Saturday, September 27, 2014


Mr Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India is now in the US trying to lure American investments in India and enable him to raise country's annual GDP growth to 7-8% in the near future. It is remarkable that he has a vision which no politician of yesteryear or at present ever had regarding the development of India but when one looks at the ground realities even this man can do only limited things. Raising hopes and dreaming is not a crime since it at least boost up the spirit of the citizens, albeit for a short period. India has at present a green horn, unproven and innocent minister put in charge of the portfolio of food processing industry vested with the mandate to develop this agriculture related sector in a way that would boost farmer income significantly. Alas, one can only sympathize with her because if last three decades' experience is any indication nothing substantial is going to happen in the foreseeable future!

Above view may appear too harsh for many optimists who swear by the "potential" this sector has considering the exalted status India enjoys in production of milk, horticulture produce, plantation crops, sugar and cereals. Of course the legume crops scenario and oil seed front remain the Achilles heel for this country, India being the largest importer of vegetable oil in the world. Different "experts" may say different things when it comes to identifying why this dismal situation continues in spite of 67 years of independence! But the fact remains that the single biggest obstacle to food industry development is the government itself comprising short nosed bureaucrats and unimaginative politicians with their own selfish agenda. Look at the following report which appeared to day which speaks for itself the grim situation in this country when it comes to development of food processing industry.

"The story of 25,000 crores worth of food lying unused across the ports of India is one waiting to be told. We got in touch with people from the food industry to understand the current scenario regarding packaging and labeling of imported food products. Over 200 tonnes of chocolates, olives, alcoholic beverages, cured meat, cheese and other food products are catching dust in warehouses across the country. Products with a short shelf life are being pulled back and others are just sticking it out. There's plenty of ambiguity, lack of dialogue and absence of a well-articulated framework when it comes to rules and regulations regarding the food industry. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is responsible for laying down science-based standards for manufacturing, processing, distribution, sale and import of all food products. This regulatory body is the one point contact for all food manufacturers. We also tried to get in touch with the FSSAI over a number of days but did not receive a response. 

At first glance, everything appears to be in line. What could go wrong with a regulatory body trying to ensure that food imports meet Indian safety standards? For starters, the guidelines or regulations that the FSSAI follow are up to date. Mr. Amit Lohani, National Convenor for Forum of Indian Food Importers (FIFI) says, "The problem isn't that there are rules, but that these rules are old and irrelevant. The document that's being referred to is as old as 1954 and 1956. It's simply been rehashed to look new."  Makers of Lindt, the popular Swiss chocolate recently decided to pull out of the Indian market after a series of bruising losses. They saw six years of roaring success in the Indian market till they were struck by the FSSAI who asked them to comply with the labeling guidelines under the 'Food Safety and Standards Act, 2011'. In August 2013, three of their containers worth Rs.750 - 1000 crore (one third of which was chocolates) were held back. The FSSAI asked them to list down ingredients in descending order of composition by weight or volume. The company complied with the request and sent a fresh batch in January 2014 which also didn't make it past the ports because of a modified regulation which stated that chocolates with vegetable oil or fat could not be imported.  The food industry is already heavily regulated - and if an importer does not meet the labeling and packaging requirements, it's choked right at the point of entry. Food importers are growing tired of the exhaustive list of rules and regulations. This has set off an avalanche of lawsuits giving a bad name to the FSSAI, especially amongst those in the food industry.  In April 2014, a Starbucks shipment with two containers of flavoured-syrup was held back at the Mumbai port as the FSSAI felt that the product did not meet their basic requirements. A Starbucks spokesperson was quoted saying that the product in question met the requirements of over 64 countries and has been in supply for almost 40 years. Starbucks appealed to the Mumbai High Court which was quick in handing down its decision. The court asked FSSAI to release the shipment and also pointed out that they acted in an 'arbitrary and capricious manner.' "Mr. Amit Lohani from FIFI adds, "The dynamics and workings of the food industry have changed drastically. There are thousands of product categories and product sub-categories, each with its own unique manufacturing method. The FSSAI regulations aren't equipped to handle these which is what makes them regressive, not progressive." An importer of black olives who wishes to remain anonymous has been in business for over 20 years and tells us how his shipment of pasteurized olives was held back over the issue of salt content. "The minimum salt content in pasteurized olives needs to be between 1 to 1.5 %  but the products were tested against treated olives which are supposed to have a salt content of almost 5 %. The FSSAI was then informed that the salt content in pasteurized olives applies to international standards and is being tested against the wrong product. The FSSAI acknowledged this fact and released the consignment in question. But this problem can be repeated in the future with other importers because the rules are still the same. India is too small a market for big importers and this kind of hogwash approach will definitely drive away the big guns." Another interesting case is that of Canola oil. In April, large shipments of canola oil were held back for incorrect labeling. The labeling rules say that products need to use their 'scientific name' and not their 'trade name.' Canola oil happens to be the trade name and the scientific name is 'Rapeseed Oil'. Mr. Lohani said "A rule as vague as this suddenly wipes away years of marketing efforts that positioned the product as canola oil amongst consumers."  While food importers seem to be going through a world of trouble, so are restaurant owners. Chef Manu Chandra, Executive Chef and Partner at Monkey Bar said "Cured meats, ham, cheese and other products have disappeared from the market. We're being forced to look at alternatives which might mean we'll have to compromise on the taste, flavour and quality we've been offering so far. For many, this is a deal breaker." It is understandable that with increased awareness consumers want to know more about what's in their food. Nobody wants to stand in way of such kind of transparency. But current rules and regulations seem to be crippling the food industry instead of helping them deliver safe products."  (

This Blogger is not holding any brief for the importers of processed foods through this publication but is just raising this issue of food safety policies and all other things that go under the guise of regulations! From Day one since the so called food authority (FSSAI) was established it has been pointed out out that it is a "toothless wonder" capable of only putting road blocks for the growth of the food industry and this feeling is being reinforced by the above report in no uncertain manner. An unfortunate situation has been created in the country where no one is certain about the haphazard way this so called Authority is working and with millions of rupees invested by thousands of entrepreneurs in the food processing sector, their progress is check mated through unclear, ambiguous, dilapidated and impractical safety and quality standards. The implementing mechanism is so ineffective that only adulterators, fraudsters and dubious foods thrive in the country while honest entrepreneurs face enormous hurdles in staying alive in the market place. 

It is time that India dismantles its standards authority as it exists to day at the earliest and adopts entirely the standards laid down by international safety agencies like FAO-WHO Alimentarius Commission. An overseeing authority staffed by highly competent technocrats knowledgeable about food science and nutrition is put in place while the onus of implementing the standards are is put on the manufacturers with severe penalty for infarction.  

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Food, nutrition and health are not separable as good food, nutritious and balanced food only can be the foundation for good health. Unfortunately emergence of commercialism and economic considerations have led to a situation where the processing and preservation, in the hands of organized corporate industry, seem to have neglected the nutrition and health aspects, appealing to the palates of the consumers for reaping higher and higher profits. Food technologists world over dedicate themselves to creating newer products but here again nutrition is rarely in focus. If to day's world is facing a human crisis in the form of uncontrolled obesity and many life style diseases, both industry and scientists are to be blamed to varying extent.

Malnutrition and under- nutrition are very fashionable subjects, discussed, debated and diagnosed umpteen number of times by many knowledgeable experts and administrators world over with the noble intention of solving the scourge that is malnutrition. Sad it may sound, very little can be shown at the ground level as solid achievement in tackling this problem with any positive impact and the proportion of population who are hungry and malnourished continues to increase in spite of billions of dollars of investment by individual countries as well as international aid givers. A major part of this unfortunate victims of malnutrition reside in least developed countries and nations on the threshold of significant economic development and the paradox is that these countries have scarce resources to address this scourge.

Adding to the confusion are the ever shifting goal posts vis-a-vis good nutrition and normal health making it difficult to evolve consensus on what is balanced and optimum for children, adults, pregnant and lactating women and geriatric population. Protein malnutrition was talked about during nineteen sixties and then it became protein-calorie malnutrition later. Anemia is another adverse health manifestation due to iron deficiency while deficiencies of Vitamins A and D, Calcium, Iodine etc are still being talked about in one or the other part of the world. Agriculture plays a vital role in the dietary habits of each country and traditional foods have played an important role in keeping the local population healthy and disease free. Modern food industry has changed the dietary habits of many people with younger generation going in for more and more junk foods offered by the processing as well as the catering industries. Thus the malnutrition syndrome is prevalent both among poor as well as not so poor population.   

World agencies like FAO, UNICEF and many NGOs continuously try to assist the malnourished population through economic assistance as well as scientific inputs in establishing norms for feeding the vulnerable people in various affected countries. Most recent development in this area is the touting of a new paradigm called RUTF, acronym for "ready to eat therapeutic foods" aimed at improving the health status of those who are severely malnourished such as those in schools, institutions and other organizations whose condition cannot be improved unless foods with special characteristics are administered. Ready to eat foods are preferred because preparing such foods containing loaded nutrients locally can pose logistical, safety and practical problems. Many organizations are pitching in for evolving such foods in a stabilized format with good shelf life. Though recipes can be easily developed, it is a technological challenge to stabilize the food and pack them in a deliverable form. 

One of the earliest attempts was made by CFTRI, Mysore which developed the Energy Food containing 16% proteins and 360 kC of energy per 100 gm. This product, a combination of pulses, cereals and oil seed cakes was manufactured and supplied to millions of children and other beneficiaries for almost 2 decades during seventies. eighties and nineties of last millennium. There were many copy cats with variations in recipe and delivery format that were developed though there is still no standard product in the Indian scene that can be considered universally acceptable.

A recent claim by a scientific team from IIT-Kharagpur that it has designed five products with high nutrient density for feeding such children afflicted by severe malnutrition may be a welcome development. According to them these products are in paste format made from potato, groundnut and Bengalgram, precooked, stabilized and packed with good shelf life. This pasty product has to be consumed directly by the beneficiaries and since the "innovators" declare that the technology is "secret" nothing much can be made about the characteristics of the product, their taste and quality and acceptability to the targeted consumers. Suffice to say that if the past experience is to go by, such claims emanating from teaching institutions in India have to be taken with a pinch of salt. The value and relevance of such products will have to be proved beyond a shade of doubt by extensive field trials for which the universities in this country are ill-equipped. 

An ethical question that is disturbing involves the attitude of these innovators, who carried out their research work with Government of India funding, when they say their work is "secret". Many activists who commented on this development felt that such innovations should not be kept secret through patenting or restricted technology transfer as the beneficiaries are poor children who are fighting for their lives. History has proved that no processed food can be a satisfactory substitute to freshly cooked ones because of many factors indigenous to the country. While dispensing milk or fruits in nutrition oriented programs is least controversial, when it comes to making a product with monotonous taste and flavor characteristics, it can falter easily when taken up for large scale production and supply in public feeding programs.

Past memories seem to be short lived and how many people can remember to day about the news splash some time back regarding a compressed tablet like product with high nutrition claims developed by a renowned food technology institution in the country, supposed to be made for use in applied nutrition program across the country. This project was also funded liberally by the Government of India but the product has not been heard since, the report written by the scientists collecting dust in some offices in Delhi! In all these developmental work scientific community tends to work in isolation without taking into confidence the user community and with no thoughts given to economic constraints. Working out a formula for a good product is not a big task but making it suitable for the low cost feeding programs is a tough job. In these days of inflation, not even God can create a ready to eat, packed and stabilized food product that can fit into the economic criteria of the on-going feeding programs in the country with limited per capita beneficiary inputs ear marked. 

Another serious point to be considered is whether Government of India can squander public money on scientists and institutions not qualified and equipped to develop nutritious products which after all require multi-disciplinary inputs and facilities. Asking an institution like CFTRI Mysore to develop a fighter jet is both ludicrous and incredible, to say the least. Similarly tasking an engineering institution like IIT to develop nutritive foods for mass feeding is a bad decision by the Government agency which funded the above project. The citizens in this country have inalienable right to take to task the government for squandering public money in such futile projects. If there is a genuine need to evolve a new product for use in RUTF, the same should be assigned to an inter disciplinary task force on a mission mode with a time frame, involving institutions like National Institute of Nutrition, Central Food Technological Research Institute, Defense Food Research Laboratory and a few food technology groups in reputed universities   



Consumers world over are befuddled by the label declarations that appears on the front of a food pack, especially with reference to the dates printed by the manufacturer before releasing to the market. The labeling laws vary from country to country, though the intentions of the law makers are to help and guide the consumers to pick and choose products that are safe and good. The million dollar question is whether these laws are really helping the consumer or not while wading through the isles of a super market where thousands of products are displayed trying to attract the attention of the consumers and persuade them to buy their wares in preference to others. If reports from different parts of the world are to be believed, labeling creates more confusion and uncertainty among the consumers, most of them being ignorant of the implications of the date figures displayed on the label.

Why do the law makers insist on the industry to make label declarations on each and every pack of processed/packed foods that go out of the manufacturer's premises? There was a time during the evolution of food industry when consumers used to buy their foods based on appearance and touch as packing was not in vogue then. The world being a small place such a situation was normal with small communities with access to local markets where fresh foods were sold loose without tamper proof seals as that exists to day. Naturally number of food items to choose also was a minuscule of what is being offered in modern markets. It is only when centralized processing and distribution of the products over a wide geographical area started about 5 decades ago, the necessity was felt for uniform declaration mode that can communicate with the consumer regarding the nature of the content present inside the sealed packs. Over a period of time labeling regulations became more and more stringent and demanding because of the perceived helplessness of the consumer in choosing the right product of their expectation.

Food industry development in any country traditionally follows a route where processing forms a small part of the food landscape and with economic development the extent of processed foods in the every day diet starts climbing progressively. In many wealthy countries processed foods form as much as 80% of the daily diet of the population while in poorer ones it could be as low as 10%. The necessity for transparency between the industry and the consumer is some thing no nation will be prepared to compromise and therefore in keeping with the aspirations of the consumer, regulatory authorities tend to be more and more demanding from the industry to inform truth about their products. Thus labeling is a tool that is vital for creating confidence among the consumers regarding the quality and safety of manufactured food products. It is unfortunate that industry players in many parts of the world tend to focus too much on profitability ignoring the consumer concerns.

Most recent example of the industry trying to roughshod the interests of the consumer is the big fight now in view in the US for the consumer right to know whether industry products in the market contain genetically manipulated ingredients or not. While every one agrees that Genetically Modified (GM) foods are not natural measured by any standards, what is being disputed is the safety of foods in which GM food components are used, especially on long term use or their multigenerational consequences on the consumer.It is strange that the federal as well state governments in that country lack the courage to take a scientifically and ethically sound decision regarding the right of the consumer to know the presence of GM food ingredients in the foods they consume. In stead the so called ballot initiatives are organized where people are asked to decide whether they want GM food label declaration to be made mandatory! No wonder the GM food giants bankroll this referendum by pumping millions of dollars to brain wash the citizens that GM foods are absolutely safe and natural and need not be declared on the label. Safety activists are no match to these industry giants and most of the referendums end up in favor of the industry.    

Coming back to date marking in food labels. a recent survey by the public safety organization NSF International found that most people are confused by the label declarations made in thousands of products marketed even in an enlightened country like the US where literacy rates are considered high. More damaging is the assertion by this agency that food labeling causes more foods being thrown away by the consumers because of their perception that the food is unfit for consumption after the dates indicated on the label. The survey found one in four Americans do not throw away food past the expiration date while more than half throw out food based off the "best used by" date and another third discard food based on the "sell by" date. What is not realized is that the "sell by" and "best used by" dates are more for the sellers than the consumers and the products can often remain in good condition for a week or two after the marked date. 78 percent of people throw away most dairy products after the label date has passed without realizing the marked date is almost always a "sell by" date, a guideline for the stores. Similarly eggs are often still good after the date expiry and people can always crack one open to see if the yolk is flat, which would indicate it has gone bad. 

It is often not realized that the industry is invariably playing it safe when it comes to date marking in order to avoid any possible health hazards with a diverse consumer population base with different vulnerabilities and also to protect them selves from future litigation in the event of unexpected mishaps. An ideal solution to this Catch 24 situation is for the industry to declare on the label a definitive date beyond which the contents are not safe to consume. But it is it feasible? Probably not because of the massive data to be generated on each and every product through time consuming and costly scientific studies. Ultimately the buck stops at the consumer door and an educated consumer has to shoulder the responsibility to decide whether a date expired food is good, bad or dangerous to eat. Economic considerations are to be weighed against the safety or otherwise of date expired foods if to be consumed.



Tuesday, September 16, 2014


The reported presence of antibiotic residues in Chicken meat being sold in Kerala has raised alarming bells regarding the danger it poses to the citizens. It is known that this practice of using antibiotics is in vogue in the US and the government there woke up to the dangers to the consumer only recently, taking action belatedly because of the realization about the widespread development of resistance among humans to such commonly used antibiotics when administered during infections. If dreaded MRSA and similar monster bugs have emerged posing imposing challenges to treat diseases caused by them, the sole reason is indiscriminate use of antibiotics. No one would have imagined that such a situation would emerge in India too as most poultry farms are small in size and the farmers are not well versed with such technological aids for boosting the yield and provide added protection to the product sold in the market. It seems this hope was belied by the latest cases reported from Trivandrum in Kerala

The meat industry in the US has been using several antibiotics in feeds and water which can raise the yield of meat very significantly, about 3%. Added to this presence of these antibiotics in the meat extracted from such animals can have better microbiological quality during storage, transit and retailing. It is scandalous that more than 80% of antibiotics marketed in the US, amounting to about 8 million kgs, is used by the meat industry involving Cows, Pigs and Chicken. While there are no two views regarding the efficacy of sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics in making the animals plumber and fatter, the mechanism as to how this happens is still a mystery. It is believed by many that the antibiotics, once ingested by the animal, works in the intestine to reduce the population of microflora, increasing the overall feed efficiency and nutrient absorption. Interestingly the problem regarding the adverse consequences of use of antibiotics was raised from time to time but industry resisted any government intervention with its political clout for more than 2 decades. Even now the action being initiated in the US to eliminate use of antibiotics in meat industry is more a half hearted measure and assuming the ban will be agreed upon it will not kick in before 3 years after approval of the measure! 

While antibiotic use in feeds are based on the assumption that meat yield is increased, what is forgotten is that Salmonella, bacteria one of the most ubiquitous pathogens found in more than 40% of meat produced in the US, can develop resistance to antibiotics like Pencillin, Azethromycin and Tetracycline when used in sub-therapeutic doses and most cases of food poisoning in that country are caused by this dreaded bacteria. If the ban on use of antibiotics is eventually enforced, farmers will need prescription by a veterinarian justifying their use for treating only animal diseases. What such a ban can do to the Pharma industry is a big question and they also have tremendous lobbying clout and it is to be seen whether they will sit idle watching their fortunes dipping on account of the shrinking market for their products.

In the Trivandrum case reported, the authorities concerned picked up the samples and got them tested by an accredited laboratory outside the state implying the unreliability of the local laboratories! It is not clear whether the presence of antibiotics was on the surface of the meat or in the meat itself raising further questions regarding this episode. Could it be that the meat dealers have dusted or used antibiotic spray on the surface only or whether antibiotic solution was injected into the meat? What is intriguing is that the Official responsible for food safety in the state washed off his hands saying no action could be taken because the sampling was not done properly! In any other country there would have been raids in the premises of the dealers and seizure of the entire stock. This episode comes close on the heels of a report in Kerala where large quantities raw meat products, more than one year old were found to be brought into the state by traders for sale there! For a highly perishable product like meat to stay stable without any sign of mold, fungus and other microbial vectors, they must have been treated with tons of antibiotics and chemicals and imagine the consequences of consuming such products on the health of the consumer! 

Is it not sad that even after detecting the presence in some of the samples analyzed, the representative of FSSAI expressed his helplessness to take any action hiding under technical and legal excuses? Can such a thing would happen any where else in the world where health of the citizen is paramount importance, over riding all other considerations? It is time FSSAI realizes that by touting its "Authority" without the teeth to bite can result in such a situation where thieves caught red handed are allowed to go free unharmed and unpunished! How can the citizens repose faith and trust in this organization to protect them from food criminals who rule the roost with no fear? 


Monday, September 15, 2014


Overweight and obesity are the most worrying health issues of 21st century and no one knows for sure the real reason(s) behind such startling changes in human anatomy during the last two decades. Though this phenomenon was first noticed among populations in wealthy countries with high per capita income, it is no more true to say that this is a rich man's problem only because in almost all countries the ratio of over weight people to healthy ones is consistently increasing. To imagine that 25-50% of the population in a country can have abnormal body weight and shape is itself scary but this is the bitter truth the world has to face. The adverse economic, health and social consequences of high body mass index (BMI) values are very real which can sap the energy and resources of a country to a great extent. 

Over weight and obese population invariably are characterized by lower productivity in works place, higher disease rates and higher medical expenses to treat or prevent fatal consequences. In a country like the US billions of dollars are spent every year for treating obese people which is considered a drain on the public exchequer. The incidence of heart diseases, diabetes, high blood pressure and other life threatening disorders is comparatively high among them reducing the life span and quality of life significantly. Another way of looking at this issue is that such undesirable human health problems have spawned a lot of economic activity with pharma companies and medical communities engaged in treating them! Thus it is hard to decide whether such transformation is part of the modern economic dispensation and one has to live with it! What a paradox indeed! 

As for food scientists, some blame has to be born by them because many products innovated by them ignore their health impact on the consumers while the industry, which mass produce them indiscriminately and promote them through high pressure advertisements, commercialism and often false claims, will have to take a major portion of the blame squarely on their shoulders. The so called junk foods loaded with empty calories are the staple among low income consumers because they are priced low to make them attractive. It is also a paradox that healthy foods like fresh foods, vegetables and similar ones are priced sky high making them beyond their reach. 

In the evolution of food industry, new technologies and high capacity equipment to manufacture newer products continuously have progressively enabled them to reduce the cost of processing and increase its capacity and capability to cater precisely to the palates of the consumers. High fat foods and those containing high sugar levels are invariably tasty and often addictive enough to capture more and more consumers almost on a permanent basis. This has made the industry less and less careful in marketing healthy foods. The profitability of the industry is also very high when it comes to making junk foods. Consumers have witnessed the endless charade among health experts regarding the real culprit for the damage to human health and among the health food makers making tall claims regarding their offerings like low calorie foods, low fat foods, low sodium foods etc. Health supplements containing many ingredients with doubtful and unproven benefits are flooding the market with no one certain about their credentials and credibility. 

There are hundreds of treatise regarding the addictive attributes of sugar whether it is sucrose, glucose or HFCS. This has spawned an entire industry offering low calorie foods and low sugar products playing upon the fears of the consumer. If people are developing tendency to over eat, sugar has been implicated while some believed it is a disease. Now comes the report that it is not sugar to which people are addicted as being propagated during the last three decades. The addiction is attributed to eating itself rather than to any particular ingredient. It is believed with some scientific certainty that only the psychological compulsion to eat due to the pleasure and satisfaction it generates when eating food is responsible for this phenomenon.  Over-eating is more a behavioral disorder and is similar to the compulsion with gamblers to back to the slotting machines and the card tables again and again in spite of losing heavily.

If the above findings are true, where lies the solution for tackling the obesity epidemic? Can industry be really blamed for making products with high palatability and acceptability since it is their mission to give consumers the very best and win the fierce competition in the market. If they are forced to compromise on the sensory aspects, can they survive in the market?:No matter how bland a food is, compulsive eaters with food addiction will invariably reach for the food when the urge to eat develops. Alcohol products and tobacco items are examples where no amount of policing, control, price escalation and government intervention has worked in the past in any part of the world. What is needed is education, persuasion, treatment of food addicts and industry initiative to improve the nutritional quality of their products with least compromise on sensory aspects.