Sunday, January 30, 2011


Here is a dooms day prediction by some agricultural scientists in India regarding the catastrophic consequences of global warming on Indian export of its much vaunted Basmati Rice. On the face of it the logical deductions made by them appear to be worth considering seriously. According to their assumptions, one of their failed experiments in the past had to encounter temperatures higher than normal for the season which probably could have resulted in reduced length of the grain and lower levels of the typical aroma.

According to them their experiment indicated a definite influence higher environmental temperature could have on the fragrance of this rice variety besides affecting its length. The crop obtained in their experiments did not grow long enough and was not as fragrant as it should have been when cooked. Temperatures during that year crossed 26 degree Celsius in September when the basmati flowers and, 15 to 20 days later, when the grain begins to fill out, because of which a shriveling of the grain was seen. The extra heat, it was hypothesized, prevented the food stored by the plant from travelling to the grain. Consequently, it failed to grow to the right length. The heat also could have destroyed fatty acids stored in the grain which give the basmati its distinct fragrance when cooked. Though more than 3 years have lapsed since this finding no field studies have yet been done so far by the agriculture scientists in ICAR the premier research agency in the country.

Basmati rice is a priced commodity of India with 80% of the world trade controlled by it. According to the authentic report of APEDA the vested authority that controls food exports from India, the export during 2009-10 was 2.01 mt valued at Rs 100 billion. It is a matter of pride for India that Basmati is the only commodity from the country being exported to more than 110 countries around the world. While rice exports suffer from time to time depending on production and local availability of this staple in any given year, Basmati export has enjoyed a steady growth over the years due to expanding areas of cultivation and steady policy of support and encouragement from the government.

It was in 1997 that India had the shock of facing a crisis in its Basmati monopoly when a private player in the US sought patent rights for the name Basmati claiming that it has developed a better variety through genetic improvement. Fortunately sustained efforts by the government and the agricultural scientists in fighting this threat resulted in not granting any patent rights to that party. The loss to India and Pakistan which enjoy almost 100% monopoly as far s Basmati is concerned would have suffered grievously if the patenting attempt of the American developer were to succeed.

There are more than two dozen varieties.of Basmati being grown in India that include Dehradun, Safidon, Haryana, Kasturi, Pusa, Ranbir, Suganda etc all being long grains with typical flavor due to presence of the volatile fragrance fraction 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline. There are also varieties designated with numbers and some of the popular ones are 198, 217, 370, 385 and 386. Though Basmati rice is more known for its scent, it is also a good cooking variety capable of retaining its texture without getting mushy. Besides it is a medium GI grain with a range of 55-65 that can ensure uniform release of glucose after consumption. The reported effect of global warming if confirmed by field studies under controlled conditions must be taken seriously and appropriate pre-emptive action must be considered to prevent any damage to India's long term strategy of retaining supremacy in this area. If warmer temperatures can affect Basmati varieties, what about its effect on normal rice strains? Will the yield go down or will there be change in the nutritional and eating qualities of normal rice? Answers must be found for these questions as India cannot afford to let any uncertainty affect its staple cereal on which millions of its population depend.


Friday, January 28, 2011


Food industry needs technical personnel to manage day to day floor level operations, quality control and new product and process development programs. The extent of employment of qualified food technology graduates by the industry depends on the financial strength of the manufacturers, production capacity and product mix. As there are no rules that industry must employ food technology graduates, at least to ensure safety of products manufactured by them, most processing units opt for unqualified, under-qualified and mis-qualified personnel who cost them considerably less in terms of financial compensation. Take the case of India where food industry produces a diverse mix of products including those based on fruits, vegetables, spices, cereals, oil seeds, meat and poultry and fisheries resources. Indian exports of food are mostly unprocessed or minimally processed with least value addition and no worth while attempts are being made to deploy sophisticated global technology and competent technical personnel to upgrade these products to international standards. Multinational food companies, however do deploy modern tools of production including qualified food technologists in sufficient numbers and dominate the food processing landscape with very few native players who can stand shoulder to shoulder with the former.

It is unfortunate that graduates coming out of Indian food tech institutions are mostly "absorbed" by the multinational companies where stream lined technologies are used with very little challenge to the skills and capabilities of the trained personnel sent out from some of the institutions. Probably what these graduates were able to learn in their course have very little relevance in the industry they join and the employers retrain these graduates according to their specific needs. Where challenge is there, that is in the small scale industries, adequate financial incentives are not available creating a Catch 22 situation. Most of the units are forced to look out for low paid operating personnel who do not have adequate comprehension about various facets of food processing. Under such an environment will it ever be possible for the main stream food industry in India to stand tall and be counted? Neither the MFPI nor the UGC nor the AICTE seems to be too much concerned about the situation which is being perpetuated during the last 6 decades. How can any one justify the operation of a particular food processing industry working from Bangalore and famous for its brand name, with more than Rs 5 billion annual turn over and 3000 employees on its role "managing" during the last two decades without employing evening a single food technologist graduate? If one goes by the profitability of this company, India can as well close down all food technology teaching shops with no adverse consequences!

It is the anarchic safety administrating system that is responsible for the above situation. Though millions of tons of processed foods are marketed and exported year after year, wide scale food adulteration and low quality foods dominate the market as the monitoring and deterrent system is very weak providing a free field for products manufactured under unsatisfactory conditions and unsupervised by expert personnel. Probably no data exist to day regarding the need for technical personnel by the industry and even norms for employing by the industry are not laid down. If a pharma unit can function only if there is a pharmacist, why not same norms be applicable to food industry? If such norms exist it would have been possible to estimate the personnel needs of this industry and accordingly streamline the training programs. For any food industry manufacturing products of diverse nature there is absolute need for technically qualified personnel in at least 3 areas, viz production management, quality control and equipment maintenance. Most units manage with "mestries", cooks, low paid mechanics to ensure production of food products which may or may not be up to the mark but usually their strength is derived from their ability to turn out tasty and lower priced products. As the country's food safety enforcement regime is lax, most of them get away without being "noticed".

The food technology training programs in India are mostly in Universities and more or less they were copied mostly from British programs. The three original training programs in Mumbai, Kolkatta and Kanpur existing before the country got independence from Britishers were helped and influenced by similar programs in the UK but over a period of time the teaching contents were modified to keep abreast of new developments. Some of the agri-varsities which pioneered food specialization for the agricultural graduates also contributed to the food technologists pool though they were less preferred by the industry. Then came the explosive growth of traditional colleges offering programs in food science, food technology, food and nutrition etc at the degree level though finding jobs for these graduates became difficult due to unbalanced course content and practically no exposure to real time food processing facilities lacked by these institutions. As these colleges have practically no linkage with user industries, their graduates are not often absorbed by the latter.

One of the critical questions raised about the competence of these "teaching shops" to train personnel is the complete lack of even simple and basic facilities that are essential to get the necessary experience and exposure to actual food processing for the students. Added to this is the less than satisfactory competence of the teaching staff, most of whom do not have the required background to teach the subjects keeping in view the dynamic changes taking place at the global level. Look at the IITs in the country which can boast of global standards because of enormous investments made by GOI on the teaching and research infrastructure and involvement of internationally recognized teaching staff. Why this is not happening in the food technology training institutions is a big mystery. Even the three oldest food tech teaching set ups in the country in Mumbai, Kolkatta and Kanpur do not have high quality laboratories and practical processing facilities compared to those in other countries. What about linkage to the industry? Absolutely none!

Here comes the role of established foreign institutions in some of the developed countries like the US, Canada,the EU, Australia and New Zealand where excellent facilities exist for imparting training in all facets of food processing, preservation and packing. A recent example of technological partnership between countries is that between Singapore and New Zealand (NZ). The Massey University in NZ and Singapore Polytechnic (SP) collaborated to turn out graduates in Food Technology with international standards. Similar to a twinning program, while the students complete their 3 year diploma in SP, another two years are spent with Massey University center at Singapore itself to turn out a "finished product" with high competence. What is needed in India is such types of cooperation and the country must invite foreign Universities of repute to set up their Centers for complimenting the training efforts of the country. Only then the food industry can take more graduates inti its fold with some sense of confidence. Ideally it can be a three way collaboration, the third partner being the industry. A role model for such global cooperation is the International School of Milling Technology set up at Mysore the partners there being the industry association, GOI and the Milling School in Switzerland. But for the massive milling facilities and the expert assistance provided by Swiss partner, India would not have been able to produce more than 500 millers who are working all over the world to day.

There is an urgent need to study the needs of the food industry in India for technical personnel and arrive at a consensus as to the type and level of personnel for various functions, their required background, norms for employing trained personnel, minimum salary package, retraining needs and a system of refresher courses to update knowledge base periodically. Earlier this is done, better it will be for the industry and the country.


Thursday, January 27, 2011


Hand washing before sitting for the food is a basic tenet inculcated even at young age because of the underlying principle that cleaning removes dangerous disease causing bacteria and other harmful materials preventing their access to the stomach. There are many pathogens that can cause minor stomach upset and some times serious gastroenteritis. Even hand washing is mired in controversy though many believe that thorough washing using soap suds can remove most, if not all, harmful bacteria from hands. The efficiency of washing is a function of quantity of water used and thoroughness with which hands are rubbed against each other. Use of antiseptic hand wash preparations often leave behind significant counts of bacteria leaving no alternative to washing under profuse running water. The disturbing question that keeps coming back when hand washing is considered pertains to water shortage being experienced in many developing countries making it impractical to expect people to use the required water for thorough cleaning before touching the food. The problem is very acute in countries where food is eaten with bare hands unlike westerners who use spoons and forks.

Another dimension to food safety is posed by the need to store foods for some time and it is very common for people to store prepared foods for at least a few hours, especially when excess foods are prepared, for consuming later. Of course refrigerators do help to control the density of microbial colonies because bacterial growth is temperature sensitive. But how many households in India or other developing countries have access to refrigerators? Very few families belonging to middle and upper class income group can afford the luxury of refrigerators and foods will have to remain under ambient conditions for a few hours before actual consumption. Even when refrigerators are available, house wives rarely shove the food into refrigerator under the mistaken impression that it is safe for few hours. Unfortunately the bacteria can grow exponentially if the initial contamination level is high, especially in foods rich in nutrients. Some of the serious contaminants which have caused havoc recently include Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens, Listeria monocytogenes and Escherichia coli O157;H7

There is an impression that bacteria pose danger only in nutrient rich foods like meat, fish, poultry etc which are considered highly perishable and most incidences of food poisoning occur in this category of foods. But the belief that other foods are not vulnerable is a fallacy as reflected by a series of food poisoning episodes involving such innocuous materials like spinach, tomato, lettuce, peanuts, walnuts etc. Improper handling and storage can make any food vulnerable to contamination and adequate precaution must be taken to preempt such incidences. According to microbiological experts all foods are risky to be exposed to a bacterial "danger zone" when temperatures are between 5C and 60C enabling these bugs to multiply rapidly. It is not exaggeration when a microbiologist states that every single bacterial cell can multiply within half an hour reaching several millions in less than 12 hours!.One can imagine the consequences of the presence of such high levels of bacteria in foods, especially if they are pathogenic!.

What about reheating? Does it help to make the old food safe? It depends on the nature of food and extent of heating. Cold foods such as salads are not fit to be heated while cooked foods cannot be reheated to kill all the contaminants without compromising on the eating quality. The composition of food also makes a difference. While high salt or sugar or acidic foods are relatively safer, others with normal composition and taste can pose safety risks of higher order. As a thumb rule experts believe that if cooked food is to be preserved for a few hours, it must be refrigerated under 4C or reheated to at least to 75C before consumption to be safer.


Monday, January 24, 2011


Food research and development cannot be done in isolation without consulting with potential users or without being driven by the industry. Sadly in India the scientific community and the industry go parallel, there being no meeting point. The result is a plethora of R & D projects undertaken by universities and public funded institutions with practically no relevance to the user industry or to the society at large. Imagine the waste of public money caused by one of the supposedly national research outfits being headed for long by a person of questionable competence with no clue regarding the needs of the industry, the colossal loss to the country being more than Rs 5 billion during the last one decade. All this organization can show is plenty of multicolored glossy reports containing tall and irrelevant claims. It is well known that however good an army may be, it cannot succeed if led by a General who spends most of his time before a mirror appreciating how handsome he is! Such non-performing systems can probably work only in India where no accountability is demanded and the merry go-around goes on and on!.

It was CSIR which started the ball rolling for its constituent research laboratories to go for funding from external sources including the industry with the avowed objective of pushing them closer to users. There was a time when demands were made by the CSIR on its units to earn as much as 50% of their budget from external sources. Though this is a sound principle it is flawed by the fact that all sectors of industry are not in a position to pay for research and this is especially true regarding the food processing industry predominated by small scale and micro enterprises, spread through out the country. It is another matter that the Heads of some these institutions, clever as they are, wangled out funds from other central agencies which were considered "external" to CSIR!

Except for a few National Laboratories, no industry would be willing to go any where near such institutions which invariably convey the impression that their services are not for charity! It is beyond any body's comprehension as to how a small entrepreneurs, can access technology and technical services, with a few thousands of rupees of his own for investment but with a burning desire to get an industry started? The cost of buying these services is too high if to be obtained from National Laboratories which want to "earn and earn" to meet their collection targets at any cost? Over the years these research monoliths inspire awe and fear amongst the entrepreneurs turning them away from the gates of these moribund organizations.

Since some of the R & D institutions have unique capacity status, they are endowed with some statutory functions and in many cases certificates from GOI agencies can open may locks in the minds of babus vested with "managing"responsibility like exports, imports, pollution control, safety aspects, nutritional labeling etc.and many industries are per se forced to go to these institutions for obtaining such documents. If a dispassionate and impartial inquisition can be made regarding the funds invested by the private sector food industry in genuine research, not for other work like routine analysis in GOI institutions during the last one decade, the real truth may emerge. No doubt it will be practically nil!

It is against this back ground that one hears about funding by a multinational food company in four public-funded national universities for a secret project supposedly for promoting nutritional awareness programs for adolescent school-going girls in government-run village schools. According to scant information available to the public the MNC executed secret agreements regarding the program restraining these institutions from revealing the program content. Why an MNC, known widely for its promotion of commercial infant food products at the expense of breast feeding, is interested in nutrition education in India is beyond any body's comprehension. If such education is imparted truthfully, it can only affect adversely its own brand of products impinging its bottom line! Then what is the real motive in this liberal funding strategy? Probably promotion of its branded products targeted at young future mothers to go for their more "balanced" and "tested"commercial formula than the breast milk. If there are no ulterior motives such funds should made available to research institutions to use them freely to pursue programs as decided by their internal management committees or for improving the R & D infrastructure for better quality research..

There was a time when foreign investments in research required GOI clearance and why such formalities are done away in this case remains baffling. It raises ethical questions regarding the attitude of the scientists involved as they seem to be too keen to serve foreign interests to earn a few bucks. Is there a dearth of funds in this country for education of children? If not why does one need foreign funds? Is it because the investigating team is paid for their time and intellectual output which is not the case if the same projects get GOI funds? The tight veil of secrecy surrounding these projects makes a mockery of the RTI Act as the funding company has inserted a "confidentiality" clause in the agreement barring the scientific personnel involved not to provide any information to any one though the work is being undertaken at facilities created out of tax payers' money!
If the reports appearing in the media are true, GOI must investigate these cases to get to the truth. Suitable guidelines must be evolved in receiving foreign funds for research projects which need to be transparent and favorable to the country. The matter is serious because the facilities built up with public funds and the staff on the roll of GOI cannot serve the interests of foreign companies and a distinction must be made regarding genuine product development work and market promotion activities of controversial nature. As a general guideline foreign funds must be shunned for projects of immense interest to the country when adequate funds are available readily from GOI sources.



There is an increasing tendency for people o go for "fresh", "local" "natural" or organic foods and the reason is not far to seek. It is simply the fear factor that is driving millions of consumers away from preserved or processed foods and the food industry is to blame itself for this sorry situation. Historically food technology was evolved over centuries to extend the supply chain so that adequate foods are available all year round. Use of salt or sugar which increases the osmotic pressure in food system to discourage proliferation of pathogens and many spoilage organisms continues even to day though from healthy angle they are shunned by a substantial strata of the society. While uncontrolled salt consumption is known to be linked to hyper tension and cardiovascular disease, high sugar can be responsible for dental decay, diabetes, obesity and other disorders. Organolepticaly too much sugar or salt can create quick satiety. Salt and sugar preserved food products can be farthest from the concept of fresh foods.

Sun drying or the more scientific mechanical drying of perishables which contain high levels of moisture gives products with altered textural features but it still served the purpose of extending the life of the food significantly due to low water activity in such foods after removing bulk of the water content. Besides, the reconstituted final product has drastically different eating quality, not often liked by consumers. Vast improvements in dehydration technology have contributed to better finished products and freeze drying can give a product that can be quite satisfactory though cost wise such products can be very expensive. However dehydrated foods can also never qualify to be called fresh.

One often hears about "Dairy Fresh" milk which is probably taken to mean that the milk is as fresh as the one milked directly from the cow! In reality milk travels over some distance from the point of milking, gets refrigerated, pasteurized and packed before reaching the consumer. In a country like the US raw milk is never allowed to be sold directly and therefore fresh milk in literal sense can never be seen by a US consumer while in India really fresh milk is sold directly to homes within a matter of minutes! Similarly fresh fruits and vegetables which are sold in many markets in India are considered really fresh because not much time elapses between their harvest and bringing to the market. In contrast most fresh produce sold in super markets cannot claim to be fresh because they undergo a series of "processing" involving cleaning, washing, sorting, trimming, cold storage and distribution over considerable distances.

Modern technologies like MAS and MAP in combination with cold storage can extend the life of fresh produce for weeks and months though quality-wise they will always be inferior to farm fresh counterparts. That raises the inevitable question as to what qualifies to be called "fresh"? The current understanding that any food put on sale as early as possible after harvesting is some what vague and there does not appear to be any scientific definition universally accepted. The perishable nature of foods in general calls for preservation, at least till they reach the market and ultimately the bottom line is that the eating quality and nutritive value should not be adversely affected to any significant extent.

As foods, especially the perishable ones are seasonal in nature, their year round availability and supply can be assured only if they are preserved for some time. While some foods like apple, potato, onion etc are amenable to long term storage under MAS and low temperature environment, others can still be stored under such conditions for limited periods. Frozen storage or freeze drying can be the best way of protecting a food from nutrition angle but the consumer will have to compromise on eating quality as there will be deterioration in this respect due to freezing. While under optimum frozen temperature conditions almost all foods can have storage life beyond an year, the sensory quality of products when thawed can never be the same as the fresh material before freezing.

While advances in technology and transportation extends the shelf life of food, there is a price for availability and convenience in terms of nutrition and taste. Probably obsession with the word "fresh" will have to be overcome eventually as it is impossible for the world to meet the demand for such "farm fresh" foods of every consumer in the world. While intense debate goes on regarding even the ability of man to meet the bare food needs of the ever expending population, the protagonists of fresh foods are well advised not to divert the attention of the world from the basic task of increasing food production and making them available to people with maximum nutrient content. The story of organic foods also bears a parallel to fresh foods as it is logistically impossible to raise and supply such foods to meet the needs of entire population! In spite of movements like Local Produce, Slow Foods, Urban Gardening, Roof-top farming, Organic farming etc, it is unlikely that every person on this planet can be provided with "fresh" foods as it is understood commonly.


Thursday, January 20, 2011


Recent utterances by a lawyer-cum cabinet minister in the union government defending the culprits who caused the nation a whopping revenue loss of Rs 1,76 crore is nothing but a national shame and no honest citizen can swallow this nauseating action. Is it a reflection of the deteriorating moral fiber of the Indian Society at large as condoning or assuming an attitude of "hear no evil, talk no evil, see no evil", lest it will affect one's peace and tranquility? Or is it a situation where honest citizen has become helpless against those who are powerful and corrupt to the core? What choice the Indians have, as a part of the democratic system, to elect people or parties most of whom are considered corrupt? A sorry situation indeed!,

Here is a minister who disingenuously argues that the 2G scam did not cause any loss to the country while the matter is under judicial consideration and Parliament is paralyzed on the issue of forming a Joint Parliamentary Committee ( JPC) to probe the matter in its entirety! Besides the Parliament Accounts Committee is also seized of the matter. This raises the inevitable question as to what one understands by the term Loss or Profit in English Language. Typically loss means loss of money when some thing is sold at lesser than the real cost. But who decides about the real cost of the 2G Spectrum? That can be clear only when there is an open auction and highest bid will naturally coincide with the market value of the material. Since Comptroller And Auditor General (CAG) has made a computation based on certain criteria the value of loss must be reckoned as a reality and a minister with gift of the gab has no right to fool the people of this country by deft use of the beautiful language that is English. If this gentleman's view represents that of the GOI it raises many questions about the integrity of the very government supposed to be headed by a "clean" man!

Same applies to other scams and corruption cases involving purchase of Bofors Guns, organization of Common Wealth Games, Adarsh Kargilgate etc. Corruption is a dirty word used to describe extra payments to seek a favor and such favors can be conferred by only those enjoying power or a position to cause delay or to destruction of evidence or do some thing considered improper. Even an attender in a government office can earn an extra buck by denying entry to the office and the value of bribe grows exponentially with the extent of power the "babus" enjoy in creating inconvenience and road blocks to get some thing to be done for the citizen.

Think about the PDS which is supposed to provide the minimum food grain needs of the BPL population at heavily subsidized rates but the grains are hijacked to the open market, the pilferage being as high as 75% in some states. It is not that the GOI is not aware of this massive scam but very little has been done during the last 35 years, the merry go-around going on and on resulting in continuous loot of the national resources. While the states blame the Central government, the onus is put on the states for the mismanagement of the food gain distribution. Probably this scam also wil be justified saying that after all the food is not wasted, being consumed by Indians, though they may not be BPL category.

What about the Onion scam? Knowing pretty well that there could be some shortage of this crop because of untimely rains, the exporters were allowed to sell the material abroad while traders were allowed to hoard to create an artificial shortage! The result is there for all to see as the onion prices shot up by 400% suddenly on a "tearful" Monday in many places across the country, sending shock waves amongst the consumers who depend on onion for their day to day cooking of food preparations. Whether it is the food ministry or the commerce ministry or the consumer affairs ministry or the PM's Office, all were trying to pass the buck around without taking any responsibility for the heinous crime against the country. A senile ex-minister even had the temerity to comment that consumers should not raise too much noise if price of onion goes up by a few rupees! Under all these manipulations who made how much money has been forgotten under this scam.

Look at the systematic efforts going on during the last few years to undermine public sector enterprises in food production, processing and marketing like agro-industries corporations, cooperative industrial enterprises, the erstwhile Modern Foods and a score of others whose existence was justified for decades as social ventures. But under the economic liberalization regime many of them have been sold to private sector at low prices while many others were allowed to wither away slowly while serving the needs of a few politicians and bureaucrats for power and perks at the expense of the exchequer. It was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who pioneered the policy of creating public enterprises as a part of the socialistic pattern of government so that these would provide employment to millions of people and serve as a counter balance against uncontrolled profiteering by the private industry. Whether such transformation with too much emphasis on role of private sector in providing services to the citizen is driven by the large industrial giants and if so what was the quid pro in this change will never be known.

Nepotism is another form of corruption though the economic value of such activities is difficult to estimate. When some one who does not deserve some thing, gets the same because of some body's benevolence it is a case of nepotism and whether it is benevolence or a "business" involving financial considerations there cannot be any justification. Look at the recent appointment of CVC where a" tainted" bureaucrat was favored to act as a referee on corruption and since it is still under the judicial scrutiny of the Supreme Court, a value judgment is difficult to make. Similarly there are hundreds of such appointments made by the governments where those not qualified are catapulted into positions requiring special knowledge and sills. Take the case of FSSAI, a body vested with the power to protect the quality of food and ensure safety of the citizens from health hazards and can the GOI vouchsafe the suitability of the present incumbent to head the Authority? What are the considerations in choosing such an individual who does not know even the basics of food science or technology? One will never know!

What about Defense food purchases? Though it is well known that millions of rupees worth of foods are bought year after year obviously to feed the jawans fighting for the country and the quality is often compromised for financial considerations, no one seems to be unduly concerned. It is a lethal alliance between the favored supplier industry and the Defense purchase authorities that deprives the jawans of the much needed safe and healthy foods while guarding the borders from terrorists and foreign enemies. Though this is going on for decades no one seems to be too much bothered. It is refreshing to see the Defense authorities being summoned by the CAG recently to fix the responsibility and one can only hope that the CAG report on these irregularities in Defense purchases as and when it comes will not suffer the same fate as that on 2G scam. The present turbulence regarding black illegal money hoardings in foreign countries, about which the Supreme court is considering action, involves billions of rupees being slashed away in tax havens and secret bank accounts by those cheating the government of rightful taxes does not seem to be serious in prosecuting the fraudsters and traitors and recover the money lost due to tax evasion.

Is the corruption a monopoly of any political party? Close on the heels of the 2G loot comes the scams related to land and mining in Karnataka, Tamilnadu, Jharkand and other states costing billions of rupees to the exchequer. Obviously corruption is a trans-political phenomenon, spread across the entire political spectrum in the country. The old saying that one who puts his finger in a honey pot would always be tempted to lick the hand is apt to describe the behavior of those enjoying power to day. It is unfortunate that a few patriotic persons with public service motto who espouse the cause of the country are sidelined, harassed and humiliated when public campaigns are organized against those responsible for these scams. Is it the end of the tunnel for Indians who aspire to be part of a country with pride and decency amongst the comity of nations with financial scams, one after the other, making themselves a laughing stock of the world? Is there no hope that there could be a reversal of fortunes one day? Unless there are stringent systems to punish such scamsters expeditiously with onus to prove innocence on the accused under jurisprudence and exemplary punishment awarded to the guilty people and their families including capital punishment, not much can be expected under the present dispensation.


Monday, January 17, 2011


It is often said that consumers "eat" the foods first through their "eyes", then through the nose and finally through the oral cavity. While the color and appearance of food help to attract the consumer near to the food, the nasal tool provides a feed back regarding the smell or odor that emanates from the product. Of course oral cavity is the ultimate place where the food is eventually accepted or rejected. The food processing industry invariably tries to make the food desirable from all angles.

One of the moot questions regarding the relationship between color and food acceptability is whether the consumer has really any affinity towards particular colors or the industry is creating a situation where consumer is conditioned to choose foods which imitate the natural colors. It is understandable that red color is used to imitate natural fruits or vegetable based products by the processing industry largely because naturally grown produce does not give uniform color and for mere consistency and uniformity industry is tempted to use matching colors, most of which are synthetically developed. Slow realization has dawn on the industry that use of synthetic colors might not be desirable in the long run, seeking alternative means to achieve the goal of product uniformity. One of the earliest cases of artificial colors being phased out was in tomato products and to day suitable varieties have been developed with required color tint for giving bright red colored products.

Organically processed foods are made without use of unnatural ingredients and if there is a thriving market for these specialty products credit must go to the consumers for shunning artificial colors in large numbers. Often use of color is reported being used to camouflage inferior quality raw materials and deceive the consumer. It was the synthetic beverage industry that resisted banning of artificial colors used commonly to create products resembling natural juices. Probably they have a point in that it may be some what comical to offer an orange flavored beverage based on sugar and flavor as a colorless product. Here is a technological necessity to use external colors but such colors need not be synthetic as there are a few natural color sources already established for use by the industry.

While technical justification may be there for use of colors in products resembling natural ones, how can one approve many fabricated products which use a range of artificial colors with no real justification except to attract consumers, especially the kids. If to day the world has reached a stage where the safety of all synthetic colors is being questioned, only the industry has to blame itself because these colors were used indiscriminately in most products just to tempt the consumers. If these were used with moderation or eliminated from many products which do not need them, there would not have been any clamor for their ban. For example how any manufacturer can justify use of half a dozen colors in a chocolate based candy type of product targeted at children?

It is in this context one has to view the proposed action by the European Food Safety Authority which lowered the ADI for Ponceau 4R (E124), Quinoline Yellow (E104), Sunset Yellow (E110) some time back based on some valid scientific findings regarding their safety. How far the reported link between these colors as well as three other colors and sodium benzoate with hyperactivity in children is reliable, one does not know. But the benefit of doubt must be given in favor of the consumer safety and till more studies come out repudiating the linkage, it is better to err on the side of caution. The ADI lowering prompted the European Commission to propose amendments to currently permitted levels. This will become the subject of more wide-spread work with a view to remove them eventually from food products. But mandating the industry by the European Safety agency to insert warning label on hyperactivity risk on products containing any one of the three colors above is timely.


Sunday, January 9, 2011


The highly successful campaign designed by Kerala Government to lure international tourists to the state has established it as a major destination of tourists during the last few years. With evergreen greenery and idyllic landscapes, a visit to Kerala has become a must for many foreign tourists and the 100% literacy for which the state is well known helped its cause to no end. The state is also getting known better these days for the enormous consumption of liquor which is increasing year after year, though it is not known why Keralites are hooked on spirits, knowing well the harmful effects of consuming liquor. If a recent report is taken into consideration the growth in liquor consumption in the state registered an unbelievable figure of more than 20%in one year from 2009 to 2010! Interestingly on the new year eve the sale of "legal" or "government" liquor was more than Rs 1 crore a day!

Kerala witnessed a surge in liquor sales on New Year's eve with a record business of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) worth over Rs 32 crore, in spite of a recent campaign by several organizations to curb alcohol consumption in the state. Sales on December 31, 2010 increased by Rs four crore compared to that in 2009. In December 2010, IMFL worth Rs 597 crore was sold in the state while the corresponding figure was Rs 490 crore in December 2009. The figures available were the sales through the 338 outlets of the Kerala State Beverages Corporation, the main wholesale and retail dealer of IMFL in the state. Out of IMFL sale, 65 per cent sale was different brands of Rum followed by Brandy 30 per cent and premium brand liquors five per cent according some reports.

Official as well as unofficial efforts in Kerala through campaigns to discourage drinking do not seem to have any impact as reflected by the above sales figures. It is a common sight in Kerala to see crowds/queue in front of most of the State-run liquor outlets, with eager consumers vying for laying their hands on the liquor bottle. Paradoxically the very same people flock in large numbers to temples with two of the most popular ones, Sabarimala and Guruvayur located in the state while the state is ruled by the atheist communist party!
Add to this another irony that the Muslim population generally consider alcohol drinking a taboo from the religious angle. The per capita consumption of 8 liters of alcohol per year is just an average and it does no reveal the fact that those who drink are heavy drinkers while majority population do not consume alcohol.

Interestingly there is an inherent contradiction between the precepts and practices in Kerala as liquor is distributed by the state run enterprises like Beverage Corporation and Civil Supplies Corporation and the state derives almost 40% of its annual income from the sale of liquor! How can any government afford to forgo this revenue by going back to Gandhian values of abstaining from alcohol consumption? A valid question to which no satisfactory answer can be found. According to knowledgeable observers alcohol consumption is responsible for high divorce rates, major cases of hospitalization for alcohol related diseases and high highway deaths due to accidents happening in the state.

From nutrition angle the milk consumption in Kerala is hardly 100 ml per day per person compared to the all India average of 250 ml and the population ravaged by high alcohol consumption does not have adequate access to this protective food. Growth in milk production in Kerala has not kept up with the progress achieved nation-wide under Operation Flood Program and cost of milk rules high making it beyond the reach of poorer segment of the population. It is unlikely that Kerala can achieve a daily production of 7.5 million liters of milk to meet the normal need as per standard nutrition scale. However the fish consumption in Kerala is four times the national average. How the diet influences the health of the people who consume alcohol heavily needs to be understood more succinctly to unravel any potential long term damage waiting to happen here.

One of the suggestions aired frequently to tackle the rampant alcoholism is to introduce mild alcohol drinks like beer and wine which should not be heavily taxed so that they are made affordable to most people. The licensing restrictions need to be removed to make them available freely as normal beverages like soft drinks. One positive feature in Kerala is the wide scale distribution of Toddy, the alcohol beverage obtained from Coconut trees and there are more than 5000 Toddy shops offering this to the public under a state licensing regime. Toddy has about 5% alcohol by volume and consumption in moderate quantity is considered harmless. However the shoddy conditions in the vending outlets keep many potential customers away and they are more or less patronized by poor laborers. There is an excellent case to modernize the Toddy shops in Kerala on par with restaurants and juice parlors to persuade more and more alcohol drinkers to such joints. Coconut Board must look at the possibility of improving the quality and safety of Toddy so that it becomes an acceptable common beverage for a wide spectrum of consumers.

Monday, January 3, 2011


Any responsible democratic government cannot shy away from its solemn duty to protect its citizens from dangers emanating from different sources including that posed by sub-standard and unsafe foods. All nations have their own food safety management systems tailored to the situation prevailing there. As the world is tending to become a global village with porous boundaries, it is in the interest of every one to have harmonized food laws that can be followed without unnecessary disputes and uncertainties. WHO-FAO sponsored Codex Alimentarius Commission and International Standards Organization happen to be two of the most visible agencies that help the countries to evolve quality and safety standards for universal adoption or acceptance with some minimum modifications.

Food and Drug Administration of the United State of America (FDA) and the European Food Safety Council are two of the most active agencies engaged in evolving safety protocols suitable for their countries and being industrially advanced and economically well to do nations they have the wherewithal to invest on safety related development work for implementation to benefit their citizens. As for other countries, especially those coming under the category of developing or undeveloped nations, the models offered by developed world are supposed to be gold standards though they still have to modify some of them to suit their individual needs. Under such a situation what could be the implications if there are grave concerns regarding the credibility of these safety enforcement agencies in those countries?

USA, which, by far the only unchallenged super power, has a powerful body created by the government tasked with the responsibility of making the food chain secure and protect its citizens from fraud, unsafe foods and unhealthy products in the market. Unfortunately the sordid record of the FDA does not inspire any confidence amongst other nations aspiring to evolve workable but effective safety regimes for protecting their citizens. Of course the task on hand is tough considering that it has to balance the interests of both the industry as well as the consumers. It is in an unenviable position to day being attacked for botching its duties by both the stakeholders. For a dispassionate observer, the very fact that food in that country is the biggest killer compared to communicable diseases is a telling commentary on the track record of this agency.

The FDA, is being blamed for many ills that confront the country by illegally allowing antibiotics, hormones and slaughterhouse waste (all banned for years in Europe) to enter the food supply, along with pesticides and GMOs, with none ever having been tested for safety in humans. It is a fact that the situation continues even to day despite decades of studies by independent scientists proving the danger of these alleged toxic substances in foods. It is inevitable that FDA will have to face the allegation regarding its obfuscation before strong industry lobbies that has caused the death of countless number of people from chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease etc caused by unhealthy foods churned out by the food industry. The allegation that the food industry is working in tandem with pharmaceutical industry so that both are benefited, one by selling foods of uncertain safety and the other selling medicines to cure the diseases caused by consuming unhealthy foods! Unfortunately both these industries are controlled by one agency, the FDA.

Probably some of the allegations may be far fetched and unsustainable while some others may have some substance. Many of the product recall episodes of recent years are both a tribute as well as an indictment on the FDA, one for removal of tainted products from the market and the other for lack of monitoring the sanitation facilities in the manufacturing premises. Of course there are thousands of small producers, out side the charmed circle of industrial giants, which still produce good and safe foods whereas the latter seem to be more interested in making products based on GM materials, hormone and antibiotic tainted foods and others deviating from natural foods. Some critics believe that in collusion with the FDA these industrial monoliths will cause eventual collapse of many honest small scale establishments in the coming years.