Sunday, July 31, 2011


There was a recent report from Hyderabad that a group of food scientists attached to a National food R & D organization is taking up a top priority project to develop an Indian version of the US branded mixed juice product going by the name V8 Vegetable Juice. One is reminded of the hectic activity in 1976-77 when India launched a research program to develop its own desi version of cola beverage. It is another matter that a cola beverage looking and tasting like the US product, Coke, which was banned in the country, was developed and branded as "Double Seven" and it never got a foot hold in the domestic beverage market whatever might be the reason. Even then, many critics did raise the inconvenient question as to what was the need to develop a cola beverage in a country where more people go hungry every day than those having adequate wherewithal to buy their daily foods. Same question is relevant to day vis-a-vis the announcement regarding the V8 juice development project at Hyderabad.

Fruits and vegetables indeed provide the foundation for a healthy life though they may not be contributing much calories or proteins in the diet. The expert recommendation that one must eat at least 250 gm each of fruits and vegetables daily is based on sound concept of human nutrition. In a country like the US, 6 servings per day are recommended and bulk wise in the latest MyPlate "Icon" replacing the age old Pyramid Icon, fruits and vegetables occupy half of the plate of foods required to be consumed for good health. Unfortunately consumption of these so called protective foods has not reached any where the figure desired by the nutritionists. Same is true all over the world.

Why fruits and vegetables? Because they are rich in many micro nutrients, health promoting biochemicals and dietary fiber which other foods will not be able to supply in required amounts to the body. The great salad movement in the Western countries is able to address this problem of insufficient consumption of fruits and vegetables but addition of calorie-rich mayonnaise, sauces, olive oil, etc dilute the value of salads vis-a-vis their pro-health credentials. There are hundreds of Soup and Salad vending outlets there offering a variety of such products with varying flavor, texture and taste. But still young children and teenagers are not enamored by salads and the fight to make them eat more and more fruits and vegetables goes on. Recent attempts by the US food industry to "smuggle in" vegetables in popular food products without making the label disclosure, speak volumes about the seriousness of the problem of inadequate consumption of these foods in that county. In India, especially in Northern parts of the country, simple salads consisting of cucumber, onion, green chilli and fresh lime are regularly consumed and are considered healthy. In the South poor people invariably consume many types of leafy vegetables which are quite cheap and affordable providing the much needed micro-nutrients.

One of the critical questions that begs for an answer is whether juices extracted from fruits and vegetables can be as effective as the raw produce themselves. Of course any one suggesting that a juice can substitute a fruit or vegetable must be out of his or her minds to make such an outlandish claim. The issue becomes all the more crucial when it is realized that modern technological operations using enzymes and high efficiency extractors produce juices which are clear in appearance and devoid of any fiber. The nutrient recovery in a juice can never be 100%, a significant portion being lost in the pomace or the residue. According to the manufacturers of V8 juice, one serving of 240 ml of its product V8 Fusion, provides 100% of the daily need of fruits and vegetables for an average adult though it is difficult to concede this point. However if one believes in the philosophy that "some thing is better than nothing", juices do serve a purpose, albeit to a lesser extent. While on the subject of juice drinking habit, Indians are not known to be voracious consumers of juices though there are many products coming under the category of fruit drinks which are regularly consumed as "thirst quenchers" but almost all these drinks contain sugar as the major ingredient with fruit pulps present in the range of 10-35% only. Consumption of vegetable juices is limited to a small population of health freaks and sick and convalescing patients.

Coming to the much vaunted V8 vegetable juice, it is a combination of juices derived from 7 vegetables like beetroot, celery, carrot, lettuce, parsley, watercress and spinach plus Tomato ( almost 87%) and probably it has the advantage of mutual supplementation of different nutrients present in the constituent vegetable juices, though real vegetables constitute only 13%!. The million dollar question is how can any average Indian be made to consume a juice which is made out of vegetables. In the fruit juice segment itself, mango based drinks outsell others to the extent of 10 to 1 and it is impossible to imagine that any vegetable juice whether it is V1 or V8 could make a break through in the market. A more feasible approach could have been to think in terms of developing mixed juices from both fruits and vegetables as the image of a juice in the minds of Indian consumer is always a sweet one and unless fruit juices are incorporated the desired sweetness cannot be attained in natural juice combinations. The US made V8 juices have versions like V8 Spash which has fruit juices but sweetened with High Corn Fructose Syrup (HFCS) and Sucralose, Diet V8 containing the sweetener Sucralose and V8 Fusion containing only pure fruit and vegetable juices. Taking up research projects like the one on V8 Juice reflects a poverty of ideas and limited vision of leadership that guides R & D workers in the country!


Thursday, July 28, 2011


There is no dispute that water constitutes the most important substance, after oxygen, when it comes to sustaining life any where in the Universe. The very fact that almost 71% of the earth's surface is covered with water symbolizes the omnipotence of this simple chemical molecule. Similarly water makes up a substantial component of all living creatures. It is rather interesting that scientists are not unanimous in their view regarding how much water is required daily to maintain good health. While some say higher the amount of water taken better it will be for the human health. But this is not shared by many who consider too much water consumption is dangerous. Many believe that water therapy is an established science advocating high consumption of water every day which can be much above the quantity recommended by nutritionists and physicians.

The controversy was given a new lease of life after the recent assertion by a Glasgow-based scientist that water therapy is a myth devoid of any scientific basis. Years of faith in water therapy is driven by the belief that it can prevent many health problems. Number of people, developing the habit to drink six to eight glasses of water every day, seems to be increasing thanks to the above conviction. There are others who are scared of dehydration of the body if "adequate' water is not consumed and force themselves to drink water frequently whether thirsty or not. Of course it is known that drinking "too much" water can lead to the medical condition known as "hyponatraemia" or imbalance in Sodium in the blood which can seriously hamper brain function, some time proving to be fatal.

The million dollar question a humble citizen is forced to ask is how much is "adequate" and what constitutes excess". As a thumb rule it has been suggested that one liter of water for every 1000 kC food consumed can meet body's water requirement which goes for replacement of water lost due to perspiration and other excretions. This adds up to 2 liters of water a day. What if some human beings cannot drink the recommended quantum of water? Where does the "thirst phenomenon" fits into this equation? Human body is endowed with a system of balancing water in the body through an automatic mechanism controlled by the brain and when there is a deficiency in water, the thirst factor is supposed to kick in. Under extreme duress conditions, the body tends to lose water uncontrollably, like in diarrhea, when medical intervention is necessary and nutralite solutions or iso-tonic preparations are administered for water restoration.

Thirst signal is controlled by the brain and depending on whether it is extra cellular thirst due to reduction in water volume or intra cellular thirst caused by excess osmolite levels with in the cells and communicated through the central nervous system in normally healthy humans. With age neurological response tends to become dull and as a sufficient precaution old people are advised to consume water regularly. On the other hand the trouble of going to the toilet frequently is a factor that restrains old people from taking water regularly. According to WHO water consumption for men has to be 3.7 liters per day while for women it should be 2.7 liters per day. Of course many foods consumed as a part of the diet contributes significantly to body's water need and wide variation is possible depending on the level of activity, type of food consumed, temperature and humidity levels and other factors. Insinuation against drinking water bottling industry that it is responsible for the much hyped up water therapy may be too far fetched though the growth of this industry might be largely due to this factor.

How does a layman decide about his water requirement?. Probably, in stead of listening to divergent views, it is advisable to consume as much as he feels like taking and go by doctor's advice when ever there are symptoms of dehydration.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


One distinguishing difference between rich and poor countries is the power of modern technology the former have which deploys energy intensive, largely automated machinery and high productivity techniques making human intervention redundant. Modern industrial economic principles call for high production volumes which brings down the cost of production and increase profitability. In contrast most developing countries, having abundant man power and large unemployment rate depend heavily on large number of small scale operators for industrial production. Dynamics of economic growth can uplift the economies of many developing countries as witnessed in China, India, Brazil, Malaysia etc and availability of manpower becomes more and more difficult. In this context is it possible for them to continue with small and micro-enterprises based economy? Do they have any option other than going in for large sized manufacturing operations involving mechanized processes and equipment and reduce human deployment to the minimum?

In a country like India many food processing operations evolved over the years and after the British era, the independent republic was left with a huge problem to provide employment to millions of people, not engaged in agriculture. Traditionally most food processing was done manually with very little use of machinery. A classical example is the grinding of grains into flours which is done even to day by stone mills or steel plate mills, the processing capacity not exceeding a few kilograms an hour. Advent of Roller Flour Mills with capacities ranging from 30 tons to 1000 tons a day did not change the landscape much since refined flours from grains like wheat have little culinary relevance. Same held good for all food processing sectors like fruit and vegetables, oil seeds, milk, poultry, meat and packed foods. Transformation from a predominantly manual mode of food processing to large scale mechanized mode has been very slow, though clearly perceptible.

The scenario started changing only when manpower availability became critical and the cost became exorbitant. Employment exchange centers where unemployed people are supposed to enroll are not able to provide required man power to the industry, forcing them to look for more and more mechanization. The trend towards increased mechanization became more perceptible after the economic liberalization process which started in early nineteen nineties and to day entrepreneurs can access the best machinery from across the world with minimum hassle. The days of Khadi and Village Industries Commission set up during the early years of independence to encourage and support micro-enterprises has largely become dysfunctional with practically no support from the government. Though there is much talk about unemployment in the country, the ground reality is that industry finds it hard to get unskilled personnel in required numbers at reasonable wages for employment. With many government employment schemes operating and paying high wages, the trend is for people to gravitate towards these schemes leaving the industry high and dry. What option does the industry have except going in for mechanized gadgets and implements for managing production?

What are the long term repercussions of such a change on the economic front of the country? There was a time when India had the cheapest labor and it was a strength on which exports were built. In the food area there are many operations that cannot be done using machines without compromising on their eating characteristics though continuous R & D may come up with more efficient equipment in response to emerging demand for such mechanical contraptions. Products like Papad, Roti, Chikki, most fried snack foods, traditional sweet meats, require deployment of artisans familiar with the unit operations involved and it is difficult to imagine that satisfactory machines will ever be evolved. If this is so how about using this situation to the advantage of the country? For this to happen the redundant and wasteful Government schemes must be replaced with imaginative productive schemes linked to industrial needs. In stead of distributing doles to people with no long term benefit, such funds must be channeled to industrial workers like artisans and unskilled labor force in cooperation with the industry.

If GOI can evolve a policy of encouraging these artisan based industries through a "special purpose vehicle" (SPV) with high priority to enable them to manufacture safe and high quality products with minimum use of power driven machinery, there will never be a challenge to the supremacy of the country from any quarters in the foreseeable future. India should learn a lesson from the experience in the cashew nut processing which was earlier a predominantly labor intensive operation, now being done with machinery. With individual skill for getting high quality nuts being marginalized, there are countries like China, Vietnam and those from some Africa which are challenging the Indian supremacy in this coveted area. What India needs is a series of functional industrial estates across the country that will specialize in some or the other food areas and if adequate technical and financial muscle is provided there is no reason why India cannot dominate the global food market with its enormous 'human muscle" and no other country on earth can pose any challenge in the foreseeable future. Where there is a vision and a will, there must be a way to accomplish the objective.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


Oils and fats evoke different response in different people. Policy makers world over feel fats in foods consumed by citizens make them obese and sick. Food industry and the caterers love them because oils provide flavor, texture and taste that drive customers in droves to buy their products. Nutritionists advice a balanced approach where good fats are consumed in moderation while bad fats totally avoided. On the subject of bad and good fats, most consumers are now aware that saturated long chain fatty acids and trans fats are not good for health while unsaturated fats are essential for survival. Industry has problems in using unsaturated fats because of their intrinsic property of going rancid with time.
Hydrogenation was conceived as a convenient way of stabilizing fats with double bonds so that they are not vulnerable to oxidative rancidity. Industry further discovered that hydrogenated fats assume harder texture with positive functional properties. The baking industry was once dependent on hydrogenated fats to such an extent that no baked products could be made with acceptable quality characteristics without deploying them in liberal quantities. Products like margarine and mayonnaise need hydrogenated fats and the arrival of trans fats problem had caused some set back to this industry. It is another matter that this industry was able to overcome this constraint through innovative developments in fat processing technology.
As for use of various fats for frying operation, animal fat was considered most suitable with least cost as it is a by-product of meat industry. To the bad luck of the frying industry, animal fats became the "untouchable" villain because of its cholesterol content, implicated in heart disease in humans. As almost all plant oils are unstable to heat and vulnerable to peroxidation due to their unsaturated fat content, search for better frying oils and frying technologies assumed critical importance in the past millennium. Coconut oil and Palm oil are two of the most important vegetable oils with high resistance to oxidation and rancidity as they contain relatively low levels of unsaturated fats. Use of antioxidants and minerals with high adsorption capacity for polar compounds in the frying medium, has become industry standard as far as frying oil is concerned and millions of tons of fried foods are being made using almost all oils of plant origin like soybean oil, canola, peanut oil, mustard oil, corn oil, sun flower seed oil, etc.with reasonable product stability.
Sunflower oil normally has high linoleic acid content and as such its thermal and oxidation stability is rather poor because of which it is not an ideal frying oil. Through development of better seeds by the agricultural scientists, high oleic acid containing sun flower oil is possible and same is true with Canola also. The omega-9 sunflower and canola oils are better frying oils because the tendency to form trans fats at high temperatures, encountered during frying, is arrested. Of course these versions developed by giant trans national companies are patent protected creating a virtual monopoly. It is claimed that Omega-9 sunflower oil is healthier than natural oil but such claims cannot be sustained because linoleic acid is one of the essential fatty acids required for many body functions and producing an oil with less linoleic acid from the natural oil with high levels of linoleic acid, cannot be called an improvement.
Probably availability of Omega-9 Sunflower Oil may make many food companies reduce or eliminate saturated fat from new front-of-pack labels and within a couple of years such products can be expected to be on retail shelves in countries like the US. Market savvy consumer food business players have realized that the consumers invariably prefer a saturated fat free label claim on a retail bottle of oil five to one over the same product labeled without the claim. The development of Omega-9 oil is precisely targeted at this segment of the industry. However the claim that this version of oil is natural may be some what far-fetched considering that truly natural Sunflower oil contains almost 65% polyunsaturated fatty acids including linoleic acid and is far more nutritious than the industry developed Omega-9 oil in which the same is reduced to less than 4%!. It may be possible that use of Omega-9 oil can reduce the quantity of TBHQ or other antioxidants to some extent but to say that it does not require any antioxidant to extend the life of fry oil or that of the fried products also may not bear strict scientific scrutiny.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Why should America be concerned about food safety logistics in other countries? Being a super power the US always behaved imperiously with almost all its trade partners and in stead of a policy of "hand holding", the policy was more concerned with "policing" and "arm twisting". Lately realization has dawned on this country that its own citizens are vulnerable to food safety hazards, though unwittingly, if there is no understanding and cooperation with its trading partners. Food related dangers cannot be avoided but can be tackled more efficiently by working towards a global industry regime practicing universally acceptable safety standards and practices. Of course agencies like Codex Alimentarius Commission is already doing a yeomen service by harmonizing food standards with cooperation from from all UN members but when it comes to logistics and infrastructure many countries find the going tough. It is here that wealthy nations like the US must lend a helping hand through technical and economic assistance to upgrade and modernize safety assessment systems in many countries which are in the export trade sending their foods across the world.
A country like the US cannot deny the fact that two thirds of its fresh produce need and 80% of fish supply come from other countries and this is like exposing its "soft belly" to untoward incidences of dangers from unsafe foods. With terrorism raising its ugly head in many parts of the world, it is a question of time before food becomes a tool for terrorism and if a nation depends too much on imported foods, its vulnerability to food related dangers becomes all the more critical. Probably Americans must have realized this bitter truth and are coming forth for genuine international collaboration for pre-empting such a scenario in future.
A recent report by the Safety agency of the US has brought out these issue clearly and succinctly and according to this vision, there is no alternative to "assembling a global coalition of regulators dedicated to building and strengthening a world-wide product safety net work" for which concerted action is needed. It also envisages "developing global data system and net work to share real time information" which will be useful as a reliable resource material to be shared among member countries. Expanding intelligence gathering, focusing on risk analysis and helping third parties through strengthening of their capabilities are also envisaged. Knowing pretty well that 100% inspection is never in the realm of reality, alternate system will have to be evolved to ensure 100% safety.
The plans as illustrated in the FDA Report are indeed laudable but translating it into actionable program is not going to be easy. For example how is it possible to actually get more inspections done in the countries from where exports arrive at US ports? Most of these nations, engaged in export of raw and minimally processed food materials lack even the basic infrastructure that is far inadequate for carrying out safety related inspections. It is here that large investments are required for capacity building. A country like India gets high marks after the rolling out of the FSSAI though it may take years before even the minimum acceptable infrastructure is established. The question is whether developed countries like the US will ever step into this area and invest in upgrading the infrastructure to a level acceptable to all. It may be a Utopian
dream but cannot be ruled out altogether in the light of frequent serious food poisoning episodes and costly product recalls becoming a routine matter in these rich countries.

It is time to realize that no country, however powerful it may be, can be 100% self reliant when it comes to food production due to many factors and the whole world trade edifice is based on this unshakable truth. Take the examples of countries like Japan, England, Singapore and many others which depend on imports to meet a substantial part of their food requirements because of constraints on land and unfavorable weather conditions, Is it not in the interest of such countries to take those countries, richly endowed with natural resources as genuine partners and invest in their well being? Investments on the food safety infrastructure and technical manpower will be richly rewarding in the long term. The new paradigm of cooperation as enunciated by the FDA of the US must be given highest priority at the UN level without further delay.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


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.

Some progressive players in the poultry industry have already phased out its use seeing the writings on the wall without waiting for any government action but the current move by FDA to put in place a "voluntary suspension" mode for the arsenic-laced drug is based on findings that there were elevated levels of arsenic, a proven carcinogen, in birds fed the substance. Roxarsone, the most conspicuous brand based on arsenic, has been a standard component of chicken feeds since the 1940s as the industry claims that it ensures "growth promotion, feed efficiency and improved pigmentation in chickens." Poultry industry, probably, can justifiably argue that the US population, consuming chicken meat, produced from flocks raised on arsenic containing feeds during the last seven decades, is not affected by cancer more than those in other countries not permitting arsenic in poultry feeds!

The turn around in the stand by the FDA came after it was realized that the drug containing the less harmful organic form of arsenic in Roxarsone got converted into more harmful inorganic form, which is known to cause cancer. It is a mystery as to why the FDA came to the conclusion regarding its safety after finding that 100 broiler chickens fed Roxarsone had elevated levels of inorganic arsenic in the their livers. Both the FDA and industry aver that though arsenic is carcinogenic, the levels detected in the chickens were very low and there's no health risk for people to continue eating Roxarsone-treated poultry! .It is sad that the overseeing agency that controls poultry industry in the US had closed its eyes to this irrational and unsafe practice of the industry during the last seven decades under the guise that the chicken meat obtained from arsenic fed birds contain less than the prescribed limit of this poisonous substance. How far the data can be trusted is any body's guess because of the hold industry has on government agencies in that country. The manufacturers of 3-Nitro, an arsenic based organic drug for use in poultry feeds had the good sense to voluntarily suspend its sale realizing the seriousness of the concerns expressed by many consumer organizations. Hopefully a national ban (voluntary), expected to be put in place soon, will ensure that arsenic containing feeds will become part of history pretty soon.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


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.

Read the arrogant statement by a western spokesman who proclaimed with a flamboyance that food producers in China regularly use untreated human and animal waste for feeding farmed fish meant for eating and for fertilizing land to grow produce and most of the cases of contamination involving imported food in the U.S. are related to fecal matter! Further it is claimed that chicken coops with as many as 20,000 birds are often suspended in rows above ponds used for farming shrimp and fish in countries like Thailand. The chicken waste that falls in the water is a nourishment for the aquatic life and provides food for the shrimp. Similarly Chinese are supposed to be using feces for raising Tilopia which is exported to the US. One wonders what is the role of FDA officials posted in China if such practices are really in vogue.

As per common sense it is incumbent for those having arrangements to obtain food products and ingredients from any third parties out side to ensure they have appropriate oversight of the food that's being produced or processed for imports into their country. It is fair to argue that those importing food from overseas, and those with production operations there, should be held responsible for the quality of food making it to any country including western markets. Listen to what the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has to say about such insinuations. A spokesperson of the agency asserted that the country's rigorous food safety requirements apply equally to imported and domestic foods. Further safety and quality of imported food is ensured through "equivalency agreements" with other countries and random inspections at various points in the supply cycle ranging from when the product first gets to Canada to the testing of food already on store shelves. If there is any genuine concern about the safety of imported foods in countries like Canada, which imports 70% of its food needs worth $ 22 billion annually from other countries, it is in the interest of that country to help the exporting countries in upgrading their safety vigilance infrastructure through technical and economic assistance on a long term basis.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011


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.


Thursday, July 7, 2011


With heightened awareness about food safety and health protection, consumers are invariably in a dilemma as to which products they should be buying and which ones they should be shunning. This is true with almost all foods on the retail shelves in the market. Take the case of eggs which are offered in many formats, at least in developed countries making the consumers totally confused. It is relatively easy in many developing countries where grading and certification are exception rather than rule. In recent years eggs offered in supermarkets come with different claims which most consumers do not understand. These claims on the cartons decide the prices one has to pay and hence a thorough understanding of the implications of such claims can equip the buyer to decide on the option. One must ask the question whether paying more money for a particular product is worth the money spent on it and here is where knowledge about the significance of the claims help to zero in on the most desirable type of egg. Terms used by the poultry industry like "free range", "cage free", "omega-3", "vegetarian" etc are stamped on the labels and they may make no sense to an ordinary consumer.

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.


Wednesday, July 6, 2011


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.


Monday, July 4, 2011


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.


Friday, July 1, 2011


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.

Aquaculture fish accounts for more than one third of world fish production with China being the leading producer accounting for about 65% of it while India, distant second could produce only about 5%. World aquaculture is predominated by the Carp fish, about 50% while Shrimps and Salmon trail with 5% and 4% respectively. Environmentalists are up in arms against Aquaculture farming because of the uncontrolled generation of waste which pollutes the water bodies and destroys natural mangroves, adversely affecting the aquatic lives. Also worrisome is the liberal use of antibiotics by the farms to prevent infectious diseases that can wipe out the yield.

With all the problems encountered by the fish farming sector, one naturally wonders whether this mode of food production is sustainable at all. New developments how ever give hope that aquaculture technology can still play a critical role in increasing world fish production without adversely impacting the environment. Filtration of fish waste that is generated in huge quantities and recycling the water can considerably improve the performance of aquaculture farms from the environmental angle. Similarly development of vaccines can preempt the wide scale use of antibiotics. Any comparison of aquaculture with wild fish harvesting may not be relevant because of the severe limitations and constraints in maintaining even the current level of production let alone achieve any positive growth rate. But it is definitely a better alternative to animal meat considering the resources required to raise animals under the input intensive farm conditions.