work as they lack basic skills for any other alternative line of business. With less than 5% of retailing business in the hands of large organized companies at present, no significant turmoil is noticeable in the unorganized sector. Besides the smartness of the local shopper may not allow the organized players to take any vice-like grip on the retailing business. During the last 5 years when super markets and Malls became standard fixtures in metros like Mumbai, Bangalore and others, the small shops still survived and there is a feeling, not substantiated by any study, that consumers are returning to their traditional shops because of the personalized attention they receive and product return "favor"extended to many regular clients. This advantage may be short lived because large retailers are expected to introduce "product accountability and return" practices sooner or later as in vogue in other countries.

Added to the above, entry of whole sale business giants like Cash and Carry has made the task of small retailers easy as they have reliable source to procure their needs and sell the same after covering their margin in their localities. Whether these wholesale business firms will switch over to retail mode once the present policy is reversed remains to be seen but it may be unlikely. Many organized retailers operating presently with majority Indian investments are also offering may items at low cost and they can also be tapped by the small bit players for furthering their business prospects. This is especially true when it comes to shops in the rural areas where more than 70% of India's population live. Rural shops, mostly operated by families stand to benefit by such developments. Under the equilibrated conditions it may work out to a co-existence of small and organized sectors sharing the business in 50:50 proportion ushering in a "live and let live" era.

The apprehension that large retailers may arm twist the food processors to bring down the prices is frequently being raised and some of the retail giants are being blamed for dramatic decrease in prices of items like soft drinks in their outlets because of their clout with the manufacturers. A can of Coke costs in the US, where giant retailing has a stranglehold, less than that prevailing in many developing countries. This may pose some dangers to the small retailers who may not be able to wangle out such outrageous concessions from the food industry. Similarly price manipulations also may become a standard feature of large retailing operations to "kill" the local shops as with deep pockets former has enormous sustaining power. As for the processing industry, the days of brand power are bound to be numbered with retailers dictating the buying prices and the terms of transactions.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Foods are veritable sources of many phytochemicals with properties for protecting health as well as ameliorating disease conditions in human beings. If food industry is blamed to day for many of the disease conditions afflicting modern society it is mainly due to the changes in the type of food consumed and the way it is consumed. According to health experts the dramatic change in the eating habits has brought along with it many unanticipated problems affecting the lives of people, especially those with sparse time for making foods at home. Probably eating foods prepared at home from raw materials which have not undergone any appreciable processing can always be healthy because a house wife is not equipped to process them into ultra refined products with practically all healthy nutrients removed.

Cancer is one of the most dreaded diseases and contracting any form of cancer is literally getting a death warrant though modern medical science has come up with many new innovations to retard and even cure some forms of cancer, especially if they are detected at early stages. Being a silent killer that visits its victims and show any tell tale symptoms only late in its development, prevention is always considered prudent through consuming a diet rich in vegetables. The richness of almost all vegetables in terms of minerals, vitamins, fiber and health protective phytochemicals is well documented. Cruciferous vegetables like Broccoli, Cabbage, Kale, Cauliflower and Brussels sprouts contain some phytochemicals that has anti carcinogenic and anti oxidant activities as brought about by hundreds of animal studies, cultured cell studies and some human trials. The group of chemicals coming under glucosinolates can have many beneficial effect in human body if consumed regularly in raw or semi cooked forms.

The enzyme Myrosinase which is present in cruciferous vegetables can convert the glucosinolales like glucobrassicin into metabolic products like Indole 3 Carbinol (I3C) and diindolyl methane which have anticancer activities. Sulforaphane and Selenium present in these plants have antioxidant activities to prevent damage to cell DNA, one of the causes for many metabolic disorders in human body. The effect of vegetables like Broccoli and Brussels Sprouts on inhibiting breast cancer has received much attention during the last couple of years with increased interest evident lately. Statistical data on incidence of cancer amongst predominantly vegetarian population do indicate their relative freedom from this disease and this has been cited as one of the most compelling reasons for paying more attention to cruciferous vegetables as a potential warrior to fight the disease.

Many studies have cited the usefulness of a diet rich in cruciferous vegetables in protecting from many forms of cancers such as that affecting breast, uterine lining, lungs, colon, cervix, prostate glands etc though all these findings were made in laboratory experiments. I3C one of the enzymatic breakdown products from Myrosinase action, has been found to be capable of arresting the growth of G1 which is linked to early stages of human reproductive cancer cells. Besides these vegetables also were found to be rich in antioxidant activities and have good antiatherogenic effect. Though these are good sources of 1C3, the mode of consumption can make a difference to the formation of the active principle through enzyme action. Most consumers, especially in countries where salad eating is not very common, vegetables are invariably cooked before consumption destroying the enzyme and there fore do not derive full benefits from 1C3. If adequate clinical data confirm the role of 1C3, many of the cruciferous vegetables like Broccoli and Brussels Sprouts may move out of the dining table to the medicinal bowls of the pharmaceutical industry. Already IC3 preparations are being peddled as food supplements with many unproven claims and availability of extraction technology to get pure fractions of 1C3 may still entice the drug industry to come out with anti-cancer drugs based on it after carrying out necessary human trials.


Monday, July 12, 2010


What is ailing Indian agriculture? Do the rulers in Delhi have any clue regarding the reasons for continued stagnation in food production in spite of the massive subsidies being showered on the farmers? Here is a classical treatise, reproduced verbatim, on the subject by one of the respected commentators, specialized in studies on food in India.

"Hybrid seed is a lucrative market. There was a time when close to 2,000 brands of hybrid seeds of cotton were being sold in Andhra Pradesh. Interestingly, at least one of the parents in most of these hybrids (you need two parent lines to develop a hybrid) was common. I wonder how can so many different kinds of hybrids (and all with higher productivity) could be developed with one parent being common. In other words, most of these popular brands were nothing but duplicates being sold under different names".

"In the absence of any price regulation, farmers end up paying a hefty price for the hybrid seeds, and often end up being fleeced. The price variation is so wide that one does not know why the state governments refuse to put a stop to what is nothing but cheating. Take for instance the prices of vegetable hybrids. Prices of tomato hybrid seeds vary between Rs 475 and Rs 76,000 a kg; cabbage seeds are priced between Rs 5,840 and Rs 22,260; and capsicum between Rs 3,670 and Rs 65,200. The hybrid seeds of cotton and rice too are prohibitively expensive compared to the improved varieties in the market".

"What if the hybrid seed fails, does the farmer get any compensation? The answer is no. In Andhra Pradesh, in 2005, after large scale failure of genetically modified Bt cotton seeds in Warangal district, the state government asked Mahyco-Monsanto to pay compensation. The company refused to do so and instead moved the high court saying that the government was trying to harass them. The case is still pending before the court. This is not an isolated incident. In several states, farmers have failed to get adequate compensation for crop failures resulting from spurious hybrid seeds".

Is there no solution to the food problem that is facing the country? Is the Indian citizen destined to be dependent on imported "dals" and edible oils perennially, exposing him to the international price fluctuations similar to the situation that exists to day with regard to fossil fuel? Why not the ruling elite leave the politics on the sideline and think about the country and its future for a change? Debating on the subject like GM crops or hybrid seeds is not going to carry the country far and now is the action needed to deal with this critical problem facing the country. Unless the farmers are organized into a cohesive force through cooperatives or corporate entities with at least 1000 hectares of land that will enable them to harness optimum inputs at minimum cost, raising agricultural productivity is a mirage that the country will have to chase for years to come!.


Sunday, July 11, 2010


India is "fortunate" in that they do not have to worry about the complications involved in returning products under any "recall" regime so common these days in some of the countries where there is over dependence of the citizens on processed foods from the industry. Imagine a situation where the industry has to recall 12 million glasses suspected to be containing toxic substances, 28 million boxes of breakfast cereals, 15 million pounds of spaghetti or a baby products company recalling 2 million cribs or an automaker recalling millions of cars suspected to be defective. The recent recall of 70000 boxes of Mozzarella cheese in Europe and millions of dollars worth of products ranging from chocolates, ground beef, peanut butter, spinach, tomato, egg etc can be devastating for the food industry tarring its image very seriously and raising strong doubts in the minds of consumers regarding the ability of the industry to ensure their safety.

Product recall is bedeviling the food industry, with increasing vigilance and monitoring of the quality and safety of foods put on the market shelves, under the watchful eyes of the authorities vested with the responsibility of food safety. It is to be expected that with HACCP system and various other quality management tools available to the industry, the incidences of costly product recalls would come down dramatically but the ground reality does not bear out this optimism. Last year's peanut contamination incidence in the US is estimated to have caused a loss of $ 70 million to Cadburys by way of recall of some of their products containing the contaminated peanut butter. Supply chain uncertainty and traceability logistics pose critical challenges for the food processing industry to have 100% certainty about the safety of the products they manufacture in their facilities however good they may be. This calls for evolving a method to insulate the industry from financially debilitating product recall episodes and prevent going bust in the process.

The food industry's product recall horror stories in some of the western countries are well documented. The estimated $350 million lost by spinach industry in 2006 and the recent recall of alfalfa sprouts in the US are considered serious business disruptions that can keep any industry on its toes. Imagine the condition of the managers of this industry who have to live a life of great uncertainties losing sleep worrying over the contingency of a recall and consequent financial implications to the company. Risk management is touted as a crucial tool to anticipate such contingencies and survive any product recall crisis. Many in the food industry are unaware of the true exposure their organizations face and the risk lurking at every point along the supply chain from field to fork, both before and after a claim occurs. The details of contract language and business relationships can also increase complications. In addition to a detailed contract analysis with growers, suppliers, packers, production and distribution partners to identify contingent responsibilities, a comprehensive insurance audit could, probably save the affected company substantially in the event of a product recall. But such insurance coverage is neither available or even if available the premium can be a debilitating financial burden on the industry

In countries where consumer rights are inalienable, legal fraternity seems to be finding opportunity for expanding their business by way of providing services to both the industry as well as to affected consumers. The gigantic insurance industry is also a gainer as it is becoming increasingly difficult for the industry to avoid litigation. The over dependence of the people on processed foods in countries like the US can be faulted for such a "no-win" situation and those nations indulging in "sloganeering" for value addition to foods may learn a lesson from the real life situation in many countries where processed foods, supposed to be with high value addition, have a strangle hold on the population. Though value addition does boost the GDP of a country and generates employment, it also contributes to cost escalation for many day to day foods, affecting those with limited buying power. A balance has to be struck between the two opposing extremes.


Friday, July 9, 2010


India is blessed with hundreds of thousands of small eateries working across the country serving millions of people every day and due to their low visibility they are rarely counted with the national census failing to generate any realistic data about them. The classical viability factors do not apply to their operations because there are eating joints serving hardly a few dozen customers in some of the remote areas in the country with annual turnover not even crossing Ra 10000! The fact that they are still surviving speaks volume about their resilience and expectations. Probably some of them are being run to supplement family income and are managed by the house wives in their own kiosks, either part of their house or nearby. Beyond this category there are also small scale regular restaurants serving limited variety of foods for satisfying the local clientele with minimum investments and facilities. Those earning more than Rs 100,000 per year and beyond are mostly located in Tier I, II and III cities. There are no accurate statistics regarding the number of restaurants in the organized sector working under the license system that prevails in the country but a fair guesstimate would place it at over a million making it a strong player in the business landscape of the country.

Why is that new entrants in the catering sector popularly referred as fast food companies are receiving so much attention while their desi counterparts existing in this country for decades continue to be neglected? How is that no domestic investors are interested in establishing purely Indian fast food network that can compete with those originating from outside the country? Why not the Reliance or the Tatas or the Bharti or the Godrej or other industry giants take interest in knitting together a national chain that can offer ethnic foods to millions of Indian customers who cannot appreciate Hot Dogs or Burgers or other types of western foods popular with educated and foriegn-exposed youngsters? There can even be new entrepreneurial interest in this area if adequate technical back up is forthcoming for converting the ethnic foods into formats that can be served and consumed easily. Classical examples of Taco Bell, Chipotle, Pizza Hut, Barista, KFC, McDonalds all successful players in western fast food category should provide sufficient motivation to Indian investors to enter this sector.
Entrepreneurial spirit, wherever it is manifested must be applauded. There are many lucky inheritors of industrial empires and building on what is inherited is also some thing deserving admiration. In the catering sector there are many corporate ventures which are shining examples of excellent managerial competence and far sighted vision. Chipotle, the restaurant chain that specializes in Mexican foods, is one of the marvels of modern era as it has been able to carve out for itself a significant clientele base in the US and spread its wings beyond the borders. It recently celebrated the opening of its 1000th restaurant which is not a small achievement measured by any yardstick. The saga of this 17 year wonder can be an excellent model for any new entrepreneurs wishing to be counted amongst the big business players. With annual turn over of more than $ 126 million and employing about 22000 people Chipotle is a model that can be emulated in India.

Since opening the first restaurant in 1993 Chipotle was able to achieve many milestones in its brief existence. Their USPs include
serving naturally raised meat (from animals that are raised in a humane way, never given antibiotics or added hormone and fed a pure vegetarian diet), the first to commit to local and organically grown produce, and the first to serve dairy (cheese and sour cream) made with milk from cows that are not treated with the synthetic hormone rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone). Its focus has been on making great tasting food with more sustainably raised ingredients available and affordable for everyone making customers coming back repeatedly. With such credentials success is more less assured and that is what required for any successful venture aiming for a pan India foot prints.

One of the reasons for lack of entrepreneurial interest in taking up business ventures based on Indian foods could be lack of standardization of some of the foods and their unsuitability for "packing and presentation" similar to Burrito or Qesadia or Hot Dogs or Burger. Masala dosa can be redone with the dosa part being used as the shell and the vegetable based fillings forming the content, resembling the Burrito. Similarly mini idlis in a bowl with chutney and sambar in small disposable containers along with bites of toasted papad can be another quick serving item. There are hundreds of such foods popular in India and they can be easily transformed into ready to eat fast foods.

Added to this is the clear segmentation of the consumers into vegetarian and non vegetarian camps requiring separate preparation facilities involving higher investment. The growth of the Cafe Coffee Day chain and its impact on the consumer attitude do indicate that there is a clientele that will readily welcome innovative catering services with an eye on ambiance and good quality foods. What is needed in India is thousands of such branded food chains offering products like dosa, idli, vada, pakoda, stuffed parotha etc in a quick biting format that can be eaten on the spot or carry home for family consumption. Probably there can be food chains with distinct Indian names that can associate the products served with commonly consumed foods in the country.

Already there are many retail chains working with a pan national foot print and they can earmark a portion of their outlets for setting up fast food joints. Similarly the major fuel companies with thousands of fuel stations across the country can usher in a fast food revolution through business alliance with some of the catering majors for setting up outlets in their premises. Raiways can also can be roped in for launching a series of uniformly formatted fast food outlets. Indian consumers, especially the youngsters, have a better chance of bonding with their heritage foods through such modernized traditional foods accessible easily and mofified to suit their life style.


Monday, July 5, 2010


Barter trade was the norm for meeting the needs of human beings before the advent of modern currency system. Ancient trading between nations involved export of goods available in plenty in one county in exchange for some thing else from another country which are not in demand in the exporting country. The evaluation of goods was more based on the past experience, demand factor and the quantity offered. With the global trade being regulated by WTO and commodity prices determined by the modern supply-demand concept, international export-import regimes use strong currencies like US Dollar or Euro of the EU for value determination. How can such a concept be relevant to "trading in dinner"?

Food cooperatives have been known to exist in some countries basically to ensure supply of foods which are not not freely available in some areas. The cooperative organization is based on members who subscribe to become members besides offering voluntary services for cutting down on overheads. There are cooperative organizations engaged in cultivation of agricultural and horticultural crops by pooling their land and other input resources. The surplus generated out of the sale of the harvested commodities is shared amongst the members. Amul is the most visible symbol of success of the cooperative movement in India as it is made of cooperative milk producers' unions at the village level. National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) used the Amul model successfully across the country for ushering in the white revolution under the Operation Flood program and making the country the top producer of fluid milk in the world. That NDDB had limited success in repeating this feat with edible oils and horticulture production and marketing is another matter. Probably cooperative movement in food sector has been hijacked by the politicians to serve their own selfish interest.

In recent times the success of maize cultivation in southern Karnataka pioneered by the Tibetan refuge settlements speaks itself regarding the viability of cooperatives which requires self belief, fellowship feelings, hard work and collective efforts for the good of the community. If Karnataka has overtaken Gujarat as the leading producer of Maize it is largely due to the cooperative venture of Tibetans. In the same state growers cooperatives formed about 5 decades ago for organized growing of Coorg Orange and Pineapple failed miserably because of petty politics practiced by some of the members. Now that land ceiling regulations and land ownership rules are being changed it should be possible for large industrial investors to go for organized farming over large stretches of land or lease out land for high tech production of agricultural crops. Contract cultivation is another avenue, though it is not strictly a cooperative venture, for ensuring easy flow of raw materials to the processing industry.

A cooking co-operative is different in concept and may be seen as a dinner swap amongst families, especially high concentration city dwellings. It is simply an agreement by two or more individuals or households to provide prepared meals for each other as per an agreed schedule, the objective being reduced time spent in the kitchen and increased quality and variety of the food eaten. This not a brand new idea, as such entities did exist for some time though with a lesser visibility. Many dinner co-ops function in apartment buildings in high density population centers and members of the co-ops, made up of several households regularly exchange meals weekly or bi-weekly depending on the life style and inclination of the members. For example once a week, one family can cook a dish, enough to provide at least one serving for each adult member of the co-op. Around the same time, the fellow co-op members would cook large batches of their chosen dishes. After setting aside a portion for self consumption, rest is divided, packaged in reusable containers and labeled with reheating conditions. Members then gather and swap dishes, each walking away with a variety of meals for the coming week's dinners. Such a system is prevalent more in hostels in some of the Universities where students enjoy cooking facilities and regularly swap dishes according to a defined menu and periodicity.

A time may come when apartment complexes would be designed with provision for such dinner cooperatives as families start realizing the advantages of such mutually beneficial swapping mode of sharing dinner that has the potential to reduce cost of family food and improve the overall health of the community. How ever unlike western families, Indians have diverse taste and flavor preferences and forming such co-ops may not be that easy. Added to this is the vertical divide between vegetarians and meat eaters that makes the task much more difficult. Still the concept may still succeed in some of the metros where distinction between ethnic foods is getting increasingly blurred.


Friday, July 2, 2010


Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a gas that has high potential for destruction of microorganisms and other food borne infectious vectors. Modern controlled atmosphere storage and packing technology which has become industry standard for extending the life of perishable foods is based on the ability of CO2 to prevent microbial growth, especially at lower refrigeration temperatures. It is being touted as a safer fumigant material to preserve stored grains without leaving any toxic residue in the product unlike dangerous like ethylene dibromide, methyl bromide, ethyl formate etc. CO2 is the life line for the soft drinks industry where it plays a dual role of providing sensory satisfaction and as well as product preservation. The property of CO2 to be solidified under pressure is made use of for its use as "dry ice" for many applications and dry ice sublimes directly to gaseous mode under ambient conditions. It is available in plenty as a by-product from the alcohol fermentation industry and hence can be a low cost processing aid for the food industry,

One of the most challenging tasks facing food processors is to deliver their products in prime condition to the consumer without any compromise on quality or safety. This challenge can be met only if the industry can maintain hygiene standards and cleanliness that will not allow growth of microorganisms in the manufacturing environment. This is especially true when it comes to various equipment and gadgets utilized in this industry which must be perfectly clean in order to maximize the production capacity with least shut down for maintenance. Cleaning methods like wire brushes, sand blasting, solvents and high pressure are routinely used but have their own limitations. Many chemicals and sanitizing agents are recommended and though some of them are effective the cost, efficiency and time taken to complete the operation call for more desirable alternatives.

Recent development of a technology using dry ice appears to be answering the the call for an ideal sanitizing technique acceptable to all sectors of food industry. Dry ice blasting is a relatively easy and effective method that uses harmless dry ice pellets to clean up the facilities and leave them dry. It will be preferred by many in food and beverage industry because of many inherent advantages compared to other known techniques. In this process, dry ice pellets can get to all parts of equipments which are difficult to reach by other methods, since dry ice pellets manage to reach every nook and corner of the equipments cleaning more deeply and effectively. Besides CO2 blasting efficiently removes adhesive, carbon build-up, grease, paper dust, and glue from various equipments such as:conveyors, ovens, chocolate molds, filters, mixing equipment, slicing gadgets, frying and similar processing equipment, bread and pastry machinery, waffle irons, etc. Its non-abrasive form of cleaning does not damage the machinery as the pellets will sublimates and turn to gaseous state the moment it comes in hits the solid surface.

Already CO2 blasting is used for various industries such as printing, aerospace, automotive, packaging etc. Another reason why dry ice blasting is the ideal choice for food industry is that it doesn't involve the use of water in its cleaning process. This is useful especially when the equipment are sensitive to water. CO2 is known to destroy and retard the growth of fungus and bacteria such as salmonella and listeria, as at -109F all of them perish instantly.The positive pressure at which the pellets hit the surface and simultaneous generation a gas removes all loose as well as adhering materials from the machinery leaving them clean and safe. It could be an additional advantage as traces of many foods can be allergenic to some consumers and removing these residues cuts down such incidences of cross contamination from one processed material to the next one. Dry ice blasting is expected to reduce the overall cost of maintenance as it eliminates the need to dispose of extra waste, transportation of equipments to other sites and reduces the production downtime and overall cleaning time. In countries where dry ice availability is not a constraint, dry ice sanitizing technology is ideally suited to meet the needs of a wide spectrum of food processing industry, striving to avoid food contamination episodes and expensive market recalls.


Thursday, July 1, 2010


Consumer protection is upper most in the minds of policy makers and every rule
mandated is designed to prevent economic cheating of the buyers of products
offered by the food industry. Introduction of metric system of measurements was
also intended to make consumers comfortable with calculation and checking of the
prices. Foods are offered in different physical forms like solid, liquid and
gas. Solid foods used to be sold by volume, weight and counts while liquid form
is amenable to only volume or weight. The specific gravity of the product is
critical while calculating volume, with light foods giving less quantities in
terms of weight. Probably this might be the reason that many countries do not
allow selling any material by volume or count. In India food grains used to be
sold by volume measures and with conservation practically non-existent,
infested grains, hollow after the core is consumed by the insects, still were
traded based on volume. Similarly edible oils with specific gravity less than 1,
were being sold by volume and consumers were invariably under the impression
that they were getting 1 kg.when they choose a liter pack. Of course with
labeling regulations becoming more and more stringent, even in India practically
every thing is traded by weight, except probably milk, beverages and ice cream.

The subject of selling became a controversial issue recently in Europe where
shopkeepers in the European Union (EU) are proposed to be restrained from
selling eggs or fruit by the dozen under new food labeling regulations. Though
it is still under the draft stage of legislation with target date of
implementation being next year, there are apprehensions that sale of food items
in the EU replacing the simple measurement by numbers with a system based on
weight may have far reaching implications. The legislation, if approved, would
mean an end to packaging eggs or fruit by the dozen, bread rolls in a pack of
six or fish fingers in boxes of 12. and a possible ban on special promotional
packs such as those offering "eight chocolate bars for the price of six" and
similar schemes which account for a substantial extent of sales volume. Whether
the same rule will apply to loose vending without any packing is not clear.
Already in many super markets fruits are sold only by weight and hence the new
law may not affect them.

It is to be expected that the food industry will react to the new proposal with
some apprehension as"retailers would not be allowed to put "Six eggs" on the
front of the box and if it was a bag of rolls, it would have to say '500g'
instead of six rolls. Another sore point is that the new rules would not allow
both weight and quantity to be shown on the packaging as being permitted in some
countries. Some believe that the new regulation may confuse the buyers and it
will cost the industry heavily for changing packaging and weighing each box
resulting in higher food prices for these items. Egg marketing for ages has been
based on counts and it is a fact that consumers are used to the practice of
buying them by dozens making a choice based on the visual impression of the size
of the eggs. Once eggs or fruits are graded according to size as is being done
in some countries, selling by number would be more appropriate as each grade
specification specifies the size and other physical parameters. Similarly the
Cashew nut trade uses the size grading system to segregate nuts with different
sizes though selling is still based on weight. Probably permitting use of both
weight and number could be an amicable solution to the current controversy. .

Why this new brain wave now amongst the policy makers is a mystery as there does
not appear to be any logical reason for such a shift. With economic melt down
still a threat to the stability of many countries and consumer spending
shrinking day by day, the EU can do without another consumer backlash affecting
the food industry in its member countries. There is some substance in the
contention of the industry that the mass processing practices followed by them
to reduce handling and packing cost may not be amenable to the new system of
printing weight and price on each carton which may vary from carton to carton,
as being demanded by the authorities through the new regulation.