Food industry is facing increasing risks in sustaining itself because of safety concerns sprouting up every day due to new discoveries and emerging knowledge in food science and toxicology. Never heard of chemicals such as Acrylamide have been in the news during the last one decade with no definite conclusions from the scientific community regarding the extent of threat perception posed by these newly "focused" chemical artifacts produced during processing. Unfortunately in spite of consistent efforts in several countries, Acrylamide, formed in many foods during thermal processing under low moisture conditions, has not been established as a threat to consumer safety. It may be recalled that Acrylamide was detected in many foods by Swedish scientists in 2002 and since then thousands of publications appeared, covering practically all aspects of this chemical. Those foods containing the amino acid Asparagine and high starches were found to generate Acrylamide under frying and baking temperatures, probably through the well known Maillard reaction route or the "browning" phenomenon. Though many scary stories emerged regarding its role in human cancers in nervous system, oral cavity, peritoneum, thyroid gland, mammalian gland, uterus etc, these claims were found to based on experiments in animals like mice using doses 900 times higher than possible exposure by humans through the industry produced food products like potato chips!
Food safety is a holy cow and it is very common to talk about the food safety, giving the benefit always to consumer activists who articulate such concerns. Logic is often thrown to winds when tall claims are made regarding safety of foods and ingredients that go into the food during its making. It is often forgotten that eating a food is always risky and such risks can come from processed foods as well as those cooked at home. Decision to ban a particular food has to be taken based on a scientific risk-benefit analysis and not on risk alone. Taking the case of Acrylamide itself, concerns regarding consumer safety are understandable, scaling up the tempo of opposition to fanatical levels is not all justified based on current evidence. Think about thousands of products consumed in India for centuries which were invariably prepared based on raw materials rich in proteins and carbohydrates and probably Acrylamide has been a part of these foods prepared under high temperature conditions for long duration. Baked foods have been in use in western countries since time immemorial and people have not been dying at alarming rate because of cancer. Modern analytical tools have made detection and quantification easier and more accurate but this does not justify raising unnecessary concerns regarding their presence in food.
Now comes a new scare that may rattle the industry further regarding the presence of a new set of chemical artifacts in processed foods and beverages called Furans which are reported to be capable of causing cancer and liver toxicity. Furans refer to a group of chemicals belonging to the group of dioxins and furans. The chlorinated dibenzo furans are implicated in toxicity in animal studies though the levels at which they were used in such experiments are very high. They are formed in foods during processing and being volatile can escape from the finished products by stirring or after a lapse of some time. Oxidation of poly unsaturated fatty acids and similar compounds, decomposition of ascorbic acid derivatives and some carbohydrates can contribute to formation of furans in many foods processed at temperatures beyond 100C. Furans provide typical aroma and taste in many foods and are present in products like roasted coffee powder, canned foods, infant foods, baby foods, puffed rice, fish products, meat products, tomato soups, milk products etc at low concentration levels. Ground coffee can contain Furans as high as 6900 ug per kg while in instant coffee it comes down to 602 ug per kg. Ready to serve coffee beverage can contain about 100 ug of Furans. They are relatively low in milk products like infant foods in the range of 3-40 ug per kg.
Between 2004 and 2009, sustained cooperation amongst some of the countries under a single project generated data on Furans in over 4000 samples belonging to 21 food categories. The reproducability of these data may be tricky because of the high volatility of these chemicals and the possibility of significant reduction of active levels during the interval between opening of the food pack and preparation of test samples. Similarly there can be significant changes in the levels of Furans between original products and preparation of ready to consume final product. It may be reassuring to note the stand of the USFDA which felt that Furans, at this stage does not warrant any concern and cannot be considered as a threat to consumer health. Similarly Canadian Health authorities have taken the stand that present level of knowledge does not call for any change in the dietary practices in that country because of furans in foods.
The million dollar question is whether there should be any concern at all in India where probably people consume foods which are over processed under high temperature conditions. If a product like condensed milk can contain furans at levels of 80 ug per kg, what would be the condition of products like khoa and khoa based products which are made by open kettle heating over long periods or a product like tomato puree made by concentration without vacuum. If poly unsaturated fatty acids are precursors, frying in oils from soy bean and others with high oleic, linoleic and linolenic acids content can contribute to generation of furans. As the information on Furans in Indan foods is not yet available, it may be worthwhile for an institution like National Institute of Nutrition at Hyderabad to look into this area for at least putting the issue at right perspectives.
Eggs are in the news lately for all wrong reasons. There was the massive recall of more than half a billion eggs suspected of salmonella contamination in the US. Packed battery cages used for housing the birds in industrial poultry farms became an emotive issue attracting the attention of a wide segment of consumer population forcing some governments to ban such practices and prescribe mandatory standards for such cages. Considering that eggs are invariably consumed after cooking, minor bacterial contamination should not pose any serious health hazard. But in western countries there are "cold" products that do not undergo the required 72C heating during preparation and they can be risky to consumers, especially those whose immune system is not strong and other vulnerable population. Pasteurized eggs are now available in some markets though they are more expensive. Similarly organic eggs also are supposed to be safe though how they get rid of poultry house contaminants without using chemicals is not known.
Detailed investigations into the egg contamination episode in the US by the authorities concerned revealed how negligent the poultry farms were in managing the operations and the feed storage areas as well as nearby facilities which were heavily infested with rats, considered a major source of Salmonella contamination. The cages were not sterilized periodically as required under good manufacturing practices and birds were over packed in cages giving no room for them even to stand. Under such primitive conditions it is no wonder the eggs from these farms were contaminated. The consequences of such tainted eggs getting into the kitchen raises the possibility of cross contamination to other foods stored together. The egg washing operations which are supposed to remove bulk of the contamination also could have been compromised. It is supposed to be a standard practice for the freshly laid eggs to be washed using detergents and chlorine to disinfect them before sending to the market.
Pasteurized eggs are produced by exposing the eggs to a temperature of 62C to 72C for a period go 3-5 minutes but it requires great caution as just 15 cells of a pathogen would be adequate for causing food-borne illness. It generally takes 6 hours to 48 hours after consuming an infected egg, to see the manifestation of sickness through symptoms like nausea, vomiting, stomach cramp, head ache and diarrhea. As per FDA rules a 5-log reduction is necessary if it takes 3-log reduction to destroy the pathogens. Standard practices of washing followed by coating of the eggs with special mineral oil formulations can be expected to keep the egg free of contamination and arrest quality deteriorating changes at a temperature of 4C. Natural egg has a bloom that covers the surface, protects the contents from ingress of pathogens through the micro pores and development of air cells with aging, deteriorating the over all quality of the egg. Development of egg coating oil formulations is intended for use after the egg is washed and dried which replaces the natural bloom that decomposes with time and affords same protection as the bloom. How ever very few practice egg coating because of the tediousness of the process and productivity constraints.
Recent development of a rapid cooling technology with potential for commercial application appears to be a promising new approach for making eggs safe for consumption. According to the present guidelines cooling of eggs is useful in preventing microbial proliferation but the period within which egg has to be cooled is not clearly spelt. It takes almost a week for the eggs in a large pallet to attain a temperature of 4C at which Salmonella can no longer grow. This is because the egg temperature, when they are packed in cartons, remains high around 38C which can be favorable for growth of pathogens. It is estimated that one in every 20,000 eggs would be contaminated and these eggs mostly hail from the center of the cartons where low temperatures are not attained easily during cooling.
The new technology uses conditions around -50 to -70C in a CO2 atmosphere to reach the freezing temperature of albumin when a thin layer of ice is formed in the shell-albumin boundary and under such a condition egg is supposed to be free from pathogens. Besides this rapid cooling which takes hardly 90 seconds doubles the shelf life of the egg, from 6-8 weeks to 12-15 weeks. The cryogenic CO2 cooling is claimed to cost only 2-5 cents per dozen eggs under commercial conditions. According to safety experts if the eggs are cooled to 7C within 12 hours of laying, the Salmonella poisoning can be reduced by almost 80%. Though technically it is a viable process its economic dimensions need to be worked out, especially the investment part of it before it can become the industry standard.
Cocoa plants grown abundantly in Ghana and other countries have provided mankind with one of the most exciting ingredients, creating the fabulous Chocolate industry turning out a multitude of products with universal appeal, irrespective of age, gender and faith. Leading players in the global arena include Mars Inc, Cadbury Schweppe, Nestle SA, Ferrero Sp, Hershey and Kraft Foods, with a combined market share of almost 75% in a global sale of $ 40 billion. There are a few niche companies also in the scene offering specialty chocolates with various attributes, though their share is less than 1%. Organic chocolate products, in great demand lately, are now available in the main stream market, the total production being around 15000 tons an year.
Cocoa production is concentrated in Africa and Asia and major producers include Ivory Coast (37% of world production), Ghana (21%), Indonesia (13%) accounting for more than 70% of about 35 million tons produced each year by about a dozen countries. Fair Trade cocoa, a distinctly separate category of cocoa production, is produced by several countries who have subscribed to the idea that ethical production can only be sustaining force for the industry to survive in the context of widespread use of child labor by cocoa plantations. It is sad that though many smaller producers have subscribed to the Fair Trade cocoa alliance, only two major producers, Ghana and Ivory Coast are members of this group. The Fair Trade label is now being used by some of the chocolate industry players to indicate that their products are derived from cocoa beans produced by fair means without circumventing any local and international regulations.
As cocoa is a rich source of antioxidants and other nutritional components, chocolate products containing significant levels of cocoa solids are being touted as a health promoting material and an entirely new branch of chocolate industry under the banner of "functional chocolates" is emerging to popularize their consumption in a big way. Unfortunately the health aspects are distorted to a large extent because chocolates by definition are rich in saturated fat and sugar. How can any one succumb to such claims knowing well that like other confectionery items chocolate also can cause same adverse effects like metabolic syndrome and dental decay. Typically a plain chocolate sample contains about 35 gm lipids and more than 60% carbohydrates including white sugar. But the four health promoting constituents in cocoa that include Theobromine, Caffeine, Phenylethylamine and Serotonin contribute to the favorable ratings received by chocolates. These phytochemicals are believed to be working at Central Nervous System and brain levels to promote a feeling of well being, boosting the mood and a feeling of elation. While a dark chocolate version will have about 70% cocoa component including cocoa butter, most of the commercial products have less than 7% cocoa solids.
It is amazing that almost one third of the consumers eating chocolates consider them as a well being product capable of stimulation and relaxation and it such feelings which are driving industry to expand the health chocolate portfolio on a furious pace. To day bitter chocolates with almost 85% cocoa solids are sold in the market under famous brand names. Specialty products like ActiCocoa containing high levels of antioxidants polyphenols, Probiotic Chocolates for gut health and Tooth-friendly chocolates containing isomaltose are marketed targeting the health conscious consumers. What is not condonable is tall claims like heart healthy and similar unsupported statements on the label by some of the responsible industry players and they are probably taking shelter under the ambiguous labeling provisions which do not call for declaring the concentration of antioxidants or polyphenols or the ORAC value which would have enabled the consumers to discriminate between performing and non-performing products.
The multi billion dollar chocolate industry is in for a shock if recent reports about cocoa hording in the UK are to be believed. It is believed that one of the notorious dealers in the UK, Anthony Ward had been buying cocoa beans from where ever they were available during the last few months and his present stock would be adequate to manufacture more than five billion standard chocolate bars! The consequence of his hording is a steep rice in the cocoa price in the London market reaching levels unheard of during the last 30 years. His firm Armajaro holds about 7% of annual cocoa production sufficient to dictate global price of cocoa beans. Though he does not make even a single bar of chocolate, his knowledge about cocoa makes him a formidable player in global trading and closely monitors production in west African countries through local set ups. Though chocolate makers in Europe are making noises about the market "cornering" activities of this UK hedge fund entrepreneur, how far the ultimate price of chocolates will rise eventually due to this phenomenon is uncertain.
While talking about price escalation in chocolate products, there are expectations that with fast approaching cocoa harvesting season beginning October, there might not be much of an impact from the activities of horders like Ward. Besides cocoa forms less than 10% of the production cost of most of the mass produced chocolates and the recent spurt in prices to the extent of 150% may not influence the market price of most of the end products from cocoa. Fears are expressed because a similar effort in 2002 by the same speculator did cause some damage to the chocolate industry from which it was able to recover quickly. Besides many of the major chocolate manufacturers did learn a lesson from the 2002 experience and probably would have built up sufficient stocks to last till the new harvest arrives in October.
Wheat market is getting more and more turbulent with Russia backtracking on its export commitments because of the severe drought ravaging the country. It is considered crucial that the global market is not allowed to "heat up" due to the temporary hiccup in grain production in one of the several countries that dominate wheat market in the world. Russia is 5th largest producer of wheat behind the EU, China, India and the US. According to market watchers what ever drop in global production has happened, that can be more than made up by the available stock in other countries like China, India, the US and Canada. India alone is sitting on a grain "mountain" estimated at 60 million tons (including rice), not knowing what to do with its surplus with severe constraint on domestic storage space for these grains. Any large export by India is considered fraught with the risk of price collapse in the world trade in wheat. It is unfortunate that there is no international cooperation amongst top producers to evolve a strategy to manage the present situation which is causing abnormal spurts in the price in the international market.
It may be recalled that a similar crisis occurred in 2008 when there was a severe drought in Australia leading to world wide shortages, fall in over all production and extensive embargoes on food export across Asia. This even led to "food riots" in Indonesia and Pakistan. At least one could understand the provocative but genuine cause for such disruption to global food supply at that time. The price of wheat, one of the major staples in the world shot up through the roof reaching $13 a bushel, a historical and unparalleled high in wheat price. But how is it possible that wheat prices are surging to day when there is a relatively small shortfall in production, that too in one country and global production recorded the third highest figure in history?. There is already dire forecasts that next years production would be less though such threat perceptions are generated by vested business interests, intent on creating opportunities to make unjustified profits on the fear of possible future shortage of wheat. It is feared that the consequences of such manipulations will ultimately affect the consumers in the rich as well as the poor countries. While higher wheat prices will reflect in higher prices for a wide range of wheat based consumer products like bread, biscuits, pizzas, rolls etc in industrialized countries, it will also affect poor and the hungry in the third world depending on imported wheat for survival. Who are going to be benefited by this unjustified distortion in wheat prices? Of course the rich farmers in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe who will laugh all the way to their banks with windfalls in wheat exports at high prices. Already farmers' organizations from the US are touring some of the Asian countries to bag orders for their wheat.
What is intriguing in the whole situation is why the Russians chose to announce the embargo on export now, even without waiting for the season to end? Are they in league with global wheat traders? After all Russia produced less than 50 million tons in 2007 while this year's projection was 90 million tons but they are still likely to harvest not less than 75 million tons. How can there be shortages there? Export commitments could have been met through bilateral consultations and accommodations with countries like India and China but it did not happen raising questions about the transparency of wheat trading system in the world. Is there no way to counteract the machinations of the wheat traders and ensure some stability in wheat prices? With massive subsidies that fatten the rich farmers in the US and Europe, it is very easy for these countries to raise wheat production but probably they may not do it because the scarcity will benefit their farmers in a big way. Considering that the US and India put together have more than 100 million tons of food grains in stock, the relatively small shortfall of production in Russia, should not have affected the global prices and a genuinely concerted effort by these countries with large stocks would have thwarted the efforts of speculators to ratchet up the prices under misplaced apprehensions. There is also the uncertainty regarding the attitude of China, top most producer of wheat in the world, to the present crisis, though they may not venture directly into global market for fear of escalation of domestic wheat prices. It is small consolation that the prices have not reached any where near the record highs in 2008 and there is still time for tackling this problem, given the dynamics of the situation.
In India's case there is already some apprehension that there would be a drop in production next year and this has clouded the thinking on the part of the government. As a knee-jerk reaction the high flying Food Minister has announced a slew of measures to augment the storage capacity, though no one is sure whether this would be translated into reality in the near future, knowing well the snail-like progress of government projects. Probably GOI could consider a strategic tie-up with Russia to loan to them some of the surplus grains for returning it next year when the production would pick up there, restoring normalcy in farming. By that time hopefully the new storage structures might be ready for use. Countries like China and the US have sufficient flexibility in their farming system to increase production within a short period. The present situation should not be allowed to be exploited by speculators for raising global prices that will affect the lives of millions of poor people who depend on purchase of wheat from international market by their countries. Led by Egypt the wheat importing countries in the third world constitute the largest net importers of wheat and they include Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Algeria, Nigeria, Iraq, Yemen, Bangladesh etc accounting for more than 90% of the 70 million tons traded in the world.