Thursday, January 29, 2015

The new breed of hawkers of groceries -The e-commerce retailers

Shopping for the daily needs of a typical household is a chore increasingly being shunned by many present day house wives who do not have either the time or the energy to wade through the busy streets of cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore etc. Imagine the old times when the nearby grocery stores served as a convenient place to shop for materials wanted by many families with least hassle. There are supposed to be over 8 million so called "mom and pop" stores in India catering to the needs of the 1.25 billion population in the country meeting every need of the families within their "captive" areas. One does not need any transportation facility to access these outlets as they are omnipotent every where in a city, often more than one operating from the same area.Many old timers have nostalgic memories about their childhood when the friendly "grocer" could satisfy every need of the family and to top it, materials can be got on credit of about 30 days because most salaried people get money in their hands on first of every month. Look at the transformation taking place in India at the market place with giant retailer chains trying to out pace the "kirana" stores in providing better products and service. Are they succeeding?

Though super market culture was introduced around the year 2000 with some of the industry houses like Reliance, Tata etc getting into retail business, their growth is some what limited and according to market experts they are not even able to capture 10% of the country's retail market in a decade and a half. Some of them have not been able to break even even to day while a few others have folded up their business. Then came the much hyped FDI foray into Indian retail landscape recently and the new policy of allowing 100% foreign investment in single brand retailing has not been able to attract many significant international companies. Collaboration with Indian investors for multi brand retailing also did not bring in much investment in this sector. Why this has happened in spite of all predictions to the contrary?

One of the lessons to be drawn from this fiasco is that hundreds of years of culture in a conservative country like India cannot be expected to change in a short time and very high expectations were placed on the development of super market culture in the country without realizing that such super markets would never be able to compete with the "kirana' stores in terms of giving credit and personalized services to which Indian consumer has been used to. Of course with credit card use becoming very common in many urban areas, purchases made using them is based on a deferred payment mode. But the mechanical nature of vending in super markets manned by impersonal workers can be the big dampener in the adoption of this format in the country. Also of concern is the "guided" buying or "forced" buying of goods stocked by the super market in stead of the brands preferred by the consumer which is not liked by many consumers. In contrast the kirana shops know what their clients want and offer the same readily.

Having made not much progress with organized super market strategy, an alternate approach is being tried in India using the vast internet route to sell groceries to net-savvy families which may be numbering in millions across the metropolitan regions in the country. Popularly called as e-retailers or e-grocers, a few players have succeeded beyond expectation in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. Though this sector is in its infancy, the growth rate seems to be very impressive.and their potential business by the year 2020 is estimated to be Rs 1000 crore but it may exceed this target if the present going is any indication. May be the conservative image associated with Indian consumer is getting an image make over for which the new younger generational IT professionals are to be thanked. What is of concern is the sustainability of this trend if government does not support these ventures and starts imposing excessive regulatory controls on their working. Already some of these players are being hauled up by state governments on taxation issues, imposing punitive damages. However this nascent sector is confident of surviving these teething troubles through dialog with the governments.

Groceries can include perishables as well as durables which are in demand on a regular basis. While perishables like fruits, vegetables and other commodities are risky items to be handled because of their tendency to lose quality with lapse of time, others like detergents, soap bars, hygiene products, cleaning paraphernalia are easier to store and distribute. How do the e-grocers manage the procurement and delivery of these items without losing the quality and freshness associated with them? These items require scientific handling and temperature controlled storage systems to reduce quality deterioration between procurement and delivery. There are about a dozen serious players in the e-grocery sector including Bigbasket, Localbanya, Ekstop, Aaramshop, naturebasket and Greencart  sharing the market and only a couple of them have the minimum necessary infrastructure to manage perishable commodities. Fortunately for them the consumer complaints have been insignificant as their delivery efficiency is invariably above 98%. Some of them deliver the orders within a few hours, in spite of the traffic chaos that is the hall mark of cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad.

Another imponderable factor is the trust of the on-line buyer on the quality of fruits and vegetables ordered as in India there is no established quality overseeing of farm products and regular washing and grading systems. Indian consumers, at least most of them are fussy in choosing their food items and "seeing" and "feeling" the product is a national trait embedded in their psyche! If so how do they trust the supplier to deliver the products as per their expectations? Answer to this perplexing question lies in the fact that many youngsters of to day are different from their earlier generation in that they have very little inkling about the common quality attributes of fresh produce and have to depend on the supplier to do the job. After all they know that the dynamics of marketing depends on the customer satisfaction and they can always switch over to other suppliers under a competitive regime.     

Looking at the entrepreneurs who jumped into e-retailing we have to admire their courage of conviction as doing any business in India is fraught with risks of freaking out because of the difficult environment they have to work in. Unlike big international e-marketeers such as Amazon who work very successfully in countries with high quality infrastructure, manufacturing discipline and unimaginable honesty, in India all these three virtues are on a premium. Extraordinary courage, incurable optimism and unparalleled determination and perseverance are needed to succeed in India and since most of them have survived at least for the last 2-3 years they can rightly be called the pioneers showing the way to others. 


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Food Truck business vs established restaurants vs street foods-Is there a need for some restrictions?

Food catering is a multibillion industry in almost all countries with sizable population and significant economic wealth. Eating out practice is becoming more and more frequent with families getting lesser and lesser time to devote much time in the kitchen. There is a direct relationship between wealth and frequency of eating out and obviously when both parents work regularly the family income is bound to increase significantly. As a corollary to this development weekend relaxation becomes a norm rather than an exception. There are eateries of various kinds fitting the pocket of every consumer and the quality and ambiance of this experience will depend on how much spending capacity the consumer has. There are reputed restaurants, in the stand alone as well as in the chain format and most of them are supposed to be doing well. Competition for established "brick and mortar" establishments usually comes from road side vendors especially in the Asian continent and even well to do customers flock to these way side outlets attracted by the taste and flavor of their offerings beside the low cost factor. 

Then came the Food Truck phenomenon in the US started by trained chefs as entrepreneurial ventures which is considered a glorified version of street vending. With Food Trucks becoming an integral part of America's eating culture, conflicts started between the established industry and the new entrants, Food Trucks. Against such a background civic bodies within whose boundaries Food Trucks operate were constrained to evolve workable arrangements that would avoid confrontation between these two sectors. One of the big advantages of Food Trucks is that they deliver the food near the places where customers congregate without the necessity to drive long distances that is needed to get access to regular restaurants. Besides Food Trucks use modern IT enabled Smart phone apps to contact customers about their whereabouts making it hassle free for the latter to get their service. Food Trucks can also go to places where there are special functions to cater to the attendees.

One of the biggest constraints for Food Trucks is the high traffic density in most cities where they operate with severe restrictions on parking. Unless legally allowed parking spaces are available, it becomes difficult to do viable business. Fortunately civic bodies realizing how much the citizens like the foods offered by the Trucks, give licenses as well as allot specific areas for them to do their business. Why do people patronize street foods considering that eating in the open, especially on the side walks of busy streets can be quite distracting and some times unhygienic with dust and dirt flying around? In the US many people are becoming more and more sensitive to the origin of food materials as long haulage creates a heavy carbon foot print and adverse environmental issues. Locavores always prefer to go for locally grown food raw materials and most food trucks obtain their supplies from nearby local markets or farmers markets. Probably preparation of foods in front of them is an added attraction as there is greater transparency in the process.

As a movement Food Truck business in the US evolved with least conflicts with the brick and mortar eateries and in many cases there appears to be a "live and let live" spirit pervading their operations. Still there are issues that can sour their relations in some cities where the legal frame work is not suitably worked out. The two issues which are foremost to be considered while framing regulatory frame work are the impact of food truck business on the established restaurants who operate often from expensive real estate facilities and the likely effect of free flow of pedestrian traffic, especially in crowded areas in the cities. There is no consensus regarding the proximity between the food truck operator and an established restaurant. Some feel that the distance should not be less than 1000 ft while others want this distance reduced, probably to 150 ft. One wonders how is a country boasting of free economy, capitalism and least government control can restrict the entrepreneurial talents through such regulations. Ultimately in such an environment strongest will survive while others will have fade eventually!

In India the conditions are totally different and most civic authorities do not function for the well being of the citizens pursuing their own agenda for self-aggrandisement. While street foods are allowed to function wherever they want for a "fee", there is absolutely no oversight regarding the quality and safety of foods they serve. Many street food enthusiasts often say that they eat these foods "closing" their eyes and "praying" in their mind hoping to be spared the agonies of food infection! These foods are irresistible to many because of their freshness, flavor and taste. Fortunately there are serious attempts to "reform" this sector vis-a-vis safety to the consumers and many vendors are becoming sensitive to the dangers posed by improper hygienic conditions, unsafe water and rotting food wastes and these kiosks are improving day by day. Recent advent of Food Trucks in India may give a different experience to the Indian consumers but whether they will succeed against the traditional street vendors is a million dollar question!. 


Monday, January 26, 2015

Slow cooking system-Is it really new as being made out to be?

Why do we cook foods? Our ancestors before the advent of fire were eating raw foods and many foods like salads are even eaten to day raw. Even there are people in some parts of the world who drink raw milk without pasteurization or sterilization. Therefore most foods, even clean and uncontaminated, can be eaten straight with least discomfort. However with the human civilization becoming more and more modernized, people slowly developed taste for cooked foods leading to a plethora of processed food products which have flooded the market attracting more and more customers. Heat processing is to day an inevitable step before food is eaten for a variety of reasons, most important of which is making the food safe without causing biological discomfort or various ailments associated with raw foods. Besides the modern man has cultivated a taste for cooked foods whether using hot water or baking process. While water cooking does not raise the temperature beyond 100C at the atmospheric pressure baking temperatures can be as high as 300C. Higher the temperature faster could be the cooking and vice versa. 

Currently cooking does not take more than one hour as per the practices prevalent now and technology is ever striving to reduce this time as much as possible for saving time for the man who has less and less time for long duration cooking. Against this trend is the attempt to promote "slow cooking" that can take up to 10 hours under low temperature conditions. According to the proponents of this alternative, slow cooking gives a better food and saves energy. Slow cookers generally use less electricity than the conventional cookers and can be used year-round. Because of the long, low-temperature cooking, slow cookers help tenderize less-expensive cuts of meat. They usually allow for one-step preparation; putting all the ingredients in the slow cooker saves time and reduces cleanup. Many foods can be cooked in a slow process including soups, stews, side dishes, main dishes, meats, poultry and desserts.  Most slow cookers have two or three settings which can be adjusted for cooking times from 6 to10 hours. Setting the temperature at the higher level initially and then lowering the same can suit many foods to give a completely cooked taste. It seems an entirely new industry has been evolved for making slow cookers with different capacities and capabilities .

If clean cookers are used along with clean utensils and keeping the work area clean, finished products are always safe. . Of course perishable foods have to be refrigerated until preparation time. Meat cuts are to be thawed before putting in the slow cooker. As vegetables cook slower than meat and poultry, putting vegetables in first is recommended before adding meat and liquids such as broth, water or sauce. The cooker must be closed with a lid to get optimum results. While cooking, rarely any thought is given regarding the fate of nutrients present in the food because cooking is often conceived as a means of generating desirable flavor and taste. The perception regarding "desirable" eating quality traits may differ from society to society, country to country and ethnicity to ethnicity across the world. A simple example is that of milk. While Indians are used to "boiled" milk, western consumers want the milk just pasteurized with minimum heat exposure. Similarly there are hundreds of examples which substantiate the above diversity in the taste perception..

One of the reasons for over cooking in many parts of the world is the fear of microbial dangers coming from foods which are not properly cooked to destroy them and invariably people develop a taste for such foods over the years making it a standard practice. Time-temperature relationship vis-a-vis making a product sterile is well established and food technology has been striving for decades to reduce the exposure of foods to heat as much as possible. The HTST process and UHT process are able to achieve sterility within a matter of seconds while traditional  method involved lower temperatures and longer heat exposure. Obviously modern technologies try to minimize heat damage and preserve the original quality to the maximum extent possible. Does the "slow cooking" method satisfy the palates of both Eastern and Western cultures? It is difficult to guess an answer to this critical question. It must be remembered that before the advent of cooking gas or electric stoves or ovens, in countries like India people were using fire wood and charcoal as fuels for cooking and invariably time taken can be long. As such there might not be any thing new in this so called "new" slow cooking system.

With the fuel cost going up, there are serious attempts to reduce its use as much as possible and save on the energy. Solar cookers are increasingly being used and naturally food takes much longer time to achieve the "doneness". There are also cookers which use a combination of heating and insulation to utilize the energy to the maximum extent without waste. Some consumers soak the foods like the grains in water over night before applying heat which saves significant amount of energy. As cooking is also a function of the water content in the food, soaking for 6-12 hours achieves saturated absorption of moisture into the food thereby enabling the heat to get transferred to the center of the material faster. Thus slow cooking is practiced in all countries even to day not for any reason of enhanced taste but for cutting down on energy use. Improvements in taste and flavor may be incidental here. 

Science says that the food we eat contains many nutrients necessary to sustain good health and health pundits have laid down minimum and maximum levels of these nutrients to be taken every day for children, adults, men and women. Naturally if food is to be cooked to make it more easily digestible and eatable, we have to ensure minimum destruction of these vital components during the cooking process. Here again the sensitivity of different nutrients to heat varies enormously and a combination of air and heat can bring about greater destruction under common cooking conditions. From a nutritional point of view probably slower cooking can result in greater loss of nutrients thus lowering the overall nutritional quality. In this context modern cooking system will probably score over slow cooking mode. Ultimately the euphoria around slow cooking is bound to wane with time like it has happened with many fads previously!    


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Next development in Indian dairy sector-Will it be a health revolution?

We all remember the milk pioneering stalwart of India, late Dr V Kurien for his yeoman efforts to put the country on the global milk landscape through his cooperative dairying programs. If India to day can boast of a production base of around 140 million tons and rightly claim the top position among milk producing nations, this is solely due to his vision. This land mark was achieved through scientific cattle breeding using exotic breeds to increase the yield of milk accompanied by other measures to protect and maintain the herds through modern technology. While this achievement is no doubt laudable, the inability of the country to raise per capita milk consumption significantly and uniformly during the last 2-3 decades can still rankle as a national failure, whatever be the reason(s). .While in some states like Punjab, Gujarat and Rajasthan, average milk consumption is well above the national average of 290 g, it is abysmally low in places like Mizoram, Arunachal, Meghalaya, Goa, Manipur, Nagaland and Assam . Of course the national average figure went up from 178 g to 290 gm between 1992 and 2012, if that is any consolation.

Assuming that the national average availability is encouraging enough, is there a need to increase the production further? It is doubtful whether any further increase in production will improve milk consumption among the "not well to do" population from economic point of view,to any meaningful extent. However the moot question is whether the recommendation of the health agencies to take about 250 g of milk every day for good health is really the holy grail? Probably not considering that states like Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal, Goa and others where milk intake is low, the population is predominantly meat and fish eating omnivores who can get their nutrients from foods other than milk. As India is a country where more than 75% of the population consume plant foods due to cultural and economic compulsions, milk definitely play a significant role as a major source of vital nutrients some of which are not available from plant sources.

Indian population has been virtually worshipping cows for thousands of years, probably because of the economic benefits derived from this animal. However few know that the breeds of cows reared in India are superior to many foreign breeds in terms of the health protecting properties of the milk provided by them. It is a fact that almost 70% of the milk produced in India is accounted for by the modern breeds perpetuated through cross breeding with imported foreign ones like Holstein Friesian, Guernsey and Jersey. Why did India neglect its own breeds like Gir, Kankrej, Sahiwal, Ongole and others and got obsessed with foreign breeds? The answer is simple because the yield of milk in Indian desi cows could not compare well with that from foreign breeds, probably due to their subsistence level of existence on account of not looking after them properly. India will realize the mistakes if reports from Brazil where Indian breeds were imported long ago are yielding milk as much as 70 liters a day! The tragedy is that pure semen from these original Indian breeds is now being imported into India to upgrade our cattle population! Recently it was reported that a Gir progeny in Brazil fetched more than Rs 6 crores during an auction!

Another little known fact is that Indian breeds provide milk of superior nutritional quality compared to that from exotic imported breeds though it may be a little too hard for a lay man to believe this claim. Western world is now realizing that milk from the breeds which are predominant in Europe and America carries a form of casein that is associated with diseases like CVD, Type I diabetes, autism etc and this awareness is making them go for changing their cattle breeding system to raise herds that give more healthy milk.  After all milk is 85% water and the rest made up of lactose, fat and casein protein. The healthiness of milk is assessed through an analysis of the type of caseins present and almost 30% of casein present belongs to the beta casein variety. There are two types of beta caseins, A1 and A2 in the milk from almost all cows. The ratio of A1 beta casein to its A2 counterpart holds the key to how far the milk is healthy. It is the A1 component of beta casein that is the culprit in causing the diseases while A2 component is absolutely harmless. In most Indian cattle the gene responsible for A2 casein is predominant producing milk with A2 beta casein in the range 92-100% while foreign breeds have A1 gene yielding milk some what richer in A1 type of beta casein compared to that in milk from Indian cows. on an average milk from foreign breeds does contain about 60% A2 beta casein.

Why is that A1 beta casein is harmful and is being shunned across the world? A1 beta casein containing 209 amino acids has Histidine as the 69 th one in place of Proline in the A2 version which makes a big difference. While the casein is normally digested in the GI tract, peptides and amino acids are generated which are absorbed by the blood for further metabolic tasks. However the A1 version of beta casein generates a fraction called Beta casomorphin-7, also known as BCM-7, which can interact with digestive system, internal organs and brain stem with some adverse consequences, though conclusive proof for this claim is not yet established. But writing on the wall is very clear. World over people are realizing the superiority of milk from Indian cows and are willing to pay more for it because of its high A2 casein content and this milk is becoming popular under the name "A2 milk". 

Sale of healthy A2 milk in Britain and Ireland is reported to have reached  Rs 100 million mark in just one year after its launch. A2 milk is now available in 1,000 stores across UK and Ireland. In Australia and New Zealand, A2 milk is currently the fastest growing product with a share of 8 per cent of the milk market, the sales increasing by 57 per cent in a year. Multinational food companies are vying to get into A2 milk business smelling fortunes in this sector. China too does not want to be left behind and is emerging as a strong market for A2 milk after the scandal surrounding the sale of spurious baby milk powder some years back. It is expected that China's intake of A2 milk in the rapidly growing infant food market will double by 2020. It is a mystery as to why foreign breeds are loaded with the predominant A1 gene while Indian cows do not have this gene at significant levels. Since cow has a history of more than 10,000 years, there must have been mutations in the gene in foreign cows to change the nature of beta casein over a long period of time, probably due to the environment where they were bred.
National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources in India (NBAGR) has launched the National Gokul Mission under which it is to set up integrated indigenous cattle centers and "Gokul grams" for upgrading indigenous cattle. In each village identified under the gokul gram program 1000 cattle are to be maintained out of which 600 would be milk yielding while 400 are unproductive. Through sale of milk and other products like dung and urine distillate 
these units are expected to be economically viable and taking care of unproductive cattle also is ensured. With outstanding veterinary scientists working in India, it is a question of time before Indian cattle start increasing the milk yield from the present pitiable levels of 4-6 kg per day to match that of foreign breeds 25-39 kg a day. India has no other alternative but develop desi cattle, about 37 recognized species, which constitute 79% of the 300 million cattle population. 
The economic burden of promoting desi breeds can be advantageous in the long run because of the enormous advantage our desi milk offers to the consumers in terms of relief from such deadly diseases like CVD, Diabetes, Allergies, Digestive ailments, etc. As the A2 milk has the capacity to strengthen the immune system, there is some substance in the proposal made by some pundits that dairy industry must revisit its portfolio of products being marketed laying more emphasis on A2 milk production. As of now it is not known how much A2 beta casein is present in currently marketed branded milks though one can guess it must be not as high as that contained in 100% desi milk. The dairy sector can even brand milk with high A2 beta casein separately charging a premium price which  most consumers can be expected to pay willingly because of its USP as a safer and healthier product.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Safety of branded instant noodles-A reality check.

Food labeling can be subtle as well as non-transparent as many consumers find themselves while shopping for their daily needs. For a common man many of the information presented by the manufacturers can be "Greek and Latin" but some at least understand the implications of such "facts" presented through the label. As a critic of food industry recently stated the industry can be the "masters of subterfuge" in saying less than what they really hide. What ever it be, food labeling rules do serve a useful purpose and can be made more transparent through consistent efforts in forcing the industry to be more truthful. Here is a typical case of instant noodles which have become popular, especially among the kids. Look at the label declarations made by different brands and what no consumer can make out are the code numbers mentioned for some of the ingredients used in the flavor mix that is added during the preparation process. 

No doubt the food safety authorities permit them to use code numbers, probably to make the system of identifying food ingredients uniform. But in what way this helps the consumer? This information may be as well not there and it will make no difference to the consumer. It is just unfortunate that industry is given this leeway to hide the nature of chemicals used and help it to sell the products more easily to the hapless consumer! Interestingly if we get a little deep into this trickery, it can be realized that industry has come up with alternatives to the erstwhile notorious Mono Sodium Glutamate ( MSG), once monopolized by the famous company Ajinomoto of Japan. After its safety credentials were seriously questioned, its use became highly regulated and the so called INS 627 or E 627 code numbered for sodium Guanylate and INS 631 or INS 631 code numbered for sodium Inosinate were introduced, essentially to obtain the same effect as that would have been generated with MSG. Incidentally these are claimed to be the imaginary fifth flavor called Umami and industry uses them to enhance the flavor of every food and use less salt in their formulations.   

There are two questions the industry and the safety regulators must answer while allowing the use of these chemicals by the food processors. First are these chemicals derived from meat scraps or fish waste? If so can the manufacturers use the green dot on the label to convince the consumers that their products are suitable for consumption by vegans as well as vegetarians?. According to literature, Guanylates and Inosinates can also be made from yeast through hydrolysis of the cells  or from starchy materials by the fermentation route but no one is sure whether the manufacturers use meat derived materials or plant based ones. Interestingly some of them declare use of yeast hydrolyzate also along with 627 and 631 and one wonders why they have to use yeast hydrolyzate which also contains 627 and 631? Could it be to camouflage the real identity of the source from which 627 and 631 are derived. Why not declare that 627 and 631 used in these flavor mixes are really derived from plant sources to satisfy the vegans and vegetarians? 

Second issue pertains to the safety of these additives. Scientific studies do not permit us to draw any firm conclusion because of lack of unanimity. Several reports indicate that at individual levels, 627 and 631 including their blends 635 can create health problems, at times becoming serious if not careful. If one reads the catalog of ill effects of these additives it could be construed as a list compiled by the adversaries who are firmly "convinced" about these "facts". Guanylates and Inosinates have been claimed to cause in humans several adverse effects like Ribo Rash, a form of irritable itchy skin syndrome, elevated heart beats, worsening of gout symptoms, causing migraine, insomnia, asthma, arthritis, sinusitis, etc. However these claims will have to be moderated in the light of the fact that the levels at which they are consumed through noodles can be well below the adversarial concentrations. Also to be borne in mind is that noodles can always be taken with out the flavor mix which contains 627, 631 or 635. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Food trucks in India-Will they succeed?

Catering service comes in many formats and street vending is an established system in many parts of the world. Besides the foods served being cheaper, street vendors are supposed to provide a better sensory satisfaction to their clients. Unfortunately the urban infrastructure in India is so bad there is a constant conflict between the pedestrians and the vehicular traffic in moving ahead in this chaos to reach their destinations. Where is the space available for these vendors to serve their dedicated clients without attracting punitive action from the civic bodies? Whatever may be the constraints these vendors, thousands in number still manage to do business though the relevant question is whether they become a potential source of food poisoning dangers associated with inadequate hygiene and sanitation.

From time to time the issue of controlling street vending outlets crops up nationally as well as internationally and sporadic efforts are made to help them manage their business better with least inconvenience and risks to the citizens who flock to such places for a relaxed eating experience. Even recently the street vendors association organized a workshop in Delhi to train their members on sanitation and hygiene keeping in mind their vulnerability to undesirable food borne illness due to deficiency in service. Still street vending poses challenges to the civic bodies in terms of regularizing their activities without compromising on foot path facilities for the pedestrians. Though these bodies control them through the licensing provisions, very little is being done to oversee the quality and safety of the foods they prepare and sell through open vending exposing to the questionable quality of the environment they are working.

One of the biggest problems as far the consumer is concerned is the water being used by street vendors for their preparation, washing of cooking utensils and serving plates and disposal of waste generated. In many parts of the city where street vendors operate the stench emanating from the waste, droppings and wash water an be unbearable some time. Regular cleaning of the pavements every day by the civic authorities with antiseptics like phenyl, bleaching solutions and powders could reduce the dangers significantly. But this is almost never done leaving scope to cause discomforts to the customers, some times becoming a hazard with potential for major poisoning episodes. That Indians have strong bellies which are not easily affected by minor incidences of food transgressions cannot be an excuse to shut our eyes to wards negligence of hygiene, sanitation and tainted water and foods.

From time to time suggestions have been made to create food plazas in cities located at different locations where adequate facilities are provided for clean water, waste disposal and toilet facilities. But the food plazas that are coming up are invariably posh ones serving high cost foods and common man finds it difficult to access to these places because of cost considerations. The Amma canteens in Tamilnadu did create an aura for some time and they are still popular among low income population like workers and laborers but this is a government subsidized venture leaving very little for individual entrepreneurship. Recent advent of Food Trucks on India roads is a welcome development though we do not know how long they will last under the suffocating environment of bureaucracy and cluttered roads in most cities. In a country like the US where Food Trucks have notched up phenomenal success there are clearly demarcated areas where food trucks can be parked for doing business for limited ours without hindering the flow of pedestrians or vehicular traffic. It is doubtful whether the street vendors in India can ever be transformed into a food truck business entrepreneurs given the reality that exists in the country.

In spite of such reservations the news that some bold entrepreneurs have jumped into the fray in places like Delhi and Bangalore can be very encouraging. Properly designed food trucks should be elf sufficient in terms of on the spot cooking, serving facilities, waste handling, refrigeration etc, though one cannot expect them to provide toilet facilities. According to one view one can have a food truck with an investment of Rs 3-5 lakh but such improvised "trucks" would be probably mounted on old van type vehicles which cannot be called a food truck. A good self contained food truck many cost upwards of Rs 25 lakh with necessary minimum facilities and whether with such investments entrepreneurs will be able to garner sufficient business to ensure decent returns remains to be seen.

Catering sector in India is booming with regular eateries making a kill in the market with the consumers becoming insensitive to the prices at which the preparations are sold. Even a small eatery gets away with prices varying from Rs 15-50 for their preparations while more reputed and established caterers have steadily hiked up the prices during the last two years. It is impossible today for a family to get a decent meal for less than Rs 200 and buffet lunches are ruling at prices beyond that! Still most conventional eateries are doing very good business because of increasing disposable income with the lower and upper middle class population. This is the right environment for food trucks to blossom in the country and governments and civic bodies must facilitate their entry and help them to sustain with least impediments and supportive policies, in stead of harassing them as is being claimed by some of the pioneers who started this business recently.  

A recent development in street food market may throw a damper at the plans of new food truck entrepreneurs trying to venture into this new marketing ploy to attract the erstwhile customers of traditional street vendors. Many high end restaurants with reputed Chefs in their pay role are reported to be trying to romanticize street foods and introduce some of the items popular among street food patrons as a part of their menu. Their strength lies in the fact that they can provide a better ambiance within their premises and the safety of the foods they serve would be guaranteed institutionally and responsibly compared to the addressless street vendors. How far they can attract or shift the loyalty of regular customers of street vending segment remains to be seen.      


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Science and common man-Vested interest vs truthful facts vs human health

The world has not come to a consensus regarding the risks or advantages inherent in adopting genetically modified food crops. What is tragic is that there is a clear cut division between pro and anti GMO people whether consumers, scientists or policy makers on the safety of GMO foods. America is in the forefront in allowing unrestricted use of GMO technology and practically every food product in the market there is either based on GMO derived raw material or GMO ingredients. Their stand is that there is no substantial difference between natural and GMO derived foods and therefore no separate approval is necessary for using them as ingredients or as foods for consumption. Many other countries take a different stand and there is either a total ban or limited clearance for some of the GMO foods created by MNC giants like Monsanto through gene manipulation technologies. It is the unfortunate that the consumer is caught between the proverbial "deep sea and the devil", not knowing what is the truth?

There are three issues that confront policy makers before considering giving clearance to GM crops and a balanced decision is possible only when all facts and real truth are placed before them. Science is a truth chasing activity and scientists cannot be expected to say any thing but truth. Unfortunately it has been proved time and again that some scientists are "purchasable" at right prices! That is why there is a wide chasm in opinions within the scientific community itself. First consumer would like to know whether GM foods are safe to consume on a long term basis and whether the exiting knowledge is sufficient to make him accept these foods for himself as well as his family including kids. Second issue is whether there is really any advantage to the farmer in terms of economic gains so that the technology can be adopted in the field level. Finally the third stake holder viz the regulatory authorities need to know what advantages or dangers the country will have by switching over to GMO crops without any restriction or control, long term as well as short term duration.

What is the ground reality to day? First there is no unanimity among scientists that GM foods are as safe as they are made out to be and practically no human studies on a long term basis have ever been undertaken as of to day. What consequence consumption of diets predominated by GM foods will have for future generations is also a grey area. The contention that Americans have been eating GM foods since long is an argument that is not objective enough to pass a judgement on this issue. Second the claim of increased yield has not been conclusively demonstrated universally in any meaningful way though in some crops it might be true. Here again to claim that the net yield for the farmer would more because of reduced losses due to insects and other vectors probably will not be sufficient to convince any body. Third, the prevalent seed regeneration practices  which has been the traditional way of perpetuating agriculture in countries like India need to be replaced with a monopolistic seed supply system, makes the farmer captive slaves of international business corporates and this makes the farmers extremely vulnerable to price manipulations and expose him to a "siege" environment which is not a desirable change. 

Recently there was a massive meta analysis of data available in the public domain on GM crops and according to this study GM crops are good for developing countries, not for developed ones! Read the excerpts from this report below:

"The "pro" side in the debate over the benefit of genetically modified foods got a big boost from science this month, with an international study funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the European Union's Seventh Framework Program FOODSECURE concluding that GM crops are good for the economy and reduce the amount of pesticides used in agriculture.  The German study is the largest review ever conducted on the effect of GM crops on farming. It is a meta-analysis, meaning a rigorous study of the numbers inside past studies on the topic. The review included studies of GM crops conducted from 1995 to March 2014 that were published in English. Published Nov. 3 in PLOS ONE, the peer-reviewed, open-access publication for the Public Library of Science, the meta-analysis found that GM crops are a "promising technology." According to the authors, GM crops have reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 percent, increased crop yields by 22 percent and increased farmer profits by 68 percent. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops, they reported. And in a conclusion that contradicts those who've argued GM crops are not right for the developing world, the authors found that yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries. Authors Matin Qaim and Wilhelm Klumper, both of Germany's Gottingen University, said they hope their research will help build public trust for GM technology. In a world that will be challenged to increased food production to meet future population growth, the study found GM crop yields can be increased by 14 percentage points more in the developing world than in the developed world. Pests and weeds are a bigger problem in developing nations, another reason GM technology brings bigger benefits there. Commercial GM crops include those that are modified to increase resistance to pests, to glyphosates or to herbicides used for weed control. The German study found that herbicide-tolerant crops have lower production costs, while insect-resistant ones do not. In that case, the need for less pesticide is offset by the higher seed prices, the study showed. 

The fact that this study had the blessings of European Union and the German government makes it a compelling report worth reading by every dispassionate denizen, curious about the subject of GM foods without being a party to the controversy. Whether this report satisfies the criteria enunciated by this Blogger above is subject o debate but one thing is certain that such periodic reports are no substitute to a world wide inter disciplinary scientific study involving some typical, more regularly consumed GM foods, without any controversy or difference of opinion, to conclusively establish whether GM foods are absolutely safe or  at least as safe as their natural counterparts or not. Till such time we have to live with such gimmicks going under the banner of scientific study!