Arsenic evokes fears among the consumers as it is one of the earliest poisons known to humans. It is unbelievable how such a poisonous substance is allowed to be used by the poultry industry purely for increasing the visual quality of meat. It is claimed by the industry that including arsenic in the poultry feed also fights infections among the birds though there are many other safer substances available for preventing infectious diseases. Of course there is excellent chance that practice of using arsenic compounds like Roxarsone in poultry feeds by more than 70% of the broiler growers in the US may be banned in the near future considering that the excreta from such birds containing high levels of arsenic contaminates ground water. According to WHO more than 57 million people in the world have access to only water that contains more than 10 ppb arsenic, the safe limit set by the global agency. How far the poultry industry has contributed to this unfortunate situation is any body's guess!
Elemental arsenic and arsenic compounds are classified as Group I carcinogens by the European Union as elevated levels of these poisonous substances, especially for prolonged periods, can lead to cancer of bladder, kidney, prostate, skin and nasal cavity. Though testing of blood, urine, hair and nails can reveal arsenic levels in human body, the test results cannot be depended upon to predict the effect of arsenic at levels detected by one or two tests. According to knowledgeable scientists arsenic can elevate the production of Hydrogen Peroxide in the tissue leading generation of active Oxygen radicals with potential to damage the DNA. This in turn can lead to cancer over long periods of exposure. As per some estimates there are more than 80 million people across the world, exposed to drinking water sources containing between 10 and 50 ppb arsenic and incidence of cancer is high among these population. In the US alone 20% of wells yield water with high arsenic concentration. Water treatment technology to day has the wherewithal to remove arsenic and probably such treatment regimes are protecting people from arsenic epidemic.Recent announcement about voluntary suspension of use of arsenic laced feed by the FDA of the US comes after years of controversy over the widespread poultry industry practice of giving chicks arsenic-laced feed to combat infection and give their flesh a pinker hue. Surprisingly use of arsenic containing feed is confined only to the US and why this was being allowed could be due to the lobbying power of the industry on the government. It may be recalled that there has been persistent demand by scientists and environmentalists to ban it nationally because of their concerns about food safety and the environmental impact of arsenic in poultry waste getting into soil and streams.
Whether one likes it or not there is a wide chasm dividing the developing and developed countries and no camouflage can mask this bitter truth. It is not for charity that wealthy countries are buying foods from poor nations and the former does it as an unavoidable necessity for their own survival. In to day's world no country can be 100% self-reliant, depending on others for supply of many products needed by their citizens. Take the instance of Japan, a country with limited land availability, which is heavily dependent on buying most of their food needs from countries all around the world or for that matter the US and Canada which import more than 80% of its needs for meat and fish products from Asia.
When developing countries are repeatedly being hauled up for unsatisfactory quality or suspect safety credentials of the foods exported by them, the industrialized nations do not think for a moment the historic reasons for such a situation. During colonial days those countries who had the ownership right on many of those countries under their subjugation could loot their resources shamelessly and ruthlessly and there were no reservations in consuming the foods made there vis-a-vis quality or safety! Though under WTO regime there should not be any technical barrier to trade between member countries, developed world invariably use the technical "route" probably to get favorable terms for buying the same products indicted once! If this is the attitude what will happen to the so called "free trade" regime? How can it work to the mutual benefit for all? There has to be a fundamental change in the mindset of these rich countries and they should consider poor countries as equal partners in protecting the free trade philosophy to which everybody is committed.In a recent tirade against imported foods in Canada, it was claimed that most foods imported into the West are inferior and unsafe for consumption and locally made foods are discriminated against by the authorities there by insisting on stiffer standards while imported foods are not subjected to any severe scrutiny! What an insinuation! It is a common knowledge that most food poisoning cases in the West had their origin within the country and the broken safety vigilance systems there are unable to cope up with violations indulged by the domestic industry. Look at the recent German episode involving E.coli contamination resulting in at least 51 deaths so far and remember it was not caused by imported foods from Asia. The very feces blamed for contaminated foods from Asia was responsible for the food poisoning but the source was from German feces! They may blame Egyptian Fenugreek for the tragedy but such buck passing does not cut ice any more.
Criticality of iron to maintain sound health cannot be overstated and population suffering from anemia or iron deficiency is widely spread over the continents of Asia, Africa and South America. Iron deficiency is caused by poverty as well as eating habits of people which vary from place to place. For wealthy western countries meat is the major source of iron as most of the population are non-vegetarians. In contrast population not having access to meat can be due to food habits or economic compulsions.It is not that plant foods are devoid of iron but the concentration is generally low requiring larger quantities to be consumed to meet the recommended daily intake. Even in Western countries iron fortification is common and mostly cereal products manufactured by the industry do contain added iron.
Iron deficiency can produce anemia as manifested by reduced hemoglobin content in the blood and is often precipitated by poverty conditions among people in may developing countries. Even in developed countries where meat eating is predominant anemia affects about 20% of women though it is only about 3% in men. Such a situation could have led to universal fortification of cereal products in these countries and with more than 80% of the foods consumed in these countries coming from the organized food industry, such a policy is deemed to be effective in countering iron-deficient anemia incidences. In contrast population in India with predominant vegetarian diets suffer from anemia to a greater extent. Normal hemoglobin content varies from 11-13 g/dl in humans, depending on the age as per WHO norms.
Fortification is a procedure that involves addition of one or more nutrient to foods either to restore the losses incurred during processing or to deliver a particular nutrient of critical importance to masses suffering from deficiency. Universal fortification of salt with iodine is a standing example of a successful strategy to prevent development of goiter, a common deficiency disorder occurring widespread in the world and many countries have made it mandatory for the salt manufacturers to sell this commodity only after iodine fortification. Cooking fats and milk are also fortified with Vitamins A and D though how far this is effective is not known.
Considering the success achieved in using salt as a carrier for delivering iodine, the possibility of using the same for incorporating iron has been explored and this approach seems to be feasible as borne out by limited studies in this area. Double fortification of salt can be most effective in tackling two dreaded diseases, goiter and anemia through a single medium. As in the West cereal flours cannot be an effective carrier because in countries like India the share of organized roller flour industry in the flour market is not substantial, with small plate grinders being the prominent players and scientific blending of iron sources with such products is not logistically feasible. Here is where salt come into picture and offers an easy solution.
Earlier efforts to use fluid milk and tea as carriers, explored during nineteen seventies in India did not bear fruit because of insurmountable technical difficulties. Both milk and tea are consumed country wide and could have provided route for the delivery of iron if efforts had succeeded to fortify them. Ferrous sulfate, ferrous gluconate, ferrous fumerate, are good sources of iron but the absorption efficiency is rather low and this problem is further compounded by the composition of foods as many ingredients can inhibit absorption. Iron amino acid chelate ferrous bisglycinate and Sodium Ferredelate EDTA are sources of iron with high bioutilization rate. With the availability of these modern iron sources it may be worth making attempts again to use milk and tea as iron carriers.
Use of salt has some ramifications which need to be kept in view. There is a sustained campaign in many countries to persuade the consumers to cut down drastically on salt because of its connection to blood pressure and cardiac disease and there may be resistance to use salt as a medium to deliver iron. While small quantities like 15 mg/day may not pose much problem, if higher doses in the vicinity of 100 mg/day for treating serious anemia cases may be some what difficult. Still salt presents the best option to day, considering its daily use by 100% of the targeted population and cost wise relatively cheap, as a vehicle for delivery of iron to masses and deserves consideration in many developing countries.
When the carton says it contains free range eggs many consumers may entertain images of a happy, healthy chicken roaming freely on a grassy hillside. Is it true?Not necessarily! Such claims do not assure that the hen was actually able to roam around outdoors. Generally as per law free-range conditions apply to only birds that are sold for their meat, not for egg-laying chickens. Even here it only means that the birds need to have access to the outdoors which can be fulfilled by providing a door in the side of the farm! Whether the chicken ever passes through it or not is irrelevant to the law which is equally vague as to whether the door leads to a concrete slab or actual grass or dirt!. Where does that leave the consumer? To no where! What does it mean when "cage free" adjective is used in the egg carton? It simply means that the hens are not confined to a cage but no one guarantees that these birds have real freedom to roam a farm and eat a varied diet, which is vital to the nutrients in the egg. The size of their space varies greatly from farm to farm. Some chickens have no more room than a small pet carrier! Almost all cage-free hens are still kept indoors and often, it's in a cramped barn.
One of the claimed benefits of cage-free and free-range bird is that the chickens will be healthier. Naturally when the birds are confined to the indoors, without access to natural light and the ability to stretch their legs, they are more vulnerable to sickness that calls for use of antibiotics frequently. Those that roam freely live more naturally in the outdoors and may not require extensive use of antibiotics which may find access to the eggs. There are interesting anecdotes that describe how tasty the traditionally raised country chickens can be compared to industrially produced chicken meat and eggs.
There are other versions of eggs such as "organic" which merely means that the bird was fed pesticide-free food and wasn't given hormones or antibiotics to help spur their growth and production. World is not unanimous in the view regarding the effects (if any) of using these hormones and pesticides have on the consumers in short term as well as long term. Many believe that these unnatural substances are undesirable and harmful causing cancers. Probably consumers are better off with organic eggs though they may have to pay extra such eggs, till better clarity emerges on this issue.. Omega-3 eggs are produced by hens raised on feeds containing high amounts of these types of fats considered heart-healthy. Such eggs are expected to contain two to three times the amount of omega 3s as compared to a regular egg and can be ideal for those who are averse to consuming fish like Salmon. There is this interesting version of a vegetarian egg which comes from hens fed on plant based feeds, suitable for ovo-vegetarians shunning dairy based foods. Hens with dark feathers produce brown eggs which are deceptively sold as more nutritious food which is not true. As these breeds eat more feed than chickens that lay white eggs, brown eggs invariably cost more to the consumer with no real advantage. It has to be kept in mind that an egg's taste and nutrition levels are most importantly influenced by feed composition which can be easily manipulated to give desired types of eggs.
How to beat the need to raise the prices of food products without antagonizing the consumer? This is a crucial issue that is confronting the industry world over and if the the product is not price sensitive the manufacturers may not be averse to increase the retail price to keep up with the rising inflation. But what about those products which are more or less staple foods for most of the consumers who will definitely feel the pinch when the family expenditure shoots up significantly? In western countries and many affluent communities the share of processed foods in the daily diet can be as high as 80%, any upward movement of prices is easily discerned.
In the retail market there are broadly two types of packed foods which consist of branded ones and the generic ones usually marketed by the retailing store under its own label. Invariably there is significant price difference with the branded products costing much more compared to generic or local store brands. One of the choices for the consumers is to switch over to local products in preference to established brands and stay within the family food budget. This is where the big processors find it difficult to compete and maintain the business volume. Naturally the main stream industry has to evolve effective strategies to survive and grow in such an environment. Playing around with the human weakness vis-a-vis appearance is exploited to "deceive" the consumer, giving the impression that products prices are not increased in spite of inflation.
It is true that commodity and energy costs have been climbing continuously with no respite and the organized food industry cannot escape from increasing the prices of their products to keep in step with the rising input costs. Whether one calls it ingenuity or plain deception, industry has hit upon the idea of downsizing their pack size without the consumer knowing about it unless the product labels are closely scrutinized. Probably the credit for this strategy must go to the wily package designers who are able to evolve suitable packs containing lesser quantity of products inside which cannot be discerned so easily. The result is a hidden price increase that has gone largely undetected by the average shopper. Recent studies in some of the markets in the Western world have brought out the fact that most popular products were able to to shrink their effective delivery by as much as 20 percent. In a few cases, even after reducing the quantity in the package the products actually appeared larger after downsizing!
One of the reasons why the consumer is not able to find out this deception must be due to the non-standard sizes of packs with each manufacturer using odd sizes which are difficult to remember. There was a time when standard weights and measures were specified and made mandatory by the authorities which helped the consumer to more or less pick up products based on comparative price analysis. But industry has been handed over a convenient route to deceive the consumer by using any pack size provided a declaration is made on the pack that it is not a standard size! With computer aided design capabilities, manufacturers can make a pack look bigger while actually reducing the content size and what is being witnessed to day is the result of such "intelligent" manipulation by the industry to protect their bottom line.
Probably it may be a pretty smart way of "having your cake as well as eat it"! It is a pity that most consumers buying any product do not have the faintest idea as to how much product is contained in a pack and a few pieces missing when the pack is opened at home are unlikely to be noticed. At least this is what the industry thinks. In contrast even a marginal increase in price is immediately noticed which can invite adverse reaction. This is the cardinal basis as to why food manufacturers feel that they can retain customers if they reduce volume instead of passing along price increases. Since this trend has more or less succeeded in almost all parts of the world, it is not unreasonable to expect the same to continue in light of a recent surge in prices of basic food commodities like wheat, corn, coffee etc.
International market prices for foods rose for eight straight months before peaking at a record high in February as per the monthly index figures put out by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, which tracks data for sugar, cereals, dairy, oils and meat products. This has been attributed to rising oil prices and extreme weather conditions in countries like Russia, which banned grain exports after experiencing its worst drought in a century. Naturally this puts food manufacturers in a fix as they know that most consumers are hyper-sensitive when it comes to price hikes at the supermarket. While in a country like the US consumers may be spending about 10% of their income on food purchase, this figure can be as high as 50% in countries like India. Further erosion of the purchasing capacity through all round, uncontrolled price escalation, at a rate faster than their income levels, is unlikely to be tolerated by the citizens. The new down sizing strategy by the industry, though understandable and considered perfectly legal, cannot be condoned from the ethical angle. Indirectly reducing serving size through shrinking pack size may be a blessing in disguise in countries faced with obesity problem as food intake gets automatically reduced.
Patenting of inventions is intended to reward the inventor with pecuniary benefits and recognition of merit. To day patents have become a tool for building monopoly in almost all areas of human endeavor. World Trade Organization (WTO) recognizes patent as a "system of exclusive rights granted by a state to an inventor for a limited period in exchange for a public disclosure of invention". Patents are taken by individuals and institutions and the duration of patents is generally for 20 years. While a patent is in force, no one can make the same claim or use the invention without the consent of the inventor. This has created a situation where many inventions are locked up for want of a buyer and such a situation cannot be considered healthy for science, technology and the country.
One of the most trenchant criticisms against the patenting system comes from poorer countries who are forced to pay exorbitantly high prices for welfare products like drugs. While generic rugs are made and sold in countries where patents have no legal validity as per international patent law, such practices are nonetheless considered unfair. The ethical question that arises is, why people in poor countries have to pay high prices for vital drugs manufactured by monopolistic patent holders while the real cost of the ingredient is a fraction of the retail price. The industry which buys the patent rights invariably justifies high cost of the products made using the patent as it spends much money in buying the patent and commercializing the findings. Many sociologists deprecate the patenting system, especially in pharmaceutical area because of the monopoly resulting from the exclusivity clause in patent purchasing agreements.
Another aspect of patenting practice is that development of a drug involves heavy investments, considerable efforts, long duration for maturation of the technology and heavy financial risks due to potential marketing failure. If there is no patent protection the incentive and motive for scientific pursuit are extinguished and society will suffer eventually due to stagnation and technological obsolescence. After all industry invests expecting reasonable returns for its endeavor though it is also conscious of its social responsibility. In the case of public funded institutions engaged in scientific and industrial research commercial aspects are not supposed to come in the way of innovation and technologies developed here need not be put through the patenting route, though some of them do file patents for offering to the industry for a price. This may not be a proper thing to do as research activities are funded by the public and benefits must flow to all those interested in using the technologies with no exclusivity to any one.
If patenting practice is allowed in public financed research organizations, there is the a larger question regarding the ownership of such patents. In India where ever such rights are conferred on individual scientists, any revenue generated is usually passed on to the inventors on a certain proportion, though the work was carried out with institutional funds. Although this sounds noble on paper, controversies and bickering invariably mar the working environment in the organization. Usually inventions are made by a team of scientists with a leader under an approved research project and determining the share of sale proceeds of patents sold to the user amongst the team members becomes highly subjective and controversial. Whether user industry will have faith and confidence on the ability of the team of scientists to keep the technological features confidential is another issue.
One is reminded of a recent decision in the Supreme Court of the US where the judges were called upon to decide on a fracas between a University and the research group leader who had obtained a patent based on work carried out by a University financed project which was sold to the industry without sharing the amount with the University. It was unfortunate that the Court ruled in favor of the scientist and this ruling may have far reaching implications affecting the relationship between academia and the management of Universities in future. By stressing that rights in an invention belong to the inventor, the court could have unwittingly put a dampener on public funded research in that country. The concept of collaborative research that is the corner stone of university programs is likely to be hit adversely by this convoluted judgment once for all. In India there is a much sounder system of public research and there are well laid down guidelines regarding patenting and sharing of the sale proceeds from technologies developed through group research provided there are takers. Unfortunately the patents taken by many public research organizations in India have very little commercial value and scant interest from the industry.
Aquaculture technology has provided a means of augmenting supply of natural fish from oceans and fresh water bodies and thousands of farms that produce different species of fish are able to precisely control the conditions under which fish is reared. While wild fish takes time to replenish itself, lack of restraint on fishing invariably results in over fishing and extinction of many species. Interestingly a country like India unwittingly put in place a ban of trawling by mechanized boats for two moths during Monsoon to allow adequate time for regeneration. Whatever is done past records show that wild fish harvesting is not growing in tune with the demand for fish and world is increasingly looking at aquaculture to augment availability.Fish species like Carps, Salmon etc and crustaceans like shrimp are raised by the fish farms and this industry is consistently registering a growth rate of 8-10% annually. Herbivorous fish are much more efficient with the plant material they eat than are herbivorous farm animals. It is estimated that to produce 1kg of fish protein, less than 13.5 kg of grain is used while it takes 61.1kg of grain for beef protein and 38kg for pork protein. There is considerable pressure on land for growing grains to feed cattle while food grains for humans also will have to come from the land. Consider the health benefits of eating more fish and reducing meat consumption that will benefit the mankind immensely. There are serious environmental impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophication of water, and for species such as salmon the need for wild fish to feed the farmed ones. Carp fish that China produces is still considered environmentally disastrous though the impact is confined to local level.