Thursday, December 30, 2010


The current year, just about to be pushed into history, was notable for India in a negative sense. A scientist from Chennai had the unique distinction in co-discovering a super bug which was inappropriately named after the Indian capital city New Delhi. Of course realizing the potential for damage the report can inflict on India's image as a safe haven for medical treatment, this scientist later dissociated from the conclusions of the report. According to the claims made by the group of scientists who made the discovery earlier, India has to be more careful and diligent in preventing large scale epidemic due to spread of pathogens equipped with the super gene which are resistant to most antibiotics known to man. Such a surmise is based on the widespread prevalence of poverty, poor sanitation, poor immunity and non-availability of a viable treatment protocol. According to one of the authors of the original study, India is poised to become the epicenter of NDM-1 epidemic because there are 650 million people with poor sanitation, highly vulnerable to the infection. As per the authors it has been named after Delhi because of the previous precedence of naming new super bugs, four in number since 1998 similarly and they further aver that no ulterior motive should be attributed to their scientific work.

In a strong rebuttal Indian establishment denied that NDM-1 containing super bugs are widely prevalent in India and they can occur all over the world. It is also claimed that such inspired reports are targeted at India's booming $ 2 billion medical tourism because of low cost treatment packages available in world class hospitals here. About half a million people visit India under medical tourism and the the annual growth is estimated at 30%. While questioning the conclusions of the report, it was pointed out that NDM-1 is not confined to India alone and unless global investigations are carried out the real threat of this super bug cannot be predicted. Though a few cases diagnosed outside India confirmed the cause as NDM-1 related, there is no clear proof that the infection really occurred in Indian hospitals. It is also a relevant question as to why there was not even a single case of any Indian affected due to this super bug.

The infamous NDM-1, acronym for New Delhi metallo-beta lactamase is a gene that is responsible for breaking down almost all antibiotics known to day except may be polymyxins and tigecycline and the most powerful antibiotics like beta-lactams, fluoroquinolones and aminoglycosides, the front line defense against gram negative bacteria are ineffective when it comes to NDM-1. According to pathologists even Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) is not as dangerous as NDM-1 equipped pathogenic bacteria. Though NDM-1 is known to be present in normally harmless gut bacterial population including E.coli, it becomes dangerous when there is horizontal gene transfer into bacteria like Klebsiella pneumoniae as the latter will not respond to most antibiotics currently being used against pathogens.

The major concern is that the fecal microorganisms containing NDM-1 can occur widely in soil and water and the possibility of evolution of pathogens containing it can be disastrous especially under insanitary environment. That NDM-1 containing pathogens can be resistant to even the most powerful antibiotic Carbapenem probably makes it highly dangerous. What is not known how ever is whether such horizontal gene transfer really takes place, the ideal condition for it and the frequency of such occurrence. The contention by GOI that since the published report in Lancet was financed by the drug industry, the possibility of over stating the danger from this super bug cannot be ruled out. The well orchestrated H1N1 scare last year is sill fresh in our memory and some of the drug companies which developed the vaccine on assured purchase basis by many countries were able to make a kill from the sale of this product. Whether H1N1 virus scare was real or not only time can tell but billions of dollars worth business generated by the alarm cannot be denied.

Whether NDM-1 threat is real or not, it has been able to wake up the health authorities in India to the wide spread and uncontrolled use of antibiotics which seems to have contributed to development of resistance to many antibiotics by some of the pathogens, in spite of the prevalent law that they can be dispensed only with a prescription from a qualified physician. The recent decision to tighten sale of antibiotics may be appropriate if it is strictly implemented. According to new rules, antibiotics can be sold only when the prescription is presented in duplicate, one of which will be kept as a record by the pharmacy.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Under ideal conditions food industry should be able to manage the wastes generated within their manufacturing premises without causing nuisance to the environment. The wastes that can become logistical problem for any processing unit are of liquid, solid and gaseous types and industry continuously strives to generate economic benefits out of these wastes as far as possible. Recycling of waste water, generation of bio-gas, recovery of valuable economic products, co-generation of electricity etc are some possibilities for the food industry. Using factory wastes for landfill is a common practice in many countries in the West till a few years ago though environmental impact of such dumping forced many countries to clamp down on such activities. A zero waste industry can be a target but how this is achievable remains to be seen.

In a recent survey in the UK, it was brought out that the food and beverage industry in that country has adopted a zero waste policy which is being implemented voluntarily without any government compulsion. Of course national policies regulating land refills in many developed countries are becoming more and more stringent and probably industry may have few options but to drastically reduce the waste sent out of their premises. If the industry there is able to reduce its waste almost 90% as being claimed, such a signal achievement is praise worthy and the target of a zero waste economy seems to be within their reach. True, UK is a small country with less population and management of a few thousand tons of waste may not be such a formidable task but the determination to work for zero waste is no less admirable. Considering that many new technologies have emerged to treat wastes with minimum impact on the environment but installing such modern facilities calls for astronomical investments which cannot be afforded by most of the small enterprises with limited sparable resources.

Probably India has a good law on paper for waste disposal as many states give manufacturing licenses conditional to containment of waste within the premises of the manufacturer. But these regulations are not implemented in most of the cases and letting waste water into public streams and other similar cases of breach of the laws are very common. Considering that high investment is necessary to install waste processing facilities, many small scale industries find it extremely difficult to comply with strict control regimes and probably government will have to think of appropriate policies to help this sector. The food industrial estates which originated in early seventies in Karnataka state in India was a workable concept where each such functional but collective entity would have its own common waste processing facility for use by the member industries. How ever such far-sighted revolutionary programs could not be implemented due to many reasons.

Modern day Food Park programs, being promoted and supported by GOI has also provisions for internal waste disposal facilities though it is not known how strictly they are monitored by the local environmental authorities for compliance. Regarding the requirements of small and micro enterprises, the quantum of waste generated by them may not be high but still can pose problems for local community. Probably separately earmarked landfills, a few kilometers away from human habitation can be considered and local governments must be encouraged to set up such scientifically designed and managed facilities for which the manufacturers can be charged an affordable fee. Incidentally most municipalities have their own land refills for disposal of municipal wastes, presently eyesores in the country's landscape but if they can be reorganized, redesigned and efficiently managed, these facilities can be modified to receive food industry solid wastes also.

The adverse impact of landfills can include pollution to the environment, especially contamination of water or aquifers which can make water non-potable and dangerous. Soil contamination is another risk associated with such dumps while generation of methane, considered a green house gas, much more potent and dangerous to the environment than CO2 because of anaerobic digestion of organic matters, presents its own problems. Besides uncontrolled and unmanaged land fills can be serious health hazard because they can be breeding ground for many disease vectors like rodents, flees, birds, scavenging animals etc. Unbearable stink emanating from waste dumping areas can be nauseating and allergic to people nearby. Burning of plastic materials can generate toxic materials like dioxins, injurious to human health. Taking into consideration some of these issues, alternate options of "incentivization" of efforts by the industry for avoiding or minimizing waste generation, economic utilization of wastes and in-house disposal of wastes deserve attention.


Monday, December 20, 2010


The root cause of over eating and consumption of unbalanced foods has been attributed to factors like lack of parental influence during childhood, exposure to toxic food environment, insufficient education at schools regarding the virtues of eating good foods and unlimited opportunities and access to low cost junk foods outside the home. It is believed that modern society has much to answer for this lopsided development vis-à-vis child health during the early growth face. In the past, several decades ago, when average family size used to be much larger than what it is to day, influence of wise old people like grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles etc was there to guide the minds and attitudes of children to develop sound eating practices. After the transformation of the society from undivided large families to nuclear families because of rapid industrialization, the parents do not seem to have sufficient time to spend on children, leaving them to be influenced more by external factors and environment.

There is a progressive decline in family values with each passing generation and the dilution of parental influence on child development is evident in all spheres of children's progress to adulthood. With inflation causing great hardship to families trying to lead a reasonably good quality of life, there is compulsion for the house wife to go for work to augment family income. Added to this the gender equality movement has pitchforked many intelligent and professionally motivated women, "good" mothers otherwise, into high profile jobs requiring deep commitment with very little time left for devoting to their children. It is justifiably said that in a family environment "love" is transferred through foods prepared and served by the mother and if she has no time for cooking or serving food at the dining table, what type of influence she can have on the child?. Eating is not just a physically routine task but involves an emotional bonding between mother and the child and if such opportunities are not available the child is likely to develop all wrong habits as far as food is concerned. Each mother has to ask herself as to how many times her family had sat together on a dining table for partaking a common meal cooked by her that is healthy as well as delicious (except of course sitting at a restaurant table)..

Look at a country like the US where the modern living style does not permit the family to enjoy home made foods and more often than not, food is eaten outside the home in public places like restaurants and other eateries where foods served are considered most unhealthy measured by any yardstick. No wonder that country has become the obesity "capital" of the world with children as well as adults assuming monstrous body size and grotesque shapes. Added to this the processed food industry consistently floods the market with foods with high calories, fat, sugar and salt, almost devoid of desirable nutrients like proteins, fibers and others. Under such circumstances who are to be blamed for this health havoc? It does not require any survey to prove the point that to day's parents have practically no influence on the evolving food habits of their children, though an elaborate study in the US about the degree of association between children and their parents dietary intake based on world wide data from 1980 to 2009 has also confirmed the above surmise.

According to some observers such a situation must have developed because of many complex interplaying factors like family structure and practices, the environment in schools, school lunch programs, local food environment to which child is exposed to, peer influence, government policies and massive industry promotional programs. The million dollar question is how to inculcate scientifically correct eating habits amongst the kids and who should be doing it? Of course parents cannot shirk their responsibility as a major stake holder in evolving their children into good citizens with sound health and mind. For this to happen, there has to be a parental reformation that will ensure that parents themselves are convinced about foods which are good or bad and then transfer this experience to their children in a systematic and regular manner. One of the common tendencies that is becoming widespread amongst nuclear families, with single child or two children, is to cater to the whims and fancies of the child with regard to packed foods that are available in vending machines and super market shelves and enjoy the temporary emotional satisfaction of seeing the child happy! How many parents would resist such a temptation and instead counsel the child regarding the harm such junk foods can cause to its health? Very few, of course.

Government policies must be tuned to help the working mothers to spend more time with their children, especially during early stages through appropriate policy measures. Of course the maternity leave, commonly available to the extent of 3 months has served the purpose of helping the mothers to nurse their new born and give undivided attention during this period. No matter how good and widespread can the creches and child care centers be, they will never be a substitute to the care of the mother. While government employees in India are being provided with 3 years of leave for bringing up the children as a welfare measure, same facility must be extended to private sector female employees also. If full pay cannot be protected, at least leave with half pay should be offered to prospective mothers or facilities for working from home, if feasible should be considered. Unless such progressive measures are implemented, the future children will continue to be affected by the "wrong food intake" syndrome, with snow balling effect not only their health but also that of the planet itself.


Friday, December 17, 2010


Almost a century after its discovery and patenting a process for manufacture of Mono Sodium Glutamate popularly known as MSG, the controversy regarding its safety is still being debated though it is used extensively by the food industry as a flavor enhancer. It has an E number 621 which signifies that it is safe for human consumption, though compulsory labeling is mandated. In many countries there is no upper limit restriction for its use in any food. Oriental countries like Japan and China are the pioneers in this field with practically every food they consume containing MSG. Though it was made till some years ago using wheat gluten as the raw material by hydrolysis, emergence of gluten allergy amongst many people led to the development of alternate technology based on fermentation using starch as substrate.

Recognition of the fifth basic taste Umami as a new one besides the traditional salty, sweet, sourness and bitter tastes, owes its origin to MSG and the bound glutamate in products like tomato, cheese and cured ham are supposed to represent purest form of Umami taste. Added to this, specific receptors for Umami have been identified on human tongue confirming the existence of this fifth taste category. Ajinomoto Company is considered the pioneer in commercial manufacture and promotion of MSG globally and with an annual business turn over of more than $ 13 billion, it is a leading player in areas like food ingredients, pharmaceuticals, beverages, amino acids, specialty chemicals with operations in 122 countries. Naturally with such massive spread, clout and economic muscle Ajinomoto has been able to ride the storm caused by uncertainties regarding the safety of MSG.

More than 80% of the annual production estimated at 2.2 million tons is consumed in Asia with mainland China guzzling a whopping 1.2 million tons working out to 1.2 kg per capita consumption per year. Added at 0.1 to 0.8% to different foods, the main objective is to enhance the flavor of the final food preparation. While many consider MSG as one of the exitotoxins affecting brain functions, other critics point an accusing finger at MSG for a variety of reactions after consumption that include neurological problems, cancer, fibromyalgia, depression, obesity etc none of which has been supported by any scientific evidence. For fear of adverse effect on brain functions, MSG is not generally permitted in foods targeted at children below the age of 3 years because of their underdeveloped but growing brain. This situation is similar to the present state of HFCS which, though a natural constituent of sucrose, is being blamed by many as responsible for creating the obesity epidemic through foods rich in this sugar with not much scientific evidence to support such a theory.

It is against this context that the recent reported alliance between the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Ajinomoto Company for taking up a joint R & D project to explore whether, this chemical used to enhance the taste of foods, has any beneficial effects on eating behavior and body weight management. According to the their agreed program trials are to be conducted by ARS' Western Human Nutrition Research Center (WHNRC) to assess in overweight women whether adding sodium glutamate to foods can facilitate a better control of appetite and caloric intake, and prevent body weight rebound following a period of moderate energy restriction and weight loss. This is based on the surmise that for many people, long term improvements in eating behavior and body weight control are difficult to maintain calling for an in-depth study on the mechanisms involved in such cases. The study team believes that MSG inclusion in regular diet can improve the quality and quantity of food consumed while at the same time providing "emotional and pleasurable" factors resulting in lesser motivation for consumption of calorie dense foods.

Though the alliance between the government agency and Ajinomoto with vast business interest in MSG may be controversial, the step may be in right direction as long as the industry partner in this study does not throw its weight around in influencing the study in any way favoring its interests. The ability of MSG in reducing sodium intake from savory foods is another interesting line of pursuit as there are some studies reporting 20% to 40% reduction in salt requirement to achieve acceptable taste when MSG was present in formulated food products at low concentrations. Probably while pursuing these studies in collaboration with Ajinomoto, USDA should keep in mind the concerns of a significant segment of the consumer population regarding the safety of MSG in general.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Can unripe grapes be a source of acidulant for food preparation? Obviously it was being used for creating tart taste in foods before the advent of lemon juice which has high concentration of citric acid. The active ingredient in grapes that imparts tartness is Tartaric acid which was known as far back as 800 AD though it was extracted in pure form only in 1769. Credit goes to the French chefs in recognizing the usefulness of green juice obtained from unripe fruits like grapes, crab apples, plums etc in creating special taste and flavor when added to preparations like sauces, condiments, stews, meat products etc and the juice preparation commonly refereed to as verjuice was a standard item in most French pantries.

Tartaric acid is one of the acidulants used by the food industry along with acetic acid, citric acid, fumaric acid, lactic acid, malic acid and phosphoric acid. Acidity is critical for food processing as well as preservation. The famous sugar-acid-pectin gels, which created jams , jellies and preserves, are the basis of an important segment of food industry that processes fruits. Emergence of citric acid as the most important acidulant, probably because of its cost has led to decline of tartaric acid though its role is still critical in specialized preparations like baking powder, emulsifiers as bread improver etc. Besides being an organic acid like other similar ones, tartaric acid in natural form is known to have special inhibitory power against gram negative and gram positive bacteria including Salmonella paratyphi, Bacillus subtilis, Salmonella typhis and Staphylococcus aureus.

The old Verjuice of Midieval times is reported to be resurfacing during the last couple of years with many western cooks rediscovering its special effect in creating highly acceptable taste and flavor profiles in food preparations. Probably sourness was the major taste popular at that time giving Verjuice its prominence in foods. Verjuice is to day made by processing unripe fruits obtained during the thinning process in the vine yards and these half matured fruits have the necessary tartness desired by the cooks. Now it is available in bottles manufactured using modern processing technology to give longer shelf life.

Though green grapes are invariably the raw material most commonly used, in a few cases red varieties are added to create a more attractive product. Like lemon juice, verjuice adds a bright tartness to a wide range of dishes. But it has an advantage over its far more popular competitor. It's a more gentle, subtle tartness, with a faint but definite undercurrent of vegetal sweetness. Because of this, it is more adept at complementing rather than masking other flavors in dishes where it's used. Because of all this, verjuice is considered a good choice for deglazing the pan after sautéing fish or chicken as it adds just the right touch of tart, with no harshness in the background.

In India Tamarind fruit is the most commonly used acidulant and same tartaric acid contributes to the acidity of this food ingredient. Tamarind is grown in Asia, Africa and American continent, leading producers being India, Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Cuba, Puerto Rico etc. While in most cases ripe fruit after shelling is extracted for its juice for use in hundreds of culinary preparations, there are also commercial products based on the pulp. In India dried tamarind pulp, powder and juice concentrate are commercially made and find wide acceptance. Presence tannins, saponins, sesquiterpenes, alkaloids, phlobatamine and other phytochemicals makes tamarind a most potent health protecting food adjunct, especially recognized by indigenous medical practitioners in India. Its reported effect in reducing serum cholesterol and blood glucose levels is especially noteworthy. Probably food industry in India can make tamarind juice popular in western culinary preparations also through effective promotional programs. If color is not needed, green tamarind fruit can be considered for extracting juice through pectinase enzyme intervention and subsequent stabilization.


Monday, December 13, 2010


The ever increasing recognition of local food movements as one of the ways for saving the planet, has focused attention for bringing about sustainable food production without adversely affecting the environment. The basis of local food movement is to assure the consumers, especially in an urban environment, about the safety and nutritional quality of food when produced near their settlements and the global effect it will have in reducing greenhouse emission significantly. Springing up of innumerable farmers' markets near many urban centers is another off shoot of the desire for foods raised with least chemical substances, in a way different from the so called "industrialized" foods churned out by large scale technology intensive commercial food producers. Organic foods which are supposed to be produced with no chemical inputs at any stage are also increasingly being favored by people who can afford to pay higher prices for such foods.

There are many versions of urban ventures, trying their hand at cultivation that include terrace top gardens, roof farming, school gardens, corporate gardening, community gardening etc and there are shining examples of success in many areas though they are still far and few to make any impact on a country-wide scale anywhere in the world. There are many advantages in involving urbanites in some facets of agriculture as most of them have no clue regarding the logistics of agriculture, presently the main burden of supplying food resting on their rural cousins who toil hard against all odds to feed the former. The risks inherent in agriculture, especially in a country like India where most of the farmers have small holdings with low land productivity, are tremendous and success or failure depends on many external factors beyond their control. Under such a situation can the urbanites take care of a part of their food needs from within the city area rather than getting them from far away places in the farm belt?

There is an increasing trend of urban migration when rural unemployed and under employed aspire to move to urban areas hoping for better income opportunities and improved life quality. In India the urban population is estimated at around 330 million, about 30% of total population of the country and the remaining folks numbering more than 770 million produce adequate foods to meet, besides their own need, the food requirement of the urban population. That means the surplus production from these farmers will have to be about 30% of their farm out put which ensures regular income through sale to the urban consumers. In the US 2% of the population plough the land to produce enough food to feed the entire nation and this is possible because of the mega size of the agricultural farms and mega agricultural technologies deployed by them. It is a paradox that this country of plenty is now turning away from industrialized foods, plunging into the unknown area of urban farming because of perceived fear of the safety o! foods they currently consume!

There is no unanimity regarding the issue of food adequacy in the year 2030 or 2050 if the population grows at the current rate. While some hold the view that there would be sufficient food for every body that can be produced from the available land, others are skeptical about the same, calling for drastic change in the current agricultural practices. Though Genetic Modification Technology is touted as as the "wonder tool" for the future, there is little evidence on hand that this can happen, given the present ground reality. Probably GM technology may at best reduce the waste due to pre-harvest and post-harvest losses presently estimated at 20-30% in many food grain producing countries. Ready accessibility to available food is another dimension of the problem which no technology, how ever revolutionary it may be, can over come. It is in this context that some futurologists are suggesting multi-level cultivation in urban areas for meeting at least a part of the food needs of the citizens there.

Vertical farming involves use of multi-story buildings and green house technology to increase several fold production of food from limited urban lands. At present green house technology is widely used for commercial production of crops like strawberry, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, some high value herbs and spices and has proven its viability beyond any doubt. Countries like Japan, Scandinavia, New Zealand, the US and Canada have thriving green house industries and their products have found universal acceptance. But use of buildings with several floors is a new concept and unless tested one may not be able to conclude about its practicality. According to the proponents of vertical farming, practically almost every food can be raised under appropriate controlled atmosphere conditions including fish, piggery and poultry, only exception being large live stock animals. According to tentative estimates a building with a million square meter built up area can support a population of about 50000 people and such built-up area can be created by building sky-scrappers of 30-100 flours depending on the ground area available. It is also contented that even meeting 50% of the needs of the urban population from such high rise structures, will spare huge tracts of land, presently almost degraded because of modern farming practices,for eco-reconstruction within a few years and restoration of productivity.

Challenges are many fold as practically no data exists to day regarding the scientific basis for design of such facilities which call for synergistic innovative efforts by multi disciplinary specialists in areas like hydro-biology, civil engineering, plant biotechnology, waste management, environmental science, power engineering etc. Whether one calls such monstrous production centers Farm scrappers, Vertical farms or Sky Farms, the feasibility will have to be established before depending on such a solution for meeting future food needs of mankind.


Sunday, December 12, 2010


The present Public Distribution System (PDS) owes its existence to the erstwhile colonial power, the Britishers which began during World War II period. It was in 1942 that the Government of India (GOI) set up the first structured PDS for ensuring supply of food grains and other essential commodities with the Department of Food vested with the task of coordinating the activity. However it was abolished next year probably because of better availability of food grains as the intensity of the War eased some what. Independent India felt the need for reviving the PDS which was done in 1950 as a deliberate social policy for creating social equity. The avowed objectives were to provide food at subsidized cost to low income families, price moderation in the market and ensuring equity in distribution of essential commodities.

In order to feed the PDS, massive procurement of food grains at minimum support price was necessary for which Food Corporation (FCI) was set up in 1965. With the cooperation of State level agencies FCI has been able to mobilize food grains more than adequate to feed the PDS beneficiaries and to day it has more than 60 million tons (mt) of food grains under its custody. As per the buffer norms FCI is to hold at each quarter of the year 16.2 mt (April), 26.9 mt (July), 16.2 mt (October) and 20 mt (January). The so called ration shops (the term was inherited from Britishers) are the centers from where beneficiaries draw their entitlements and there are more than 5 lakh such shops in the country.

According to some estimates pilferage of food grains from the PDS is rampant and has assumed massive proportion. Total leakage is put at 36% as a conservative figure though there are reports that it could be as high as 50%. Almost one fifth of the ration cards are ghost cards owned by fraudsters who obtain the ration quota on fictitious beneficiaries while in collusion with the shops another 20% of the food grains is diverted to black marketeers. In states like Punjab and Bihar the diversion is reported to be more than 75% while AP, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Orissa and West Bengal have better performance record, leakage being restricted to less than 25%. It is really creditworthy for states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to have set up vehicle tracking system that can provide vital information like vehicle details, quantity carried, destination, date of delivery etc and such innovations can significantly reduce pilferage since on-line tracking facility makes the situation more transparent.

As per the Model Citizens Charter of November 1997 GOI issued guidelines regarding management of PDS under which there are supposed to be vigilance committees at various levels like panchayat, ward, taluk, district and state. When Targeted PDS was introduced the Panchayat Raj institutions were vested with responsibilities to monitor the so called Fair Price Shops(FPSs) and vigilance committees are supposed to include as members, eminent persons representing government, social organizations, local bodies, etc to periodically review the functioning of the scheme as a whole and the FPSs in particular. If in spite of all these institutional arrangements, fraudsters can corner 50% of the quantity flowing through the PDS, one can imagine the ingenuity of Indian "wheelers and dealers" involved in the scam!

In a recent report GOI has reported that vigilance committees have been set up as per guidelines, meetings are held routinely, minutes are recorded, compliance reports are prepared leading one to believe that every thing is fine with Indian PDS operations. How ever the experience of the citizens is totally different and to get even a Below Poverty Line ( BPL) ration card is beset with many insurmountable logistical problems. As per the rights, each BPL card holder is entitled to receive rice or wheat at prices varying between Rs 4.15 to 5.65 per kg with maximum entitlement being 35 kg per family per month. Besides the Above Poverty Line (APL) card holders can get the same at prices between Rs 6.10 and 7.90 per lg per family. Over 80 million families are targeted under the TPDS scheme.

Discussions within the GOI regarding universalization of PDS are still incomplete and radical suggestions like Food Stamps in place of subsidization are under consideration. No matter what GOI does, unless honesty and public probity are restored amongst public officials, no fool proof system can be evolved in spite of enormous management resources with the government.


Friday, December 10, 2010


Consumer products always need promotion and name of the game is to constantly "remind" the consumer about the advantages of the products promoted. It is rightly said that a good product can be a disastrous failure if not promoted through saturation advertisements and a bad product may become a run away success if adequate investments are made on promotion! Industry employs many techniques and strategies to get into the confidence of the consumer that include promotion through advertisements in print media, promotion through electronic media, demos and free sampling, incentive schemes, riding on other popular products etc. But all these have their own limitations, most important one being the tendency of the consumer to forget the so called virtues over a period of time which calls for repeated projection of the product.

Claims printed on the label of a packed food have most impact when consumers browse through the aisles of supermarkets and the labeling regulations are, there fore, put in place to prevent inclusion of unsubstantiated claims by unscrupulous manufacturers for short term gains. Still there are industry practices to include vague claims that can resonate with a large segment of the consumer community. The mandatory nutrition labeling gives further opportunity to the manufacturer to play around with the formulation to score over the competitor. Thus a higher fiber content, a lower sodium content or a marginal increase in protein content can attract many discerning consumers to patronize such products. Recent euphoria about antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, stannols and some functional phytochemicals has contributed to a plethora of new food products with tall claims though how they will function in human beings with different health status is still a matter of speculation.

Use of human psychology to influence the mind of the customer is not a new strategy but with more and more insight being gained about human brain major marketeers strive to gain advantage in pushing the products of their clients. Different hues of color for the product, ambiance of the environment, optimization of design of eateries, digital display of life size products, use of different aroma or smell that reminds about the products, design of packaging modes that attracts the consumer, ergonomic design of seating system to make the customer more comfortable and other features do play important roles in establishing a good first impression about a product or a brand.

The latest emerging trend is to use neuroscience to "enslave" the consumer without his knowledge. Many major industry and market innovation firms are actively pursuing this line of promotional technique called "neuromarketing ", probably out of their anxiety to edge out the competitors. The new technique is based on the premise that human brain expends only 2% of the energy on conscious activities with the rest devoted to unconscious processing, implying that many decisions made by man are at the unconscious level and this is a fertile area where consumer product industry can target their promotional activities in influencing the unconscious area of decision making. This has led to the so called mind mining techniques through EEG, MRI scans, eye tracking, skin, muscle or facial response to products and advertisements.

A major worry that confronts this type of frontier research is whether such techniques capable of probing subconscious brain patterns would be used to exercise undue influence on consumer buying decision. Is it possible that such practices could turn the consumers into glorified shopping robots indulging in a buying spree without their knowledge and consent? What are the social repercussions of such a strategy if widely used by the industry? Since it involves a combination of branding and brainwashing, the new neuromarketing technique is often referred to as "Brandwashing". Most advertising regulations at present are meant to protect children because they do not have fully developed brain with in-built defense against undue influence compared to adults who have this faculty to distinguish between truth and lies. There may be some substance in the call by consumer activists to bring in regulations that will protect the "digital privacy" of the buyers.

Though the above developments are projected as "path-breaking" by the marketing agencies, considerable ambiguity and lack of clear understanding still make this area at best a long shot with years of work ahead to bring absolute clarity. What ever little is known about neuromarketing, raises critical questions regarding the ability of mankind to resist such approach, almost bordering on "hypnotization" which works on the sub-conscious mind to elicit information which other wise would be withheld by the subject. Another disturbing question is whether the mind mining techniques will help new "Hitlers and Goebbels" to emerge from amongst the political class, if they are misused!


Monday, December 6, 2010


New developments benefiting mankind cannot come without some sacrifice and modern day living especially in urban areas is at best a compromise between what is unavoidable and what is ideal! Take the example of pollution which is a serious concern, whether it comes from air, water, light or sound and there are standards set up for compliance by all the countries. How ever how far these standards are implemented is some thing about which citizens are seriously concerned. Alternate energy generation is considered inevitable due to the fast running out of fossil fuels which have supported the industrial revolution that led to high quality of life in many countries. Amongst the many possibilities for energy generation that can ensure sustainability, wind mill technology stands out as one of the best options in places where wind velocity is adequate to run turbines and many countries in Europe, China, India, the US etc are all sparing no effort to establish the viability of wind power.

Any new technology, if to succeed, must be economically viable and socially acceptable. While wind power projects are heavily subsidized in many countries to make the energy produced compete favorably with fossil fuel energy, long term viability is still a matter of conjecture. Added to this uncertainty, what ever little has been achieved in this area seems to be in jeopardy because of social factors and many communities near wind mill locations are expressing reservation about the real impact of these projects. How ever the opposition to wind mills has not yet reached any significant level and proponents of wind power feel that many complaints are just not sustainable when a reality check is made. Some of the criticisms leveled include high noise generation during the night disturbing the sleep pattern of community nearby, ruining of the landscape, adverse effect on real estate value, harming the bird population and physiological impact on human body due to noise pollution.

Rapid heart beat, nausea, blurred vision caused by ultra low frequency sound vibrations are some of the claims made against operation of wind mills but so far not even a single piece of scientific evidence has emerged to prove the adverse health effect from the noise generated. According to experts a wind mill does not produce noise beyond 45 decibels (dB), less than what a house-hold refrigerator generates. Even normal conversation can raise the dB levels to as high as 50-60, a ticking clock can produce 30 dB noise, a sports car about 80-95 dB, car horns about 90-100 dB while those staying near air ports can experience noise levels as high as 120dB. There is a mistaken perception that the turbines in the wind mill system is responsible for the noise where as in reality the huge blades, measuring more than 100 ft, made of fiber glass or plastics, reinforced with carbon fiber produce the howling noise while rotating against the wind. If it were the turbines, possibility of noise dampening techniques could have been explored to reduce the noise levels.

Wind mills invite objections mostly during night operations when even small sound appears amplified due to the silent background that exists at that period because of minimum human activity. Solutions like shutting of the plant during nights or reducing the speed of the rotating fans are not considered practical even if one wants to satisfy the critics because that will make the operations cost prohibitive. This is where sacrifice is really called for that can benefit the country or the region through greater energy production with no green house gas emissions. Agricultural Food processing industries are known to be big energy guzzlers and if their operations are not to be curtailed, adequate power supply must be ensured. If unfortunate and uninformed popular sentiments prevent further progress in harnessing this clean technology, ultimate loser will the humanity at large.