Saturday, January 21, 2012


It is a well known adage that an "army marches on its stomachs", implying that the fighting spirit of a defense force can be maintained only if the foods served are of good quality and organoleptically acceptable. As far as Government of India is concerned it does not seem to be subscribing to the above age old wisdom if the ongoing criticism against food supply system prevalent in the armed forces now has any basis. There may not be any doubt about the veracity of the criticism considering that they are made by two of the most respected arms of the government-Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the Parliament and the constitutional watch dog Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), that too repeatedly during the last few years. It is just sad that government does not give any seriousness to these reports and continue to close its eyes towards corruption and mismanagement of food supply system in vogue.

Taking first the PAC report, it has been alleged that army personnel even in the border posts are being supplied with date expired products which are normally not consumed by the general public. While the Defense Forces may have its own compulsions to continue with this system which, any how, has not been made public so far, no date expired food is accepted by any consumer any where in the world. Food industry generally withdraws such products from the market and either destroy them or test and reprocess with a new date of expiry. It is true that some agencies like Food Banks do accept date expired foods from retail markets but make sure they are safe before distributing to their beneficiaries. There is also a section of safety experts group which feels expiry of date need not necessarily mean they are unsafe but their quality might be less than optimum due to storage on the shelves for long time. It is difficult to say whether the army supplies which are date expired come under this category. 

The other agency, CAG made a more scathing attack on army's food supply system by citing the obnoxious practice on the part of the testing laboratories to unilaterally revise the expiry period with no scientific basis. Such a practice of extending the shelf life given by the manufacturer by the testing laboratories may not pass muster because this means only that the food might be safe from microbiological spoilage angle. What about the impact of myriad chemical reactions and physical changes taking place under ambient conditions inside the sealed pack and their possible role in making the food not so safe after all?. Recent uproar about the findings that toxic Bis-Phenol A is leached out into the food contents of cans cannot be ignored so easily. Similarly all plastic containers and films do contribute to migration of unsafe chemical entities into the contents and longer the storage time more dangerous can be the levels of these undesirable and unsafe leachates.

One may recall an earlier episode when looking back at army food supply and its logistics, an expensive high technology plant was established at enormous cost near Agra to process meat into dehydrated products using Freeze Drying process several decades ago. Though quality wise and from safety considerations, this technology was indeed one of the best available in the world, the plant had to be junked because the product was totally unacceptable to army personnel because of textural deficiencies. The Defense Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) at Mysore has been doing yeoman service for quite some time though its out put value is progressively coming down with practically nothing of significant user value coming out of this once reputed food R & D wing in the Defense Sector. There was a time in the history that the yearning for fresh foods which every one likes cannot be accessed easily due to the perishable nature of all foods. But emergence of new technologies to day like High Pressure Processing, Modified Atmosphere Storage/packing, aseptic packing, fast freezing process, vacuum packing etc makes it possible to deliver foods as fresh as possible with far better acceptability. Why not serve the armed forces of the country only the very best foods which are nutritious, healthy and safe?  At least this is one way of repaying country's debts for the sacrifices they are making day in and day out for safeguarding the integrity of the country under harsh conditions.


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