Monday, December 31, 2012


Food quality and safety are concerns for both the governments as well as the consumers. While governments world over have the onerous responsibility to protect the lives of its citizens besides preventing quality related frauds, consumer community is helpless in deciding on its own whether a particular product offered in the market is good and safe. It is creditable that the modern food regulations make it easier for the consumers to understand better what is inside a packet of food and the front of the pack labeling rules combined with the weights and measures control regulations are indeed revolutionary in nature. Implementing these rules and regulations calls for a sound infrastructure, adequately trained enforcement personnel and stern deterrent regime which are lacking in many countries, even if the food laws are excellent on paper.

Take for instance countries like China and India, both together accounting for more than 35% of world population, most of them not considered rich enough to lead a good quality life. But food frauds and adulteration are so rampant that it is difficult to keep track of violations that take place every day in these countries. The fraudsters and food criminals are so ruthless that they have no consideration or value for the lives of even children and old age population. On the other hand many unscrupulous manufacturers exploit the ignorance of the citizens in churning out inferior quality and safety suspect foods. Look at a super rich country like the US which boasts one of the best food quality monitoring infrastructures in the world and all one can see is a population most of which are big, fat, obese in appearance causing a big health crisis of unparalleled dimension.

Having stated the obvious, who is to be blamed for such a sorry situation which affects both rich and poor countries, whether under eating or over eating? Of course every one with a stake in food sector has to bear the blame to varying extent. Governments have invariably failed the citizens by not carrying out its sacred responsibility in disciplining the food industry in making healthy and safe foods. Industry pursuing a relentless strategy of earning more and more with least concern to the well being of the consumers, though there are some exceptions with some players still being honest. As for consumers, a reckless life style of eating unhealthy but tasty foods in quantities more than that required by the body is creating an increasingly morbid society afflicted by many health disorders. Added to this, most consumers lead sedentary living style with practically no regular exercise, needed to maintain a good health. If such a situation continues what will be the future of humanity in 100 years from now?

If excuses can solve the problem there are plenty being touted by all thes above stake holders. Some of them may be genuine which must be more carefully looked into. For example in a country like India, more than 75% of the food products available comes from the small scale processors with practically no adequate resources to carry out their operations in a way that can ensure safety of their products. On paper, India can claim to have a good food quality and safety law under the much vaunted Food Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) but at the ground level practically nothing is happening with the infrastructure for enforcement in tatters! If there is a modicum of order in this area thanks are due to the prevalence of a few giant food players with deep pockets setting up their most state of art facilities for quality control. However the small players in the country have no access to such facilities for periodic testing of their products as establishing such captive laboratories is beyond their means. The question is where will they go and how can they maintain quality and safety of products churned out by them?

There are many universities and food research institutions in the country which do have some decent facilities for food testing but they are mired in bureaucratic procedures which cause considerable delay in getting the results. Besides their testing fees are not low enough to be affordable to every one. From time to time grand statements emanate from the industry saying that it would set up modern facilities on its own to help those who cannot afford to spend too much on testing their products regularly. It is in this context one has to listen to a recent declaration by the hospitality industry regarding its intention to set up cost-effective alternative food testing facilities as per the norms of NABL across the country with easy access by the small scale entrepreneurs. Similar initiatives have to come from the processed food industry also sooner or later as neither the government is capable of addressing the issue nor the private testing laboratories are going to reduce they charges.    


Thursday, December 27, 2012


The "Tea Vs Coffee" debate is an ever interesting one with people from southern part of India strongly backing coffee with out which their day does not start! In contrast those from the north, pitch for tea, not because it is better health-wise but for its characteristic flavor. No doubt both Tea and Coffee contain the stimulant Caffeine which makes one more alert and relaxing. That said, the distinction between tea and coffee is getting blurred day by day as India is progressively becoming a national village without any restraining state borders. Efforts of Indian Coffee Board years ago to popularize coffee in the north were some what futile as even to day tea continues to be the dominant beverage in most of the northern states. One of the reasons could be that the taste and flavor of brewed coffee are widely varying, depending on the variety of seed, seed processing method, roasting practice, particle size of the ground coffee and method of brewing. This makes coffee making an extremely adventurous task. As coffee drinking was prevalent in the south for centuries, the art of making good coffee got transferred from generation to generation. In spite of this situation, surprisingly tea gained a firm foot hold in the south during the last 5 decades with many people opting for tea as a change from the coffee drinking routine.

Tea is a historical beverage with its origin attributed to China. There seems to be evidence that tea was a popular drink in both China and India almost 5000 years ago, though its discovery was attributed to Chinese royalty. It was an accidental contamination of hot water with tea leaves and the finding that the tea leaves soaked water was flavorful to the King, led to popularity of tea in China. Its origin in India is shrouded in mystery. Interestingly Chinese discovered that the tea leaves soaked hot water was not only refreshing but also health protective which helped tea to be propagated all over the world. As fresh tea leaves were some what perishable, drying was resorted to reduce moisture and extend its life for some time. Again the observation that bruised tea leaves tended to darken with time and produced aromatic flavors, led to the modern CTD tea technology widely used in the manufacture of black tea. Coincidentally most of the world liked black tea in preference to green tea which led to a thriving tea industry that produces about 2.5 million tons of tea world wide out of which green tea constitutes roughly 20%.

One of the influencing factors that made Chinese population healthier than others might be that they consume green tea regularly in their daily lives and therefore it can be probably considered as their national drink. If that is so what does green tea contain which is not present in black tea? A look back at the massive scientific literature available to day, dwelling on various aspects of tea, will reveal that tea the leaves are a rich source of poly phenols, accounting for about 8-12% of its solid content. These include a number of flavonoids like catechin, epicatechin, epicatechin gallate, epigallocatechin gallate (better known as EGCG) and proanthocyanidinsmost of them with high antioxidant properties. As antioxidants play a vital role in neutralizing oxyradicals in the human body that is considered one of the causative factors in cancer development, tea with its rich antioxidant content is the darling of the health purists world over.

One of the most startling discoveries during the last few years of research on tea poly phenols was that all of them are not equal in conferring health benefits on human beings and the most important component that makes the difference is EGCG which was found to have a significant but specific influence on boosting many enzymes involved in neutralizing oxyradicals at the cellular level and prevent on set of cancers of various types. Unfortunately during the extreme processing conditions involved in converting green tea leaves into black tea, EGCG is converted to theaflavins and thearubigins  with no therapeutic properties. Logically therefore green tea beverage will have to be consumed if the benefit of EGCG is desired. The bud and the first leaves of the tea plant contain highest concentration of EGCG and are therefore plucked for making green tea products.

Green tea poly phenols in general were found to increase the biological activity of several enzymes involved in neutralizing the activity of oxyradicals and detoxification and EGCG is the most potent one. The enzyme found to be positively influenced include glutathione reductase, glutathione peroxidase, glutathione S transferase, catalase and quinine reductase in small intestine, liver and lungs. EGCG is considered to have excellent therapeutical significance in preventing and treating a host of disease that include HIV, cancers affecting prostaglandin, brain, cervix and bladder, besides neurodegeneration. Drinking about two cups of green tea a day can confer most of the benefits attributed to EGCG, while consuming 4-6 cups a day is considered a therapeutic dose.

The health supplement industry seems to have got into the EGCG band wagon by putting in the market many products containing this phytochemical though most of them are non-standard ones containing very little or no EGCG at all! In the absence of a regulatory environment these fly by night operators are able to catch the attention of gullible consumers, laughing all the way to their banks! The most blatant use ( or misuse?) of green tea credentials is by the weight reduction products industry which is offering green tea solids containing health supplements based on some studies that a combination of EGCG and caffeine, when consumed,  produces thermogenesis in the body leading to depletion of fat, causing some weight reduction. However there is no standardization of these products and the claims are not substantiated by real time studies involving human subjects. 

One of the most surprising off shoots of studies using green tea  and the EGCG is the finding that sugar spikes that occur after carbohydrate ingestion by diabetic patients can be reduced significantly by consumption of green tea, provided they are consumed together. The scientific logic is that EGCG has an inhibitory effect on starch degrading enzyme alpha amylase which in turn slow down break down of starch into maltose and glucose in vitro. As the ptylin enzyme present in the saliva has also starch digesting ability, the starch hydrolysis which starts immediately after ingestion in the oral cavity itself is retarded. Further exposure in the small intestine to alpha amylase as the food is swallowed and as it travels down the digestive tract, glucose generation is significantly retarded in presence of EGCG. According to recent findings if Egcg and a starchy food are consumed without any gap of time, glucose spike can be slowed down by almost 50% which by itself is remarkable. This finding confers additional benefits on those consuming green tea regularly  include insurance against a host of modern day diseases affecting almost all organs in the body. Probably the health food industry will latch on to this discovery and it is a question of time before health supplements containing EGCG or green tea solids are marketed both for targeted consumer groups as well as general population.   


Thursday, December 13, 2012


India is currently going through a crisis that has the potential to cause civil unrest unless some thing dramatic happens to pull back the country from the brink. While the government is getting increasingly isolated because of its wrong moves, actions and financial mismanagement, the alternative option to the citizens seems to be not rosy with every political party being tainted with corruption wherever they are in power. It is a reflection on the sorry situation prevailing in the country that economists and policy pundits are more concerned about rate of GDP growth which is anticipated to slide down to five percent plus from a heady nine percent plus 3 years ago rather than the crushing burden on the "aam aadmi" or the common man caused by inflation all around. The inflation may not be staggering measured by standards used for rating in the world of economics: it is nonetheless a frustrating situation to more than 90% of the population that takes pride as being Indian.

Ever since the opening up of the Indian economy (what ever that means!) in early 1990s, the country has seen the lot of poor people getting worse progressively because the environment created then was just the one needed for corporates to make money through the so called crony capitalism route. The public sector organizations were systematically destroyed in the name of under performance and practically every policy that encourages small scale industry was cast away. The process of enrichment of a few citizens was started by the government of India by favoring its employees as as well as the pensioners (also those in State governments) with massive increase in salaries and perks unheard in the annals of Indian history or any where in the world. With more money in their hands this segment of the population became part of the elite society with high buying power. On a conservative estimate these employees with their families form a substantial part of Indian population, about 50 million.The trading community with more than 30 million members was given a unrestricted environment to make money by slack enforcement of the laws of the country. If those in the corporate world are also added the total "consumer" population which can buy whatever they want can run to more than 100 million, sufficient to get attention by any investor in the world for a slice of the pie that is called Indian market.

The above factor is precisely playing out currently with GOI opening up the retail market to foreign investment. Those global giants are not pitching their tent in India to help Indian citizens but to sell their products to the rich Indians with plenty of cash living in comfort in towns and cities across the country. Interestingly GOI has laid down a condition in its policy orchestration that foreign retail stores can be opened only in urban areas as if it is a stringent condition! Even a child knows that more than 80% of the rural population can never aspire to step into a Super Market or a Mall with their limited income and the stipulation contained in the policy declaration is some what hollow. It is never clear as to which side the big retailers will take when it comes to clash of interest between the farmer and the consumer? If farmer is to be paid decently for his produce, consumer price will reflect that and if it is the other way of reducing consumer price, the farmer can never be paid what he deserves! Past history of big retailers tells a different story with both farmer and the consumer suffering equally, the only gainer being the "super middleman", viz the retailer!

For any one going around the Indian market will  be struck by
the incongruous situation prevailing in the country vis-a-vis prices of various products prevailing in the country. How can a common man buy an apple, priced Rs 25-30 a piece or any other fruit which costs not less than Rs 50 per kg? Even the common man's fruits Banana sells at Rs 3-5 a piece if it is a smaller variety and this can shoot up further during Hindu festival seasons (at least a dozen every year). Papaiya which was sold at Rs 10 per kg till recently shot p to Rs 40 per kg during the Ramzan season and never came back to the original price. It is unbelievable that a piece of cashewnut or Almond, those aspirational foods, can be as high as Rs 3 per nut, the retail price being in the vicinity of Rs 800-1000 per kg. According to nutrition pundits an average adult in India is supposed to consume daily about 300 gm of cereals, 30-60 gm of pulses, 0-30 gm of meat, 300 gm of vegetables, 100 gm of fruits, 300 gm of milk and milk products, 20 gm of sugar and 20 gm of fats for maintaining the health. How can a family of four (parents plus two siblings), belonging to low income categories can access to these essential foods with their current income at current prices? If one draws the graph of price fluctuations that is experienced during different part of the year, it may look like the print out of an EEG or ECG of a person with several peaks and valleys occurring with a sickening regularity! Unless GOI comes out with policies that will make available these foods to these vulnerable population at affordable prices, the country is bound to slide into a situation where proportion of undernourished and malnourished citizens will reach unbearable levels, affecting the quality of human resources required for nation building.

Leave out the fruits and nuts and shift the focus to vegetables which are supposed to fill out half the plate during a meal. It is just maddening to see tomato being sold at Rs 5/kg one day and within a few days it climbs to Rs 25/kg. Same is true with practically every vegetable grown in the country. Interestingly many studies have shown that the farmer who grows these produce does not get even a fraction of the consumer price, the majorportion being being swallowed by the so called middle men! Will the new players who are being offered a red carpet by the government help the farmer by putting more money in his hands. Experience in other countries where these high profile market oriented monoliths work shows that farmers will be the least beneficiary in this charade.

Maximum Retail Price (MRP) declaration is often touted as the instrument of GOI to control prices. This is a hollow claim because this provision of the law applies to packed products whereas only a small percentage of foods is branded and sold in sealed packs. Here again MRP indicated cannot be taken at its face value because many smaller brands inflate the same allowing the retailers sizable elbow room to reduce the actual selling price, some times as much as 50% of MRP, but still keeping sizable margin! Besides many retailing giants have their own in-house brands and they can always print inflated MRP figures with scandalous margins. Interestingly the much touted Package Commodities Act is a curse for the most unfortunate citizens in this country because, the moment the food is packed and sealed it enables the packer to add "value" which is nothing but a higher profit in disguise! For example a kilogram of Atta costs around Rs 40 if it is branded but at the street corner petty shop it is available at about 25 per kg.     Sugar when it is branded costs the consumer upwards of Rs 54 per kg while the small gives the same at Rs 30 per kg. This happens across the food spectrum and the high end retailers earn a killing profit in the name of better quality and shopping ambiance!

According to the National Planning Commission an income blow Rs 32 per day for a person is the cut off level to define him as belonging to the below poverty level group. Probably this is enough to buy adequate food to keep the body and soul together! But what about the other needs like shelter, clothing and other daily essentials? Unfortunately GOI seems to think that keeping the people alive is the only responsibility vested on it and by providing subsidies worth three half lakh crore rupees every year to its citizens, the people will cruise comfortably in the turbulent waters, that is called life! According to some statistics, almost one third of Indian population earns less than Rs 32 a day putting them in the category of people below the poverty line for whom the
supermarkets do not make any sense. Imagine how a country where only 3% of the population (about 35 million people) pay income tax can gloat over the entry of multinational retailers from western countries where more than 50% pay taxes regularly?

Looking at the statistics a little bit closely, the bitter reality can dawn on many honest citizens in this country that GOI is opening up the retail sector only to serve the top 6.2 million families, each earning an annual income of the order of 2, 15,000 per year plus and to a limited extent a small percentage of the so called middle class families of about 91 million, earning between Rs 45,000 and 2,15,000 per year. It is debatable whether even at this level of income these families can afford to buy an apple every day! Families with annual income below Rs 22,000 numbering about 102 million are never counted in GOI calculations. After the opening of the economy, between 1996 and 2010 there was a 419% jump in the number of top earning families which will be the focus of all foreign marauders getting into the country in the name of helping the nation to attain prosperity and upliftment of the poor!   


Thursday, December 6, 2012


Most Indians have a weakness for traditional sweets and consumption of these food items increase very significantly during festive occasions. In contrast western population is hooked on to other sweet tasting products like puff pastry, ice cream and such modern foods. In the absence of any reliable statistics it is too hazardous to make any meaningful estimate regarding the size of the industry or the per capita consumption of sweetmeats in India. Considering that a substantial portion of sugar manufactured and jaggery produced in the cottage sector are going for preparation of various sweetmeat products, the per capita consumption can be phenomenal.

There are many sweets made and consumed in different parts of the country and almost all of them have a history dating back to centuries past. What is amazing is that the art of making sweetmeats is still preserved in the country even after the onslaught by western civilization 300 years ago in india and the skill required for making each one of them is passed on from generation to generation through a process of assimilation when children were growing in joint family system prevalent till a few years ago. It is only after the relentless urbanization trend witnessed by the country and evolution of nuclear families that the sweetmeat making capabilities started getting diluted progressively. Consequent to it the urban areas saw commercialization of sweetmeats which were sold through the so called "Halwais" located in every neighborhood.

Progressive shrinking of kitchen size in many high rise apartment complexes spelt further doom to the ability of modern day house wives to prepare good quality Indian sweets. Credit must go to Central Food Technological Research Institute at Mysore for foreseeing the trend and developing "ready mixes" for popular sweets like Gulab Jamun and Jilebi which to day adore most retail store shelves and the simplicity of preparation of the ready to eat product from these mixes at home kitchens ensured that next generation population is exposed to the pleasure of appreciating the fine characteristic taste of such traditional sweets. Some sweets like Gulab Jamun, Rasogolla, Bakerwadi, Shrikand etc are available in stabilized packs with a few months of shelf life.

Failure of food scientists and technologists to research into the basics of most sweetmeats made in India in the unorganized sector is responsible for the sorry state of affairs that exist to day vis-a-vis this industry. In a recent report in one of the reputed news publications, the pathetic condition that prevails in the preparation kitchens that churn out high volumes of these products have been brought out.  Preparations like Rasogolla or Laddus are  "made in the dingy lanes" of the Capital in "filthy shanties" in the buzzing presence of  worms and mosquitoes and if any consumer has the stomach to see these facilities, the craving for sweets offered by the Halwais would be killed once for all! Most shops peddling their products depend on supplies coming from these dirty shanties as they do not have their own kitchens to meet the demand, especially during festival seasons. Besides expert skilled artisans are required to make many special sweets like sonpapadi and these artisans are in short supply besides being very costly to maintain. Either due to negligence or ignorance, both the preparation kitchens as well as the personnel working there are dangerous from sanitary and hygiene perspectives. God only knows what quality ingredients are used to prepare these products and whether additives used are legally permissible. Neither the shop owners nor the vast safety assessment system of Delhi administration seems to be bothered about this sorry state of affairs which can be a potential time bomb waiting to explode one day in the form of mass food poisoning.

Indian ethnic preparations like sweets and savories have a huge potential for development and growth and this can be realized only if the working conditions and technologies used are drastically improved. While mechanization and automation of the processes may be a distant dream, at least the preparation environment can be monitored more rigorously, with those not conforming to minimum safety standards severely punished and restrained from continuing with their business once for all. There are many unit operations while making a product which are amenable to use of simple gadgets and equipment already available and this industry deserves some attention at the hands food engineers to help them in this area. Are the MFPI and FSSAI at Delhi listening? Some thing needs to be done immediately to streamline this industry so that consumer safety is not compromised any longer.


Saturday, December 1, 2012


Almost 4 decades back that Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) conceived a novel concept of a food industrial estate which would become a cluster of food processing units with complimentary functions and for mutual benefits. Under such a concept CFTRI identified about 20 food processing projects based on its own technologies and approached the Karnataka State Government for implementing the same at Mysore which was country's most prominent food research and development corridor. The basis of this concept was that most small scale entrepreneurs are starved of appropriate technologies based on which only one can plan a manufacturing venture. With a single window clearance facility offered to the identified entrepreneurs, Government did provide land and other infrastructure to selected entrepreneurs to locate them selves and start manufacturing activities. Unfortunately the Food Industrial Estate in Mysore never attained full bloom with hardly half a dozen units coming up. The reasons for such a dismal failure are many and based on this experience this concept could have been developed further. Nothing happened thereafter!

It was during 1989-1990 Government of India (GOI), in response to continuous pressure from the food sector decided to set up a special dedicated Ministry for development of food industry in the country. Whether one likes it or not the basic contours of the ministry and its objectives were written in Mysore and after the formation of the ministry, called Ministry of Food Processing Industry (MFPI) CFTRI provided lot of inputs to this ministry in preparing their program for the five year plans, at least in its formative years. The first Secretary Mr Murari and Deputy Secretary Gopalan were involved in this exercise. Beginning its function with a Minister of State holding independent charge, it became a full fledged ministry later headed by a cabinet rank minister. In spite of limitations on the functioning styles of government agencies MFPI was able to provide some useful inputs to the development of food industry in the country. Whether it has justified its creation during the last two decades of work should be left to historians to judge.

Though GOI has never been short of funds, one of the major fault lines vis-a-vis food related priorities of the government was the low priority accorded to this sector by government as a whole, making MFPI a minor player in the scheme of things. Food industry continued to suffer in spite of the presence of MFPI which had very little influence on the policy making level. Interestingly almost all ministers and secretaries who were holding charge in MFPI considered their posting as insignificant and were reluctant players in taking responsibilities and path breaking decisions. Those who worked for MFPI were invariably bureaucrats with very little place for technocrats, knowledgeable about food industry problems and understanding technical needs of the entrepreneurs. If to day MFPI has become a "fund disburser" only and not involved in providing any other inputs to development of industry, GOI has to take the blame squarely.

Coming back to the issue of food parks, the MFPI conceived "Mega Food Park Scheme" (MFPS) is nothing but a glorified version of the original CFTRI conceived food industrial estate with the major exception that the participating ventures probably will all be large players. There are very good features associated with MFPS but whether they will really work remains to be seen. One of the lurking suspicions is whether those Mega Parks will become attractive only for the reason that availability of land becomes easy as land procurement is a big constraint to day under the present government rules. Though MFPI is planning for a total of 30 such mega parks and the first one was inaugurated recently after a delay of 3-4 years, it is difficult to anticipate how successful these parks will be as the logistics of implementing them are awesome. According to MFPI officials another seven such mega parks are in "advanced" stages of "completion". The out come of this experiment can be uncertain and depends on many factors beyond the control of the ministry.

A preliminary report on the first mega park functionalized in Chittoor in AP claims that the set up has world-class facilities for pulping, IQF, bottling, tetra packing, modular cold storage, warehousing and advanced testing lab. It boasts of basic and supply chain infrastructure, cluster farming, backed by field collection centers, self help groups and individual farmers, sprawling over an area 147-acres. One of the most critical factors on which such multi products manufacturing complex depend, will be the ready willingness of right type of personnel, in quality and quantity, with different background and qualification to settle in country sides, where mega parks are going to be located. Availability of high class educational facilities nearby can be the best incentive for attracting talents to come and work at these parks. It must be remembered that the preference of many industrial units to establish their operations in urban areas is due to the difficulties involved in imparting decent education to the siblings of those working in the plants in rural areas. Mega parks should not fail on this account and creation of an educational institution, at least up to the level of matriculation, in the proximity of each park must be an integral part of the scheme. Probably experience gained during the operationalization of first few parks may give further insight into this likely problem.