Friday, June 29, 2012


Recent announcement by the World Health Organization that Diesel Exhaust is a confirmed carcinogen only reiterates what has been suspected since long. An inconvenient question that may not have immediate answer is why it took such a long time to make this judgment while countries like the US, the EU, Japan and most developed countries with high automobile density have taken action long ago to curtail emissions by more stringent regulations leading to more and more efficient power trains, emitting less dangerous exhaust smoke. No matter how efficient the engine is there has to be some exhaust fumes and humans may have to live with this bitter reality for ever. Of course there are alternative options like electric cars or hydrogen powered engines with absolutely no emission of chemical gases but on economic consideration these may not become accepted options, at least for the next few years. Nearest to an ideal solution is the hybrid cars able to operate both with gasoline and rechargeable batteries which are becoming popular to some extent these days. If the present dilemma vis-a-vis diesel engine pollution was anticipated in time there could have been more practical solutions like expanding the mass transit systems and improved people moving systems that could have reduced drastically the automobile population. Developing countries like India ignored this problem for so long and this is going to haunt the country for years to come. The current policy of encouraging manufacture of more and more automobiles, in spite of lack of good road infrastructure and acute scarcity of fossil fuel sources to meet the galloping demand, does not seem to be logical or visionary. For example what is logic of pricing diesel significantly less than that of gasoline? Why is that more and more diesel powered cars are encouraged to be manufactured knowing well the hazards of the diesel exhaust? Nothing but lack of vision and insensitivity to the suffering of millions of citizens exposed to the danger.

Finding fault with diesel engine emissions is not a new development. It has been known for quite some time that Disel Particulate Matter, known more commonly as DPM, is a dangerous cocktail of chemicals which are harmful if inhaled from close quarters. DPM is mostly soot or unburned particles of carbon along with gases like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and others in varying concentration. These particles are so small in size, less than 10 microns, that they get through the throat, past the lungs into the deepest part of this organ capable of triggering asthmatic attacks, bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease and cancer. A part of the sooth can be nano sized particles which can penetrate to any part of the body into cells causing unpredictable consequences. Having a rough surface , DPM can attach to themselves different toxic gases carrying them through the cells of the body. The cocktail that is called DPM has cancer causing chemicals like antimony compounds, Beryllium compounds, Chromium compounds, Selenium compounds, Benzene, Pyrenes, Nitrobenzanthrone, , Styrene etc besides many potent Endocrine Disruptors like Phthalates, Phenols etc . Lot of data pertinent to the dangers posed by DPM to workers in mines or operators of diesel railway engines are documented but very little information is available as to the extent of exposure to the city dwellers. Millions of diesel driven trucks, tractors working in agricultural fields, lawn movers and other heavy machinery involved in infrastructure industry all pose risks of unknown magnitude. It is any body's guess as to what long term consequences this situation can cause to those exposed to millions of tons of DPM spewing into the habitat of humans beings, vitiating their living environment.

A pertinent question that rises in this context is whether millions of children being ferried into their schools every day are really in danger because of their exposure to diesel fumes emanating from the vehicles they use. In many developing countries there are no strict compliance vis-a-vis diesel engine performance standards and most of them continue to run for 15-25 years, spewing out the deadly, foggy, dark smoke, affecting people following them. As children are susceptible to chemical pollutants and manifestation of health disorders is faster in them, it is time that these aspects are looked into more critically on a global level. Similarly what is the fate of those who are in employed by the freight carriers, driving diesel trucks and heavy haulage vehicles?. Or for that matter the impact of diesel smoke on the health of urbanites exposed to the bellowing smoke of trucks, passenger cars, three wheelers plying 7x24 incessantly through the narrow roads in thousands of cities and towns in many countries? It is reported that in many hospitals in large metropolitan cities in india, there are special wards equipped with nebulizers for children who suffer regularly from breathing problems and lung related disorders, acquired from their day to day exposure to the automobile exhausts that pollute the environment. Is it not a fact that the proportion of asthma, a lung disorder, is predominant in cities compared to rural areas? Is the world moving towards a regime where lives of people are controlled more and more by the powerful pharmaceutical industry which manufactures medicines to deal with such disorders like asthma generating lucrative business opportunities? 

According to prevalent standards the environment where humans live should not have pollutants like hydrocarbon, carbon monoxide, Nitrogen Oxide, DPM, Sulfur Dioxide, Lead and Volatile Organic Compounds( VOC). According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the US, air quality should ensure that particulate matter (< 10 microns) content does not exceed 150 microgram (mcg) per cubic meter during a 24 hour period while annual average has to be less than 50 mcg during a 24 hours period. The standards become more stringent when the particulate matter size goes down and their concentration in the air should not be more than 65 mcg over a 24 hour period and 15 mcg annually. Standards are also laid down for pollutants like CO, Lead, NO2, O3 and SO2. In India Emission Standards are laid down for CO2, Hydrocarbons, NO2 and Particulate Matters. Why there are different sets of standards for diesel driven cars and trucks is not understandable though it might be due to the technological limitations for improving engine performance in terms of emissions. In many countries equipping the automobiles with catalytic converters which are attached to the exhaust pipe has become mandatory. The Platinum-Palladium-Rhodium catalyst converts unburned hydrocarbon into less harmful gases like CO2.  Increased use of biodiesel fuels incorporating plant oils has enable the industry to reduce sulfur content that contributes most to Laying down standards is one thing but enforcing the same becomes invariably the casualty. According to the present regulations, cars older than 2 years are required to be tested every 6 months for the prescribed emission pre-requisites and those failing them must retune their engines or take action to make necessary repairs to achieve positive results. Due to many practical and logistical limitations, testing has become more an exception than the rule! 

One of the unknown factors that makes diesel engine emission more dangerous is what role some of the constituents in it play in spreading obesity which is an epidemic in countries like the US with very high automobile density. There are no scientific studies which have established any linkage between obesity and automobile exhausts but recent reports coming from credible scientific institutions linking endocrine disruptors (ED) with increased fat synthesis in the body need to be taken seriously. It is all the more disturbing when one realizes that ED at ppb levels can be active in derailing the functions of those hormones controlling many growth functions including lipogenesis. The deadly effect of DPM on lungs and bladder is indeed alarming but its influence on human body development also must be explored more seriously. The existence of obesogens which act at ppb levels is relatively a new development and as there are many chemical contaminants in foods consumed daily which have potential obesogen action, implicating DPM from fossil fuel driven automobiles may vitiate the programs targeted at bringing out people from the clutches of weight related disorders. Current philosophy of reducing calories and fat intake to achieve weight control can be seriously compromised if non-food factors like EDCs are also found to be contributing to this malaise.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        


Monday, June 18, 2012


So much is being talked about the bad influence of foods being marketed in countries like the US, consumers are in a blind when it comes to choosing a food which is good for the health. From time to time sporadic attempts are being made to differentiate good foods from the not so good ones with symbols and icons, none of them found satisfactory or fool proof so far. The term "junk foods" which has been coined to describe products with high calories and low in nutrition are increasingly getting hold of the lives of people who can afford only these foods with lower price tags compared to nutrient dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole cereals, lean fish, milk and milk products etc  which are priced out of reach of most people of lower income bracket. In a democratic country it is difficult to wield the proverbial stick to force the food processing industry to make only nutritionally superior foods while the consumers crave for foods which are palate friendly. After all business interests cannot be expected to continue with operations which are unable to bring in money as a return on their investments. Voluntary efforts and gestures can at best be of marginal value only with practically no impact. Under such a situation where will the consumer go for help while buying the food needs in the aisles of super markets and grocery shops for getting any clue regarding the health value of a plethora of attractively packed products staring at him from the shelves? 

Going into the fundamentals of good health, humans require about 2000-2500 kC from the food consumed every day for survival and carrying on day to day activities under a decent living style regime. But besides calories there are other crucial needs for a variety of nutrients which cannot be made by the body. These include essential amino acids from proteins in the diet, essential fatty acids, micro nutrients like vitamins and minerals and dietary fiber. It is practically impossible to derive all these nutrients from  any single food and therefore nutritional experts always advice to follow a food regime based on diverse food materials with each one of them providing varied nutrient factors in required concentrations. Processed food industry will never be able to deliver all required vital nutrients in a single food, however good the product may be. On the other hand man knows lot about negative role played by some of the natural food components like sugar, salt, saturated fat and many non-natural ingredients used by the processing industry to develop good tasting foods. Assuming that the processing steps that are necessary to make a finished food product from the raw materials are efficient enough to pre-empt unsafe contaminants, only issue that needs to be focused is the relative nutritive value of the finished product. Any method or system that strives to categorize foods into healthy ones can only focus on the relative concentration of the constituents like sugar, saturated fat, sodium, dietary fiber, trans fats and cholesterol. 

American Heart Association (AHA) which has been doing yeoman service in providing valuable inputs to American people for protecting them from some of the common diseases like CVD, Blood Pressure, Kidney Health and others caused by inappropriate dietary habits, is active in the field of food certification to help the industry as well as the consumers to progressively bring about a qualitative change in the food system in that country. Their "Heart Check Certification" system which is slowly becoming an industry standard is a reliable way to guide the consumer for selecting the most healthy ones from an array of products available in the market place. Under this program levels of constituents like total fat (less than 6-5 gm per serving), saturated fat (1 gm or less and 15% or less calories from saturated fats, trans fats (less than 0.5%), cholesterol (20 mg or less), Sodium (less than 480 mg), beneficial nutrients (10% or more of DV in case of one of the 6 like Vitamin C, D, C, Calcium, Protein or Dietary Fiber) in a product will decide whether it is eligible to receive the iconic certification. It is difficult to include every parameter that may be relevant in a certification program like this and some critics feel that the qualitative aspects of fat and protein have not been factored properly in this method though further refinement of this system can be expected based on emerging experience in future.    

There is a veiled criticism that AHA takes money from the industry for awarding the certificate and this might be influence the decision when products are submitted for certification. However one must appreciate the fact that world wide no certification agency undertakes product assessment free of cost as testing involves costly inputs which will have to be met from the fee charged. Another issue is whether AHA has the wherewithal to do follow up vigilance work which only can ensure that those awarded the Health Check Certificate once, will continue the good manufacturing practice to turn out products consistently conforming to the standards of AHA. These are the pitfalls of all certification programs but it still gives a broad idea about the healthiness of products for the consumers to make the buying decision easier.  


Sunday, June 17, 2012


Any casual visitor to the United States of America cannot help wondering about the priorities of American families in their life style and one thing that strikes any body is the fanatic attachment to automobiles, each family having a minimum of 2 cars. Of course one cannot blame the citizens for their love of cars and SUVs because these are essential tools of daily life without which it can be a huge logistical log jam. Being a wealthy country with one of the highest personal income figures, they can also afford to buy new automobiles or replace the existing one every three years. But what bothers rest of the world is the heavy carbon emission caused by the American population by its over dependence on fossil fuels which happen to be on the "extinction" list as world reserves are about to be depleted irreversibly once for all! Modern day phenomenon of global warming, due to which droughts and floods are becoming more frequent affecting food production, is also due to this reckless living style of the society here. Though alternate and sustainable energy sources are being developed in many countries, Americans do not seem to have heart in such endeavors, still addicted to petroleum fuels like a spoiled brat!

After overcoming the automobile "shock", another feature of American homes is the extra ordinary attraction to maintain a home front that is "spic and span", the front lawn being the center piece of the landscape. Billions of dollars are being expended in designing and maintaining home front gardens, mostly with seasonal flowering plants that need care and money to look after with dedication and supervision. Excessive obsession with carpet green lawns in front of every home extracts a heavy toll on the family budget  and rarely it is understood that maintaining a lawn is fraught with environmental damage of significant magnitude. The lawn mowing machinery and tons of manure and chemicals used to maintain the lawns in "picture scene" condition contributes further to environmental degradation of unimaginable dimension. Of course the culture of home front landscaping, deep rooted in American way of life has spawned industrial activities valued at billions of dollars, providing valuable employment to millions of people. It is another matter that most manual labor force is made up of illegal immigrants from South American countries!

One should not grudge the pleasure Americans may be deriving from their home front lawns and flower gardens as long as the burden of protecting these privileges is not passed on to the poor countries in Asia, Africa and South America. It is ironical that poorer countries are being asked to cut down on their carbon emissions while with great difficulties they are trying to shake of the perennial poverty and scourge of hunger and give their people a glimmer of hope to lead a decent and honorable life. Increased energy, water and food are their basic right and if they have to pollute the planet for this reason for some years at least, wealthy nations should not grudge the same. Between a square meter of land raising a lawn and another plot raising food, which should be the choice? Of course the latter. Here is where more pragmatism needs to be shown by the wealthy nations in managing their resources more efficiently with minimum wastage. It is not that Americans are totally insensitive to the food problem, though their concern is largely confined to safeguarding their health from unsafe food produced and marketed in the country.

Modern day industrial agriculture has unleashed a devastating destructive force in the form food crops which are tuned to make the farmers and the processors rich rather than making the lives of ordinary people safe. If food industry and the farm lobby are being blamed for the obesity epidemic rampant in the country, there is some justification and the reaction of the consumers is manifested in the form of many efforts like locavores, farmers market, urban farming, terrace gardening, vertical gardening, farm shops etc. to by pass the main stream food industry. The ever growing organic food industry is another testimony to the disappointment and distrust consumers are showing towards the established food players. The most pressing issue to day is whether man will really be able to keep the food production going, in tune with the population growth and every ounce of food produced will count in avoiding food shortages in future. Here is where urban farming may have a role to play.

Here is the connection between home front lawns and future food production. If all the American homes shift the emphasis from lawns to vegetable gardening the result would be dramatic in the coming years. Imagine each family able to harvest its own vegetables from its gardens in front of the house for daily consumption, in stead sitting back and watching the immaculately mowed lawn day in and day out! A cultural change needs to take place to change the present mindset but it can be done provided every stake holder including the local civic authorities, real estate industry, home owners' associations across the country collectively usher in a new era of community cooperative endeavor that will also help the nation to build a healthy society of future citizens with more responsibility and respect for the fellow citizens. The efforts of Michigan University to set up a research center at Detroit for developing techniques, technologies, practices and other logistics of urban based farming will go a long way in providing the much needed impetus to boost food production through better exploitation of urban resources. What is needed is development special seeds with plant characteristics like heavy bearing, bushy in nature, bright flowers, longer duration, easy harvesting etc by horticulturists for adoption by home owners. Existing service outfits that provide garden services for lawns and flower plants can provide the same services for maintaining the vegetable gardens also. Americans must shift their focus from landscaping to "foodscaping", if they want to be honorable partners in safeguarding and augmenting global food supply and reducing the burden of environmental degradation. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Here is a hypothetical question that may be relevant when the phenomenal growth of food processing industry is considered, whether this growth would have been possible but for the magnificent role played by the packaging industry in developing functional and aesthetic packaging materials during the last 2-3 decades. If at all one single factor which helped the industry to pull in more and more consumers to its products and consequently set off hectic development of thousands of products, is to be identified, it is the packaging material innovations over the years. With the advent of plastic materials developed from fossil fuels with many desirable functional characteristics, food industry got a platform to diversify their product basket, extend the supply chain and prolong the life of the products more and more giving retailers, domestic and international, comfortable elbow space for mounting concerted marketing blitzkrieg. It is another matter that food industry is now on the dock for turning out products considered by many as unhealthy, unsafe and addictive. 

The role of packaging changed from to time and as it is more or less an ancillary industry to food processing, its growth agenda determined by development of the food manufacturing sector, though non-food packaging flourished independently. Ever since the canning technology was established as a reliable tool to preserve foods which otherwise are perishable, the importance of packaging increased by leaps and bounds and to day it is inconceivable that the food industry can survive without the prop from the packaging industry. With increased volume of business, food industry started demanding more and more innovations from the packaging sector to which latter responded effectively and responsibly. Packaging industry got a bad name lately because of the critical safety questions raised by the consumers when they are used in food contact applications. So much has been said and written on plastics and their safety in packing foods that there is still no clarity on this important issue. Health experts, environmentalists and consumer activists, all continue to press for more sustainable and safer packaging systems. Whether these issues will fade away or become more strident in the coming years remains to be seen. 

While resistance to plastics will not abate for a long time to come, there is still a feeling that they are inevitable because of their versatility. Development endeavor in the field of plastic packaging has been so phenomenal that, if their safety record is improved, they can provide unlimited and unimaginable advantages to the consumers. Active and smart packaging systems are really overwhelming and it is simply not possible to turn a blind eye to these emerging innovations. The basic function of any packaging is to make food last longer but if it can alert the consumer about changes taking place inside the sealed pack or interact with the content to improve the consumer experience like change of color in sea food packs from yellow to blue when it becomes bad or including CO2 to keep the freshness longer or providing O2 absorbers to pre-empt oxidative deterioration or use lactase enzyme in carton lining for making milk acceptable to lactose intolerant people can become standard industry practices in the coming years. Packaging system that can heat up the contents without the use of external heating through exothermic chemical reaction is a development which some how did not take off when introduced some years ago.

A change in packaging can revive the fortunes of a product considered on the verge of extinction. The classical example is pop corn which was once a very popular product for the kids as well as the adults and Americans were even given the tag as a nation with pop corn culture because of the omnipotent presence of this snack item every where. With the advent of thousands of new snacks in the market, pop corn naturally faded away from the minds of the consumers. It was after the introduction of microwavable packs for making pop corn at home where microwave heating system is readily available that this product again became a roaring success. Similarly till the advent of packaging materials that could stand high temperature exposure, ready meal design for instant consumption had to be dependent on metal cans and to day several alternative laminates with different combinations are available that can be used for making retortable pouches capable of withstanding high temperatures to achieve sterility. If Tetrapack system using paper laminates to pack many liquid and semi liquid products under aseptic conditions after UHT heating regime has become a run away success, credit goes to the packaging industry for evolving such versatile packing materials. 

Most challenging task for food packaging industry is to deploy permissible anti microbial chemicals as an integral part of packaging without imparting any taint to the contents because food poisoning from pathogens is by far the most frequent danger faced by the consumers. Such packaging materials should have the ability to  destroy microorganisms , should not harm the food in any way, must be cost-effective, should have low health risks besides being legally permissible. Sorbic acid impregnated bread wrappers were used extensively in some countries but this does not seem to be practiced any more because of better technological developments in bread making. There are many such anti microbial chemicals with high effectiveness which should be considered for incorporation in packaging materials without them leaching into the contents but still keeping the pathogens away. Whether this is an achievable task remains to be seen. However availability of zero gas and water transmission film materials for food packing is already helping many products to keep safe for even up to five years shelf life under vacuum.  

Many consider Active packaging as the muscle of the industry while Smart packaging can be the brain. Active packaging does not remain as a passive physical protection system but interacts with the environment with in the pack contributing to improving the product quality or preventing the natural deterioration. In contrast Smart packaging system can enhance the consumer experience through intelligent interaction and help more appreciation of the features of the food product inside. Unlike most of the present packaging materials and the systems now in vogue, Active and Smart packaging provide an additional protective function without incorporation of any chemicals into the food for achieving longer life or better quality. Besides they will not have active contact with the food contents ruling out any product tainting. Computer inter phasing with packaging systems can be expected to make the food buying a much more pleasurable experience in the coming years.          

Saturday, June 9, 2012


Protein is a food component that is essential for body growth and maintenance. After water protein is the most abundant molecules in the body. They are also the major structural component of all living cells. If adequate intake through every day food is not ensured many deficiency symptoms are manifested and therefore minimum daily intake has to be arrived at to prevent such contingencies. Usually terms like Dietary Reference Value (DRV) and Population Reference Intake (PRI) are used by nutritional experts to indicate the levels of protein that need to be consumed daily for different segments of population. Protein needs vary from people to people and they depend on variable factors like age, gender, level of physical activity, etc. Each country arrives at these values in consonance with international bench mark standards. While children and adolescents in general require more proteins, adults and grown ups need lesser proteins for keeping good health. As protein is an integral part of growth phase, its need for growing children is naturally higher as expressed in terms of unit body weight. 

Deficiency of proteins was a burning issue during nineteen fifties, sixties and seventies and most populations in countries in the African, Asian and South American continents were identified as targets requiring massive need for protein foods of good quality. Many government nutritional programs were launched to evolve low cost protein-rich foods for distribution in these protein-stressed countries and reduce or prevent malnutrition-precipitated disease like Kwashiorkar, Marasmus etc. It was later realized that protein deficiency alone could not be blamed for the poor health conditions of people here and energy deficiency also contributed its part in depriving the people of normal healthy life. Ultimately it is the economic conditions that prevail in these countries which are responsible for denying the economically weak population access to good foods, balanced in terms of calories and proteins, besides micro nutrients. In all nutrition interventional programs, it is important to set up bench mark standards for assessing the status of the target population vis-a-vis protein adequacy in the diet. It is here that DRV and PRI become highly relevant. If PRV figures are low, it is necessary to segregate that segment of the population who are not able to afford intake of proteins to the average figures. Efforts must therefore follow to ensure proteins as per DRV are supplied under nutritional programs.

There has never been unanimity among nutritional pundits regarding the minimum protein intake that is necessary for good health. As a thumb rule 25% of energy intake can be accounted for by the proteins present in the diet. But each country tries to come up with its own daily intake values for various nutrients though international agencies like WHO and FAO have well established nutritional guidelines. Why it is necessary to evolve separate standards for each country is still not clear and what is the problem in following these guidelines arrived through extensive inter-country consultations, is not very obvious. Americans and Canadians preach to consume 46 gm of proteins daily by the women in the age range 17-70 while the corresponding figure for men is 56 gm. Further an average figure of 0.85 gm per kg body weight is followed as a general rule. Protein intake can be as high as 125 gm per day for very active people like athletes and heavy duty workers. Health food industry promotes a diet rich in protein, low in fat and medium levels of carbohydrates (about 50%of calorie intake). 

Recent efforts by the European Food Safety Authority to set out minimum protein targets required for good health are some what puzzling.  According to its latest recommendations an average adult needs about 0.83 gm of proteins daily working out to about 58 gm for a person with 70 kg body weight. Except for a minor change these figures are practically same as that existed before and why this exercise was needed is intriguing. After all, in most countries in Europe where meat based diets predominate, even a small portion of chicken, about 75 gm in weight provides about 30 gm of proteins, more than 50% of the daily need and protein deficiency is a non-issue. Obviously these values have been revisited for guidance to the industry for arriving at figures for inclusion in the nutrition information in the front of the label packaging. Where the new guidelines are more illuminating is the attempt to put down DRV figures for infants, children, adolescents, pregnant women and breast feeding women separately which probably makes some sense. Additional intake of proteins to the extent of 1 to 28 gm per day during different stages of pregnancy as being suggested is indeed welcome.  Recommendation for increased protein intake to the extent of 19 gm a day for breast feeding women for the first 6 months and 13 gm there after is also very eminent. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Copying from the West is a culture deep rooted in India and thinking and acting original keeping in view country's rich past do not seem to have crossed the minds of government policy makers in any field of activity. Is it not an anachronism that many laws that operate in the country to day are enacted originally by the British long long ago and except for tinkering with them no major attempts have been made to re-write many of them to adapt to Indian conditions. Even the fact that Britishers themselves have scrapped or drastically modified them from to time taking into consideration changes taking place over a time does not seem to be ringing any bell with the powers who call them selves as "government". India boasts of a talented man power pool that is second to none and they are capable of revolutionizing the governance to meet the aspirations of the common man. Unfortunately the vice like grip the bureaucracy has on the government does not allow such capable people to come any where near the power center.

The above comment must be seen in the context of the launching of the brand new food safety law last year with much hope and fanfare, raising huge expectations of the citizenry that they get relief from the massive adulteration of food at every stage in the food chain. It is almost an year since these laws have come into force but the frenetic pace at which the food adulteration industry is growing does not seem to be abating. At least the erstwhile Prevention of Food Adulteration Act had evoked some fear among the adulterators but the present condition which is more like a half way house is spawning new operators engaged in tinkering with the day to day food available in the market putting the lives of people in greater danger. Many operating provisions of food safety act are being challenged in judicial courts for their constitutionality and a sub-par infrastructure to support the field inspectors, that too few in number, makes the situation dicey for many criminals and crooks who are flooding the market with spurious foods of potential health damage to the citizens.

There are agencies like USFDA of the US, EU Food safety authorities, WHO-FAO Codex committee, ISO etc which have elaborate standards and safety norms and every country has the right to promulgate its own laws keeping in view its requirements under conditions that exist there. It is a fact that food is a diverse portfolio and the cuisines and product categories vary widely from one country to another and the chemical, physical, microbiological, sanitary and culinary aspects vary enormously among them. In evolving any standards of identity massive compositional data are required which can be generated only within the country and it is here hard work and scientific endeavor are called for. Unfortunately such data are hard to come by and any country aspiring to create its own food standards must strive to generate adequate and dependable data base on the foods consumed there for ages    

It is no secret that there are a number of issues concerning the interpretation and implementation of the latest food safety regulations put in place in India and probably over a period of time based on experience of working them at the ground level further clarity may emerge. But a close look at these regulations reveal a pattern that is both disturbing and disquieting. It is not difficult to lift en masse many provisions  from western regulatory regimes applicable to may modern foods like biscuits, bread, beverages, modern snacks like potato chips. But when it comes to traditional ethnic foods the regulators have no where to go and the easiest course is to omit them from the ambit of such regulations putting the onus on the industry to provide the data. There is an absolute poverty of ideas when the regulatory body classifies the entire ethnic foods as proprietary foods and it is shameful that the country's rich heritage foods, thousands in number, being relegated to obscurity under the new food law!  
The "funny"rule regarding  the necessity of prior approval of new food products / ingredient by the Food Businesses falling under Central Licensing Authority has created a lot of curiosity, anxiety and perplexity especially amongst the Food Business Operators who are manufacturing and selling Ethnic or Traditional Foods across the country over centuries by using latest manufacturing processes and processing aids etc. Most of the Ethnic or Traditional Foods which are not falling under the Food Categorization System adopted by FSSAI in their Food Safety & Standards (Food Products Standards & Food Additives) Regulations-2011 "shall be treated as Proprietary Foods and hence may be the subject matter of discussions/approval at any stage or time of implementation of the Regulations unless their (Ethnic or Traditional Foods & Food Additives) proper categorization under Food Safety & Standards (Food Products Standards & Food Additives) Regulations-2011 is not evolved/notified".   

Is it implied that Indians should shun their own foods and patronize western foods for which product identity is available in the rule book? Or does it mean that all ethnic foods are dangerous to eat and therefore must be under stricter vigilance by the "Authority"? There are many universities and food research institutions in the country where competent food scientists are working and it is a tragedy that government of India and its enforcement agencies do not demand for data to be generated and standards evolved within a time frame. Proprietary foods are normally new products created by the industry and asking for registration of such products is understandable. But products that existed for centuries cannot be considered proprietary foods by any stretch of imagination. The industry is justified in raising this issue and it must force the "Authority" to relax this provision. Probably these foods can be categorized as "others" and only a set of general guidelines to ensure their safety should be enforced. The primary concern should be to see that they are not injurious to the customer. This provisional situation can continue till each and every product is "standardized" by public sector food laboratories or by the manufacturing industry. Once major traditional products are "mapped" it will be easier to evolve standards of identity based on these data. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012


There is a synergy between the need for more foreign investments and vast size of the markets in India and China. While many trans national food and beverage companies are eying the potential for expanding their business in these high population countries, the governments are bending backwards to accommodate them through a slew of facilities and friendly policies expecting that their operations would generate vast employment opportunities. What is missing in these calculations is whether the style and practices adopted by the business models transplanted into these countries really serve the purpose and probably this factor can account for failures of many foreign companies in these tradition bound societies.

Recent policy fiasco reported from India regarding the flip flop in deciding on the issue of FDI in the retail sector supports such a view. Government of India fell for the propaganda that FDI in retail could be a "bonanza" for the country and declared a policy, rather prematurely, to allow majority investment by foreign retailing giants, only to keep the policy in abeyance after encountering fierce opposition to such an open door policy from most stake holders involved in the economic development of the country. Most intriguing argument in support of allowing FDI in multi brand retailing was that it would help the farmers to get more price for their produce which has never been proved any where in the world. Rather the perceived damage that can be caused to small traders and unorganized retail players by the enormous economic clout of MNCs was overlooked causing such a massive resistance in the country against the open policy being advocated by government supporters. 

China has been cited as an example of what a country can achieve by courting MNC retailers because most international companies are now operating in that country under its liberalized but tightly controlled investment policies. It may be true that China was able to attract vast foreign investments in almost every manufacturing sector because of its huge population and rapid economic growth. But no realistic assessment has ever been made about the trials and tribulations faced by them in operating in an environment not considered very friendly. It is now realized by many of them that the safety enforcement in China is often selective with the local industry getting away lightly for committing serious violations while foreign companies are hauled up even for minor faults. Examples are many which include Melamine tainted milk, toxic cabbage episode etc. It is another matter that the resource rich MNCs are able to "manage" the situation with no one quitting the country on account of stringent enforcement of country's food laws. 

A reputed MNC coffee player has shown how a foreign entity can survive and even flourish in the Chines environment by subtle changes in product profiles to suit the local tastes and by playing on to the Chinese aspirations to be in the lime light in the society. This company realized the folly of trying to persist with the same products that work in the U.S. and accordingly developed flavors, such as green tea-flavored coffee drinks that appeal to local tastes. Rather than pushing the system of take-out orders, which account for majority of American sales, it adapted to local consumer wants and promoted dine-in service. By offering comfortable environments in a market where few restaurants had air conditioning in the late 1990s, their outlets were made a defacto meeting places for executives as well as for the gathering of friends. One of the features of this model is that revenue per square meter turned out to be far less compared to American operations but the profit margin became almost double. Chinese do not seem to be unduly bothered about the fact that the coffee preparations offered here cost much more than that in the US. This is in sharp contrast to other major foreign players who tried to cut down on the price to garner higher sales, a strategy that does not seem to be working for improving their market share.

Another issue that clouds the working of foreign firms in China is the ability of these investors to "manage" the employees without significant attrition. It is reported that average attrition rate in China is running as high as 30% which is a major handicap in running a decent show. Those who succeed in China have been able to reduce the turnover of personnel to less than half of the average rate through good compensation packages, intensive training, decent working environment and building loyalty through motivational policies. With GDP of the country growing at a frenetic pace and more disposable income in their hands, Chinese seem to be prepared to spend liberally on any thing that reflects a higher status in the society. Naturally such economic changes generate higher aspirations among working class also and unless the salaries match with these expectations, attrition rate is bound to be high in organizations which do not look after the local employees well.

Any strategy based on mass marketing of cheap foods and working on thin margins is vulnerable to severe competition from local players who have low over head expenses. Besides, MNCs getting into cheaper segments of products spend enormous amounts on their promotion and the market so created benefits local players also peddling same type of products. Taking the case of India itself if the MNCs think that they can corner the market and displace millions of the so called low end "mom and pop" stores spanning the entire country, it is just not going to happen. If the recent experience of big domestic retailers in India is any indication penetrating the retail market is not an easy task and large domestic players in the organized retail sector have not been able to capture even 5% of the national market, let alone dominating them! The strategy of targeting the "creamy" layer of the society with lot of money to throw around may be the only right approach, if foreign investors want to survive and flourish in the newly emerging economies like China and India.