Tuesday, August 30, 2011


It is a fact that by the year 2050 world must gear up to "manage" a population that is double the present figure and the most critical issue is whether such a huge population can be fed adequately, at least at the present level. That the current food production may appear to be adequate from a Statistician's point of view, may give some solace to the planners but at the ground level the gap between rich and the poor is too wide with those at the lowest economic strata living in poverty with insufficient economic capacity to buy adequate foods needed to live normally. While increasing food production can be achieved through innovative technologies, enhancing the buying capacity of families can be brought about by economic development only.

As far as food production is concerned, the only major governmental effort which garnered global appreciation was the "Green Revolution" that achieved quantum jump in food production in nineteen sixties and seventies and even to day one can hear planners talking about a second green revolution for meeting increased demand for foods by the expanding population. Though green revolution has been lauded for its impact on the food front, a serious issue that has generated lot of concerns is the way it was achieved. Because of the input intensive technologies used and the changes in the traditional agricultural practices, the soil health seems to have suffered seriously with some experts saying that it would take years to rehabilitate the agricultural lands affected which has serious repercussions. Nonetheless, the efforts by governmental research or public funded and controlled developments ensured that the needed technologies were disseminated amongst the farming community easily without any major hitch.

According to some reports research investments in agriculture supported by the public funds are either stagnant or actually dwindling while that in private sector is growing phenomenally at a robust pace. What are the implications implicit in this trend? If one hears about GM foods too often it is because of the dominance of a few large private players who control the technologies through the intellectual property regime under the WTO protocols. It is true that genetic engineering tool is very efficient in creating new foods with better resistance against field diseases that account for a significant loss of foods, unaffordable to a world crying for increased food production. Without entering into the debate about the safety of genetically modified foods, it is suffice to say that the new technologies available to day cannot reach the needy farmers who cannot afford them because of cost considerations. The critical question that arises is whether the world can afford to ignore the poorer countries where most agricultural lands are located, by denying them access to new privately controlled technologies?

The agricultural community in many countries is dwindling because it is not as profitable as it used to be and there is massive migration of agricultural families into urban areas seeking better fortunes and living quality. If such a trend is not arrested there is possibility that vast stretches of land may remain fallow without being cultivated for food crops, further affecting the food supply adversely. The Indian phenomenon of farmer suicides is due to the unprofitable nature of agricultural avocation and unbearable debt burden for the farmers on account of ever escalating input costs. To some extent GOI deserves some appreciation for the economic subsidies and support extended to the farmers but there is always the question regarding the effectiveness of the current policies vis-a-vis poor farmers and this calls for a deep introspection.

In many countries in the West there is a marked downward trend in public funded agricultural research leaving the field open to private investors. The growth of private research funding is 100% more than that in the public sector and considering that more than 80% of future increase in food production has to come from the existing land, new and innovative technologies have to emerge to achieve such quantum jump in crop yields. This calls for sustained investment in research by the governments and results of only such efforts can be disseminated to the agricultural community with no economic burden to them. Private sector developers cannot be expected to invest in research efforts that will not bring them returns and their target users are always big companies and super rich farmers who can afford to pay for the technology. Ideally the IPO regime should not be made applicable to agriculture considering the need for achieving quantum increase in food production and some mechanism has to be evolved to make technological improvements freely available to all the farmers, big as well as small ones.


Sunday, August 28, 2011


Babus in Indian Government have been forced by the judiciary to spell out the policy about selling "junk" foods near the schools in the country! In response to a PIL petition in the Delhi High Court the honorable judges sought the views of the Ministry of Health Family Welfare on this issue and of course as expected the court was provided with a "beautiful piece" of report which only Babus that run the ministry can do! No wonder GOI depends so heavily on these Babus to "govern", with really no governing!

From where the GOI got the idea of selling dal, roti and nutritional foods in the schools is not clear. Probably credit must go to the Babus for keeping themselves abreast of developments in the US where there is a powerful movement for banning junk foods in the school canteens because of the perception that the dangerous epidemic of obesity rampaging that country is due to consumption of such junk foods. Sure the US government knows fully well about what it is talking about and the predominance of processed foods in the diets of Americans is the root cause of the problem. While an average American depends on industry made foods to the extent of 80% in the daily diet, the corresponding figure is less than 10% in India. What junk foods are the Babus in India talking about? How many schools in this country has canteens like the ones American School system has? It is unfortunate that GOI has filed an affidavit containing lot of platitudes confusing the judiciary and the problem remains as they were before.

What does any one mean by calling an edible product "junk food"? If foods rich in calories, sugar or fat are called "junk foods", probably more than 75% of foods made by Indian food industry will come under this category. What is left for selling in the country? It is true that foods children eat during their early growing stages invariably decide the dietary pattern through out the life and therefore much thought has to be given when it comes to their exposure to various types of food. Parents have much more responsibility in "habit forming" vis-a-vis their kids and it is sheer callousness to shift this responsibility to the school under one pretext or the other. While residential schools have the onus to be more careful in providing a balanced menu, where does an ordinary school come into the picture in this "high decibel debate"? Millions of schools attended by a vast majority of children in the country have no role to play in this junk food controversy. Pupils generally take their own food to the school in their own "Tiffin Box" and it is natural and logical to expect that parents must be sending the most nutritious food to their children. It is amusing to read the affidavit filed by the Health Ministry with the court which is reproduced below verbatim as gleaned out from News Papers.

"The Centre has asked state governments to ban sale of junk food and carbonated soft drinks on school premises and withdraw all such items that lead to unhealthy eating from canteens. The ministry said this while responding to a PIL filed by an NGO in the Delhi High Court seeking ban on the sale of junk food and carbonated drinks within a 1,500 feet radius of schools. The MoHFW said in an affidavit that it is against sale of junk food in educational institutions and the states have been advised to keep them out of reach of students as far as possible.Though junk food is not defined under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, the ministry said that any food that has poor nutritional value is considered unhealthy. Any food item that has empty calories and is responsible for obesity, cavity, diabetes and heart diseases cannot be considered good for the consumption of children, the ministry said. Studies have indicated a correlation between consumption of food with empty calories and chronic degenerative diseases as well as hypertension, obesity, cardiovascular problems and glucose intolerance, the ministry added".

Plenty of platitudes and sentiments expressed through empty words having no intention to do any thing! Most of the above lines are taken from standard pieces of information on junk foods in the Internet with least relevance to India, probably to confuse the judiciary and to create an impression that the Babus are 'knowledgeable" on the subject. After the above episode one is left wondering whether the education authorities are really capable of protecting the health of school going kids because a more serious problem posing danger and not receiving attention due to it, does not come from junk foods from the organized food industry. The real culprits are thousands of street hawkers who congregate near schools at important timings when the schools start or have recesses and a range of items like frozen ice, colored drinks, fried snacks, cut fruits etc are sold openly under most unhygienic conditions with potential to ruin their health. With many dotting parents showering their children with liberal "pocket money" without being serious about monitoring as to how the money is spent, there is disaster waiting to happen through these street hawkers and sadly most civic authorities in the country either do not bother about controlling them or close their eyes not wanting to see the ugly scenario around the schools. Of course FSSAI has absolutely no clue regarding this sorry situation across the length and breadth of the country!


Thursday, August 25, 2011


India is the land of Ram, Krishna, Buddha, Mahavir Jain of mythical era and Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru Jayaprakash Narayan and Anna Hazare of modern times. They have been the Apostles of peace, preaching patience and non-violence through centuries of Indian history. Many people feel that the values of life glorified by these "giants' are lost on the "Pygmies" of the modern day world. Really? Look at the present day Indians and it may not be quite true. It is truly remarkable that every Indian has the ability to be a Gandhi with unlimited patience and see apparently unacceptable things in the society with a positive outlook; otherwise there would have been a violent revolution by now. A few examples of the trials and tribulations the modern Indian citizens go through and how they are taken in their stride can be seen from a few examples below!.

For centuries washing the the area in front of the house but outside the gate every day with copious water, is a common sight in the southern parts of India. This results in lot of waste of water besides corroding the road. The practice probably is based on the belief that the Goddess of Wealth is welcomed into the house every day in the morning. It does not matter that it is a public nuisance. An optimist can look at it from a different angle. The over running water cleans the road to some extent, eroded road will be repaired providing business to some body and ground water is charged, albeit slightly!

Throwing garbage out is a favorite "hobby" for many house holds to keep their premises clean. Concept wise it is a good practice for citizens to keep their house clean, avoid disease causing vectors and protect themselves. It is another matter that accumulated garbage, besides being an eyesore, can pose serious health hazards to others in the neighborhood. Looking from another angle, this very garbage feeds street dogs and some time hungry beggars! Rag pickers thrive here and make some living!

Taking dogs without leash for a "walk" in the morning is a "done" thing with many people who feel their dogs deserve a free walk. If the dog causes nuisance to others it is immaterial and of no consequence to the dog owners. People For Animals (PFA) will appreciate such a gesture because the animal is given freedom without being pulled and dragged through a leash. Others walking in the same area may be frightened but eventually they may start loving the dogs. If any one is bitten, all the owner has to say is "sorry"!

Increased sound bytes, so common in many urban households from the blaring Sound Systems or TV sets or talking loudly are common to be tolerated as it is a part of city dwelling. Similarly honking the car or the two wheeler vehicles when approaching home is a common phenomenon with least botheration about its effect on the neighbor. The silver lining is that such honking wakes up the neighbor, especially in the middle of the night, who can be more alert in preventing house burglary!

What about the smell of cooking that permeates the neighborhood from an ill-designed kitchen? Though some people may not like it, the overbearing smell can arouse appetite at least in some people. Cooking fish can be really smelly but neighbors can always use masks to avoid any discomfort. The masks can be handy if and when an epidemic infection spreads through the neighborhood or leakage of chlorine from a nearby water treatment plant or from a chemical factory in the area! If more people use such masks, imagine the business potential for mask manufacturers and its impact on GDP of the country!
Many families waste significant amount of food every day because of ill planning or other reasons. Wealthier one is, greater can be the excess food thrown away. Though it is considered a national waste under the accepted norms, imagine how the dogs around the street and even beggars who can fill their stomach at least partially are benefited from this largess!.

During Diwali and other "joyous" occasions many families feel that the celebration is not complete unless there is bursting of fire crackers liberally with deafening noise. Though India is yet to make any impact in Olympics, when it comes to fire crackers, the competitive spirit to show off who can burst more crackers and varieties is phenomenal! Bigger the sound more satisfied they are though such cracker bash can cause immense discomfort to neighbors and natural creatures like birds, cats, dogs etc. But are they not serving the country by supporting the Sivakasi child labor based cracker industry?

Keeping others waiting for a meeting has become a national past time and the practioners of this "art" are growing exponentially lately. May be it will annoy some people but look at the indirect fall out of such delayed meetings when waiting people, who are otherwise busy, get rest, relaxation and time to observe nature!

Growing plants in other's plots and encroaching others land are frequently resorted to in urban areas which may be criminal from the law point but why is it not being realized that vacant land is put to better use? If every family starts putting up a vegetable garden in the neighboring vacant plot, imagine its impact on the nutrition and health of the community!. Encroached land will always become a subject of litigation and does not this give employment to hundreds of lawyers without a case to argue?

What about, sneezing, coughing, yawning, spitting, snotting etc in the open, especially in a crowded place? Though many may not like it and abhor the practice, one should not forget that these people are doing a national service by immunizing others through the bacteria and virus spewed out during their action! Smoking comes under another social service because the smoker while enjoying the puff also drives away flies and mosquitoes, protecting people nearby from their bites!

Those violating traffic rules are considered law breakers and can cause accidents which they are aware of any how. But look at the indirect effect of their unlawful activity. Those who are law abiding are forced to learn the advantages of defensive driving and reduce the chances of accidents. Besides the violators, by paying fines, are contributing to enrich the exchequer and benefit the country!.

Bribing and corruption are universal according to late Indira Gandhi though Anna Hazare may not agree. Why should any one object to this practice is not well understood. Are these bribe takers providing the bribe giver a "premium service" in expediting the service? If Indian Railways can loot the public through its Tatkal ticketing system forcing the passengers to pay 50% more, why not the babus use the same concept? Probably Finance Minister may come up with a proposal in the next budget to bring bribing within the ambit of the much dreaded "service tax"!

Gone lately to a restaurant for relaxation and enjoyment? One must admire the ingenuity of the catering sector in "milking" the customers. In a recent parody, a hilarious commentator has described how the size of the Idli has shrunken to that of a paracetamol tablet and how the hole in Vada has expanded making the customers wonder whether food is tending to be pharmaceutical items in size!
The cost of preparations has doubled or trebled during the last 2 years, pinching the pocket of the middle class citizens. But is it not a great national service from the catering sector to help its customers save precious money by reducing the number of visits and improve the health because lesser quantity of junk "foods" is consumed? One has to just see the situation in the US where people are becoming fatter and fatter every day because of frequent visits to restaurants serving nutritionally unbalanced foods, rich in calories and fat!
In India the people ought to be happy with no worries about other's wrong doings and a new James Bond movie can be on this subject entitled "Live well but not let others live in peace"!


Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Lot has been written about the disintegration of the once "cherished" advantages of the undivided family system that was in vogue in most societies in India. The catastrophic effects of nuclear families which emerged as a consequence of modern industrial era are there for every body to see, with old people left to fend for themselves, children becoming a society problem and the deleterious influence of industrial foods, most of them nutritionally unbalanced on the health of the population. These are inevitable consequences of a fast disintegrating society that is chasing the proverbial mirage called "material comfort"and there is no ready answer as to how this trend can be arrested, if not reversed. Probably the old time can never be here again and will remain as a sweet memory for those who still cherish them.
One of the most debilitating influences of industrialization is on the dietary practices and if the so called junk foods have become omnipotent in the market the major culprit is the family disintegration with mom, pop and children going their own way, apparently having their own pre-occupations. Which working mom has the time to devote to preparation of elaborate foods in the kitchen when professional work demands much of her time? Which dad will go to the kitchen to spend time for making good food? Where is the common time for the parents and the kids to eat together on the same dining table? No wonder "eating out" has become a "soft" option for majority of parents and restaurants, food trucks, street vendors etc are all rolling in money capitalizing on this social "mutation"!
It is said that when mom cooks a meal and serves to the family the quality of the food is less important but the emotion that goes along with the food is manifested in bonding and affection. Can any restaurant serve "love" through the food and even if it is possible through nice and courteous service, such love will be for the restaurant promoting a sense of loyalty to it. To add to the already bad situation, modern apartment designs are progressively shrinking the size of kitchens under the pretext that the family is unlikely to spend much time there! It is true that modern kitchen gadgetry has significantly reduced the drudgery in cooking but the family has to still spend time in deciding the logistics of sourcing the grocery items which is not an easy task. The great "Cooking Gas" supply dynamics prevalent in India can be dampener to any cook earnest in taking up regular cooking!
Many social psychologists feel that sharing a family meal is an important way that will serve to devote time to the children and same is true with kids who recognize the importance of eating with their family that enables them to know their family members better. In a recent survey in Europe carried out by food industry, it came out that more than 80% of the parents felt a feeling of closeness with their children when meals are prepared and shared on the same dining table. On the other hand kids felt that they are much closer to their parents than they thought earlier. Interestingly sharing a low quality meal does not evoke the same feeling among the family members which may be due to the influence of balanced food on positive emotions and euphoria.
Whether going to a restaurant which serves high quality food will have the same effect is doubtful because such eating places do not ensure privacy and closeness unlike the home environment. Also how frequent such family meals will be necessary to have the positive effect depends on the life style followed by different families. However even once a week "eating together" session can have dramatic impact on family bonhomie. Is it not possible for the parents to involve the children in menu planning on such occasions to create a feeling of participation and such family meals must be well planned as per a fixed schedule with no interruption at any cost. The "idiot box" of to day can destroy what ever little time available for family meeting and it is best avoided during eating together sessions. Traditionally Indians are known to have frequent festivals, family functions when distant relatives meet and societal feasts where relations are revived but within a nuclear family, especially those types with both parents working, adequate time is invariably not found for eating together. It is incumbent on the parents of to day make conscious attempts to "knit together" their families through such "bonding" activities for which adequate time must be found.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


In a democratically governed country the people have a right to know what they are eating and it is wrong on the part of the government to give leeway to the industry to hide the true nature of food products sold by them. The whole philosophy of labeling is based on this concept. It was almost twenty years since there has been a controversy regarding the need to be transparent on the part of the industry regarding their use of genetically modified foods or ingredients in product formulation. Why some countries like Canada, the US and Australia, to mention a few, resisted the universal view that consumer has a right to know whether the products contain GM ingredients is some what intriguing and the only charitable explanation is that they want their food industry to grow providing large employment and deliver food at lower costs.

It is true that foods developed using genetic engineering has divided the world into two distinct groups, one fiercely against and the other willing to accept them. While antagonists see GM foods as unsafe to consume and injurious to the environment, protagonists are satisfied with the safety data generated on many of the GM foods, finding no reason to shun them. It is variously estimated that 70-80% of processed food products in the US and Canada contain one or more of GM ingredients and most consumers are not aware of such a situation, consuming these products under the impression they are "natural". There are suggestions that the current obesity epidemic in the country is growing parallel to the growth of GM foods and one cannot blame anybody if this association is taken as proof that GM foods are unhealthy.

While the debate about the safety or otherwise of GM foods may not end in the foreseeable future, the issue of declaring the presence of GM ingredients is mired in controversy with the industry fiercely opposing such a move due to their apprehension that such a move may impact on the growth of the sector because of possible consumer backlash. The weak argument that printing the label to contain the information about presence of GM ingredients would be expensive is nothing but hogwash! This is a war between the "right to know" segment of consumers and "right to do business" proponents in the industry. One is reminded of a similar instance in the past when irradiation technology was being used by the industry and it was agreed that irradiated foods must carry the information on the label. If irradiation process was found to be absolutely safe where is the need for special labeling? One cannot have dichotomy when it comes to consumer safety. Even to day irradiation technology is in a limbo because of this inconsistency in labeling policies.

It is interesting as to how debates on such an important issue can be vitiated by illogical arguments as put forward by the main stream food industry. According to the GM food lobby, labeling is not necessary because consumers have a choice in Organic Foods if they do not want to eat GM foods! Though many countries wanted clear labeling of GM foods to respect the consumer rights, there has been stiff resistance to this move from the US, Canada and Australia and it is a tribute to the persuasive ability of rest of the world that enabled the Codex Alimentarius Commission which is an association of 100 food safety agencies in different UN members to evolve a consensus agreement on voluntary labeling without any possible conflict with WTO charter. Of course this is unlikely to make the pro-GM food countries introduce the transparent labeling in their countries. At best this only means that they would not challenge if other countries start compulsory labeling of such unnatural foods. What effect this move will have on world trade is not certain now. .


Monday, August 15, 2011


The poultry industry has always been under pressure to improve the current practices in most poultry farms to raise chickens for processing into meat. One of the most frequently aired criticisms is that the industry does not show any humane consideration towards the birds when they are stuffed into small cages with hardly any space to move their legs or wings which put them into intense discomfort. It is such cruel practices which have spawned products like "cage free" birds which fetch a much higher value in the market. Many old timers still remember with nostalgia the uniquely tasty meat from free range birds which are not restrained by any means allowing them to roam freely over a large area. Whether there is any difference in the metabolic reactions in birds raised free and those restrained in small cages is not precisely known. But critics of industrial scale poultry farming invariably raise the issue of causing cruelty to the birds which is abhorred by many consumers. Recent reports from the US indicate that the poultry industry there have agreed to change their current practices and start using bigger cages with other features to ensure a better comfort level to the hapless birds within a span of 5 years.

While the way poultry farming is done at present may change soon for better, another area which cries for reforms is the butchering of the birds currently being done in a most disgusting way inviting scathing criticism universally. According to available information Chicken Abattoirs are terrifying horror places where the birds are subjected to torture at different stages with least humane consideration. While extinguishing the life of any creature, the least human beings can do is to minimize the pain to the victim as much as possible. Of course, the stunning process extensively deployed in all abattoirs has evolved for such a purpose though how many abattoirs do this scientifically is a debatable point.

According to knowledgeable experts, current practice in most poultry slaughter houses involves "stuffing" the birds in small crates; transporting these crates to slaughter house often under unbearable weather conditions; keeping them 1-9 hours in holding docks with neither food nor water;, hanging them upside down with most birds already crippled and some just hanging on with one leg; pushing their head and upper body through a trough of cold, electrified, salt water for stunning, paralyzing the muscles of the feather follicles for easily removing the feather and imparting desirable quality to the carcass; slicing the neck to cut the carotid artery for fast bleeding and death in about 90 seconds; dumping the ead birds into semi-scalding hot water; further cleaning to recover the edible carcass for marketing. What is sad in this automated process is that millions of birds do not become stunned, many do not die before the bleeding operation and live birds
are put in hot water, all causing immense pain and misery to them during their evening of life. There are other variations also practiced but they are also not free from criticism regarding their humane nature..

Keeping in view the above drawbacks of current practices, a new technique is reported to have been evolved using Low Atmospheric Pressure Technology System (LAPS) which is claimed to knock out or kill the birds by lowering air pressure in a sealed chamber within about 4 minutes. The birds when subjected to a low pressure in a closed chamber, deprived of oxygen, loses their consciousness within a minute and are not supposed to feel any pain there after. If these claims are true LAPS can be expected to resonate with consumers as wells as those who care about animal welfare in large scale commercial food production Probably this method may become industry standard in the years to come replacing the most widely used electric stunning or the CO2 gas stunning used by some others.


Thursday, August 11, 2011


A recent news item appearing in many media across the world proclaims the discovery of a natural antibiotic, isolated from bacteria and further claims that it can fight against "infamous' food pathogens like Salmonella, E.coli and Listeria. But is it a new discovery? Of course the scientists from Minnesota University who "discovered" the new antibiotic do not claim that the concept of natural antibiotics, different from the conventional ones, is not new as there are a few such well established antibiotics, coming under the category of "Lantibiotics", produced by gram positive bacteria belonging to Streptococcus and Streptomyces groups, effective against other gram positive bacteria with pathogenic potential.

Lantibiotic group of anti microbials are different from conventional antibiotics in that they are polycyclic thioether amino acids containing unusual amino acids like Lanthionine, Methyl Lanthionine, Dehydroalanine and 2-Aminoisobutyric acid. They are chemically dipeptides containing these amino acids. One of the most effective Lantibiotics is Nisin which has been in use for many years, especially by the Dairy Industry and there are others like Epidermin, Duramycin, Mersacidin, Actagardin, Lacticin, Nukacin among 30 such bacterial metabolites already identified by scientists. They are called Lantibiotics to denote that they contain Lanthionine amino acid having antibiotic properties.

How Lantibiotics are different from conventional antibiotics which are several in number, serving humanity ever since Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1948? Unlike normal antibiotics this new class of anti microbial substances do not have the ability to enter the blood stream through the GI tract, limiting their use in internal treatment. They are not stable under the conditions prevalent in the GI tract and are degraded fast losing their activity. Use of Lantibiotics is currently limited to topical applications for fighting skin infections and fast healing of wounds. Coming under the category of Bacteriocins, Lantibiotics work against other gram positive bacterial species either by disrupting cell wall production or interfering with several physiological functions of the host cells, seriously affecting cell multiplication leading to death. Most pathogenic bacteria are fortunately gram positive in nature and there lies the secret of success of Lantibiotics.

A sterling advantage of using Lantibiotics as preservatives for food is their relative safety in terms of development of resistance which is a critical area of concern currently in the meat industry which uses same front line antibiotics made by pharma companies to treat human ailments. According to one estimate more than 80% of antibiotics produced in the US goes to meat industry which uses them liberally to sanitize the meat before marketing. Incorporation of antibiotics in poultry feed is also reported to be in practice, mainly to accelerate the growth of birds and increased meat yield. As meat consumption in the world is growing significantly, human exposure to these antibiotics can lead to development of resistant pathogen strains which will be difficult to treat, calling for newer antibiotics continuously. Many strains of virulent E.coli are known to be unresponsive to treatment with any known antibiotics raising serious questions regarding the advisability of their indiscriminate and uncontrolled use.

The claim by some scientists that Lantibiotics can bring about dramatic changes in the food processing field is somewhat far fetched as of now because of many practical constraints. As these new class of natural preservatives are relatively unstable under a wide range of pH conditions, there is a serious question regarding their reliability under real field conditions. Under basic conditions they are known to undergo oxidation losing their antibacterial property. There appears to be some efforts for evolving analogs of these substances with better stability under different processing conditions and lot needs to be done to identify the type of foods which can be preserved with Lantibiotics. Once the stability issue is resolved, Lantibiotics may become an industry standard. As these are chemically peptide group of compounds, whether there could be allergic complications in some consumers is not known. The safety issues, though not believed to be of any serious nature at present, will gain focus once Lantibiotics become acceptable for wide range use in food products. The technology for producing Lantibiotics in pure condition without artifacts and contaminants, is not considered perfect at present and this is an area requiring further work.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Since 1998, India has been gloating over its remarkable success in overtaking the US as the number one producer of fluid milk in the world. This singular achievement was mainly due to the pioneering efforts of National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), led by that visionary Dr Varghese Kurien beginning 1970 under the Operation Flood Program. The cooperative movement which first established itself in the milk sector in Gujarat, spread to other states also leading to remunerative returns to milk producers which in turn resulted in quantum jump in production and productivity. Still India lags behind many countries in cattle productivity and the current milk yield from an India cattle is hardly 1000kg per lactation cycle, compared to the world average of 2000 kg and achievable target of 8000 kg. Though much efforts had gone into areas like cattle genetics, better fodder use and improvement in veterinary practices, the current annual growth of a measly 4% is considered inadequate to meet the demand for milk in the coming years.

If average per capita availability figures give any indication of the adequacy of milk in the country, it is 263 g per day in India compared to the world average of 280g per day, which is not bad. There are two factors which vitiate such calculations and any smug feeling that the country is self sufficient is likely to evaporate when one peeps into future. First average figures hide more than what they reveal and the bitter truth is that there is wide disparity in milk consumption pattern in India with the poor not able to afford to buy the nutritionally required minimum at the current market price. Second, looking at the future, there is even a suggestion from experts that India will have to go for import of milk products within a span of 10 years if the milk production does not increase to 180 million tons from the present anticipated production of about 120 million tons in 2011, implying an annual growth rate of about 6%. Whether this is achievable depends on the success of the National Dairy Plan of GOI taken up this year with an outlay of Rs 15.84 billion, major emphasis being put on improved productivity and bringing more milk into the processing grid in the organized dairy sector. If India could increase milk production six times between 1968 and 2011, the target does not look like that formidable.

One of the features of Indian dairying is that most of the milk produced and distributed is in the unorganized sector, almost to the extent of 80%. Many old timers recall with nostalgia the familiar sight of the local milk producer delivering fresh milk to individual households early in the morning. Bringing the cow or buffalo in front of the house for milking in the presence of the buyer is is still in vogue in some parts of the country to pre-empt adulteration and addition of water. Of course this scenario is rapidly changing in urban areas where rearing of cattle is almost impractical and the packed milk taking over the distribution. Looking at the relative merits of fresh milk distribution and new technological innovations that use for making pasteurized and sterilized milk, common sense points out to progressive shift from the fresh milk with high perishability mode to stabilized processed milk regime. Pasteurization after all can only kill the heat-sensitive pathogens leaving thermally stable bacterial spores in tact which can spoil the milk in a matter of few hours under ambient conditions. Ultra High Temperature (UHT)processing at 135C for 2-5 seconds and aseptic packing, on the other hand gives shelf stable product with more than 6 months life.

According to the Dairy experts Indian consumers are expected to switch over in huge numbers to packaged milk from loose milk in the coming years due to many compelling factors which include faster urbanization, expansion of middle class population, convenience factor, time constraint, increased milk consumption due to shift in the diet from cereals to more protective foods, etc. Entry of private sector into dairying also will facilitate such a transition while the fast expanding milk handling infrastructure will come in handy for setting up more processing facilities. By opting increasingly for packed milk consumers can avoid the hassles and disadvantages of by loose milk of uncertain quality, extensive adulteration and water addition becoming standard practice of many loose vendors. While on the subject of packaged milk, it is not clear why the organized dairies are not switching over to new pasteurization technologies which use cartons and plastic carboys with 10-15 days shelf life under refrigerated conditions while the whole world is using the same. Similarly the aseptically packed milk with 6 months life is making very slow progress in the country, though with a slight caramelized flavor Indian consumer will find this version more acceptable. Probably the consumer price which hovers around Rs 40 per liter as compared to Rs 20-25 for milk sachet may the major reason. The milk scenario in most Asian countries is likely to follow the Indian development which is good from the consumer perspective.


Friday, August 5, 2011


How hygienic and safe are the meat produced in many developing countries like India, Indonesia etc? Going by the relatively low food poisoning episodes from meat consumption reported in these countries one will be tempted to come to the conclusion that nothing is amiss as far as meat products made in these countries are concerned. But can it be true? The answer can be a resounding yes as well as no! Most of the slaughter houses that process the animals are invariably dirty, personnel working there are shabby and unclean, no refrigeration facility exists, crude slaughter practices are in vogue and so many other faults can be found with the industry. On the other hand most meat products are overcooked at home killing all the dangerous vectors that contaminate them and naturally such over processed foods must be safe. What is amazing is that the very same meat is even exported to many wealthy countries and the importers do not find any fault with them as reflected by low rate of rejection of these consignments at the receiving ports.

Meat industry in developing countries are undergoing significant changes and modernization is the "mantra" with the help of some of the advanced countries like Denmark. Hygienically sound and mechanized abattoirs, are being established in many developing countries, primarily to meet the stringent quality standards of the importers and safety assurance is ensured through rigorous inspections by qualified personnel deputed by the buyers. It was not long ago there were ramblings in Australia about the safety of fish imported from Asian countries as fish is alleged to be raised using animal excreta! However, the concern appears to be more about the low cost at which the fish is being imported which makes the local fish supplies expensive. Probably economic concerns seem to be far out weighing any genuine quality considerations!

There is no condoning of unsafe practices of raising and processing food whereever they occur but such concerns should not have an "apartheid flavor" as reflected by the shrill noises made about unsafe foods from Asian countries. With ISO quality protocols, HACCP regimes for safety assurance and many other global systems of safety certification being available for overseeing food quality, the origin of food should not make any difference when governed by these systems. Look at the clamor in some developed countries for printing the "country of origin" on any foods retailed in their markets which can only serve to generate a sense of ill-feeling towards any thing that is coming from the so called "dirty" countries, most of them in Asia. If this is not discrimination what else it is? What is the meaning and relevance of WTO if such practices are allowed to harm free global trade?

A recent report from Australia exemplifies the blatant practice of double standards by that wealthy country towards a relatively poor country like Indonesia. It appears 80% of the cattle exports from Australia, numbering about three quarter of a million, end up in Indonesia for slaughtering and processing into meat for local consumption. However beyond exporting the animals, Australia does not seem to be too much concerned about how these animals are slaughtered and whether the meat processed in such crude facilities are fit for human consumption. The export earnings in millions of dollars are derived from the poor people of a poor country and it is scandalous that the primitive practices of slaughtering and processing still continue in spite of the fact that Australia, technologically a super nation could have contributed to modernization of these abattoirs with little re-investment of their export earnings.

With the documentary exposure of unscientific and cruel slaughtering practices in vogue at more than 700 abattoirs in Indonesia, Government of Australia was forced to suspend active trade with Indonesia in live stock animals which immediately pinched the interests of cattle farms in export business. The philosophy seems to be that as long as the undesirable processing practices are not exposed, every thing is alright for the cattle farmers as well as the government but once the expose became public government had to take action by suspending trade with Indonesia which is indeed a hypocritical move. If there were genuine concerns, the Meat Board of Australia could have transformed the meat industry in Indonesia into a modern one long ago, capable of turning out high quality meat of international standard.

An indirect beneficiary of this episode is the Australian consumer community as the meat price in the domestic market started falling consequent to fall in prices of the live stock after the export ban. Whether it is good for them to increase more beef in their diet is another matter. In the light of implications of increased animal food consumption in many health complications, if the trade ban continues indefinitely it is likely that Australia may compete with the US for achieving the unenviable position as the most sickly nation!


Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Though the United States of America has developed a hate-love relationship with most countries in the world during the last two decades, it still remains one of the most charitable countries in this planet. According to available information the US contributes more than 20% of the global development aid followed by Germany, about 10%, of 120 billion dollars committed for development of poor countries. The Millenium Development Goals (MDG) signed in the year 2000 by all UNO members seek, among other things to eradicate poverty and hunger in the world and halve the population suffering from hunger by 2015 by committing 0.7% of GDP of each developed country for this Mission.

It is true that there is no compulsion on the part of any country however rich it may be to provide economic aid to poor nations which lag behind in the development ladder due to many reasons. Of course centuries of exploitation by the colonialist countries like Britain, France, Portugal, Spain and others had left many of the countries under their yolk unconscionably poor measured by any yardstick and unless these poor countries are provided massive economic and technological assistance they will always remain as lagers! MDG sought to address this problem which if not tackled with priority can endanger world peace seriously.

The three biggest colonialists Britain, France and Spain ruled almost half the world at one time and it is their moral duty that their erstwhile colonies are helped to become truly independent nations with reasonable standards of life for their citizens. Unfortunately the US had to assume the mantle of the global savior by providing economic aids to many of these poor countries. It is not a mean task to feed 55 million hungry people in 46 countries which the US has been able to do it last year costing millions of dollars to its Exchequer and the world must salute this country for its humanitarian effort. Obviously such endeavors can also attract criticism and some critics do believe that the economic aid provided by the US is an extension of its selfish agenda, viz furthering the interests of its farmers and industry. More over the aid helps only 55 million people out of about a billion hungry ones spread over the three continents.

The aid arm of the US, globally known as USAID channels the government program of food assistance
works through host governments, multilateral institutions, NGOs and private companies to ensure maximum efficiency in aid delivery. The African Growth Opportunities Act of 2000 ( AGOA) is intended to benefit the targeted countries through capacity building and it is tribute to the success of this program that countries like Angola, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Senegal and South Africa were able to export to the US goods and services worth $ 44 billion last year. Improvements in efficiency and impact of the program need assessment from time to time and a recent study report by the Tuft University of Massachusetts regarding the need for changing the orientation of the aid programs from quantity to quality is indeed revealing.

According to the findings of the above group, the American government should not be smug in its feeling that every thing is fine but must realize that delivering any and every food to the hungry is not enough. Quality needs to be upgraded and differentiated depending on the nature of the targeted groups. Tailoring the type of food delivered to specific consumers is the need of the hour as the nutritional requirements of recipients like children under the age of two, sick children, pregnant women new mothers and sick people. Most striking recommendation was for trying combinations of foods which are always better for the consumer than are combinations of nutrients in a single food. How far such wide ranging changes in aid paradigm are feasible, remains to be seen.

One of the most stringent criticisms against American food aid is about the stipulation that the budgeted amounts must be spent in America paying for American goods and services while Europeans allow 95% of the aid to be spent in the recipient country which is valid to some extent. Probably the food aid program in the US may see some see change in the coming years though the quantum of aid may shrink taking into consideration the current economic downturn in that country. What ever be the quantum of aid, it must be spent more efficiently through precise targeting and well balanced food products. The philosophy that "provide them calories, hunger is taken care of automatically" must give way to a policy "provide better food, make hungry people lead quality life".


Monday, August 1, 2011


India is known from time immemorial as the golden land of spices, cherished all over the world. With rapid advances made in safety and quality assurance methodologies during the last two decades, world is not willing to accept any thing and every thing exported from the country under brand India. On the contrary any thing that originates from India is viewed with grave suspicion regarding its quality and if it is food, about its safety. Still, being the foremost producer of many spices leeway was always given to the Indian exporters to mend them selves and supply products conforming to internationally accepted quality and safety requirements. How far such considerations are going to help the country if there is no genuine desire to implement steps that will ensure safety of exported products on the part of growers and their agents who predominate the export trade?.

India was supposed to have produced about 3.2 million tons of spices, constituting almost 80% of world production and out this more than half a million ton was exported fetching the country foreign exchange to the tune of US$ 1.5 billion. Out of the 109 spices covered under the ISO, 52 spices are considered important for India to export because of their significant production in the country. Indian Spices Board of GOI is vested with the task of coordinating the export of these valuable crops and value added products derived from them. Continuous increase in export of spices, in spite of many infrastructural constraints speaks well about the performance of the Spice Board till recently and full credit to it for enhancing the portion of value added products from spices in the total spice export beyond 50%.

Europe is a major destination for Indian spices and being very sensitive to dangers of food poisoning EU food safety authorities have been continuously raising the bar to achieve zero tolerance for contaminated foods, from where ever they are. One can understand the concerns of the Union, especially after the recent E.coli pandemic killing several people, traced to imported Fenugreek from Egypt. It was in 2010 EU introduced the Rapid Alert System for Feed and Food (RASFF) for identifying contaminated imports as defined by their standards and currently 50% of all shipments entering the EU region are subjected to rigorous inspection for quality and safety. Knowing fully well that such strict safety protocols are enforced, it should have been the responsibility of Spice Board to radically modify the export regime and it is unfortunate that the short comings, some of them serious, were uncovered by the technical team from EU that visited the country recently. Below is reproduced verbatim some of the findings of this team which wanted the country to take adequate steps to address the short comings immediately.

"The supervision of control authorities of spice growers is not robust enough. There is a failure to ensure producers are implementing Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) or Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). Advisory services on these practices do exist but not all farmers, particularly larger-scale ones, are covered by these and therefore they might not be fully aware of GAP procedures, said the FVO report. Instead, Indian officials have focussed on implementing aflatoxin controlsprior to export. While a string of procedures are in place, the inspectors said many of the measures do not meet EU standards. Indian spices are one of the products subject to heightened scrutiny under EC Regulation 669/2009 as a result of the higher than average RASFF notifications on the presence of aflatoxins in the foods. Currently, some 50 per cent of shipments undergo physical inspection at EU borders. Following the introduction of the measure in 2010, the number of RASFF notifications jumped by 600 per cent to 98, compared to 12 in the previous 12 months. While legislation has been introduced in India to regulate its 3,500 spice exporters - of which 220 ship into the EU - there are some gaps. There are no clear food hygiene rules laid down for food companies, including spice processors and it is not obligatory to implement Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP). "The level of HACCP implementation in companies processing spices for export to the EU is very low," said the report. Spice processors or traders exporting their produce are not subject to any food hygiene control - and therefore there is no official body to ensure they comply with EU requirements, it added".

One of the deficiencies of the Spice Board pointed out from time to time is its ability to get top notch scientists to be a part of its technical team which could inspire confidence among the buying countries. It is time this inadequacy is seriously addressed in the interest of protecting the nation's exports. Aflatoxin is a contaminant in many spices at the field level post-harvest handling level which cannot be avoided unless good agricultural practices GAP) are adopted by the growers, many of whom are small land holders. This is where help is needed by the growers in the form of technical training and investment for upgrading their operations. Earlier this is done better it will be for the spice industry in the country.