Saturday, August 15, 2015

Calcium carbide "ripening"-A spineless nation tolerates this unsafe practice for ages!

Mango is considered the "King of Fruits" across the world but countries like new Zealand may differ in their perception because of their own unique fruits grown in their countries. Still the variety of aroma, taste, color, sweetness and tanginess offered by Mango are unparalleled. Being highly seasonal and cyclical in terms of production, the availability of Mango varies widely from year to year. Demand for varieties like Badami, Alphonso, Kesar, Mallika, Pairi etc is generally not met fully with the result that market prices vary enormously year to year. India enjoys the unique position in mango production being the major producer growing more than 3 dozen varieties with widely assorted flavor profiles. The 16.33 million tons of Mango produced in India last year accounted for almost 42% of global output, a sizable portion exported to more than 2 dozen countries. Mexico and Brazil with a combined production of about 3 million tons provide strong competition to India in the American continent though they are no match to the Indian mango when it comes to flavor, taste and other eating qualities.

Recent mango season in India saw a spurt in production and for a few months between May and July most markets in the country were flooded with mangoes of different varieties attracting millions of consumers though prices were ruling high most of the time. Why Indian mangoes cost so high is an issue most consumers are concerned with and besides production uncertainties due to weather fluctuations and cultivation practices (mostly in the unorganized sector), the flourishing middle men who control the mango trade can be the biggest culprit. Most growers do not follow sound cultivation practices, selling their trees annually at the flowering stage itself to pre-harvest contractors ( probably money lenders) for arbitrarily fixed lump sum payments, with the contractor taking the risk of crop loss or reduced yield. Most growers do not have sound ripening facilities and it becomes the responsibility of the traders to ripen the fruits and bring them to the market.  

It reflects on the rulers of this country, who in spite of 7 decades of planning since independence could not do much to change the mango production dynamics, leaving the field open for traders and middlemen to exploit the growers by offering low prices and controlling the market prices through collusion and conspiracy to defraud the growers as well as the consumers. Scientific harvesting and post-harvest practices are never followed with the result that much wastage takes place at all stages of handling. Of course these losses are factored when market prices are "fixed" to ensure inflated and unjustified profits. Mangoes are rarely cold stored or stored under controlled atmosphere environments and there fore consumer has to depend on the mango season only to enjoy these delicious fruits. It is all the more reprehensible when one realizes that agencies like APEDA and Ministry of Food Processing Industry of GOI offer substatial financial assistance for modernizing the industry which go begging!    

Like all fruits Mango also becomes sweeter, less greener, and softer as it ripens. Unlike temperate fruits like berries,grapes, pomegranate, tomato etc, coming under the non-climacteric group of fruits which need to be tree ripened, Mango, being a climacteric type can ripen after harvesting taking about 8-10 days after harvesting of the mature fruits under favorable temperature and humidity conditions. The bright reddish/yellowish colors so characteristic of most varieties of mangoes is due to "unmasking" of carotene present in the fruit in significant concentrations after the green chlorophyll is degraded during ripening. Sweetness is developed due to starch degradation during ripening while acidity is reduced to some extent. Ultimate taste is decided by the ratio of sugar to acids in the ripe fruit. Artificial ripening is practiced to cut down the period of ripening using Ethephon and similar ethylene generating chemicals which accelerates the natural process without adversely affecting the flavor to any significant extent. Organized packing industry does use this technique to achieve uniformity in the quality, though the ripening chemical is considered expensive.

A common but undesirable practice in vogue in India to accelerate ripening is to use the cheap chemical Calcium Carbide (CC)which brings about dramatic changes in appearance in a matter of couple of days. Acetylene generated by CC on contact with moisture does this transformation, at least in appearance though consumers will never know how these fruits are ripened. Compared to naturally ripened fruits, CC treated fruits are less sweet, have non-uniform yellow color with patches of green seen on the surface, some what dry in appearance, less juicy and less flavorful. What is of concern is the safety of CC if used though there is no conclusive evidence about the likely consequences of using it. It is classified as carcinogenic with a potential to cause cancer while there are reports that it causes other problems like mouth ulcers, gastric irritation, diarrhea, skin rashes etc in many consumers. CC, being an industrial chemical used for producing Calcium Cyanide, contains arsenic which is one of the most toxic metals. According to some reports more than 50% of mangoes sold in the Indian market are CC treated though this is not permissible as per law.        

It is not that GOI is not aware of this situation because, under Section 44 AA introduced in 1979 in the PFA Act prohibits the sale of fruits ripened with calcium carbide. It is a sad reflection on the seriousness of GOI that not much has been done to enforce this ban. When the PFA Act was replaced with the FSS Act and the food safety regulator (FSSAI) came into being, one expected the new regulator to look at the issue in depth, get a comprehensive country-wide survey done to gauge the extent of the problem, come up with alternate, safe and feasible method of artificial ripening and plug the retail sale of calcium carbide, so that it is not available to fruit wholesalers. Being a cheap chemical that costs hardly a few rupees CC is available freely in the market and just 10 gm would be adequate to ripen about 100 fruits. The country is aghast that the new regulator is as inefficient as the old one and CC ripened mangoes are flooding the market unchecked and unhindered!  .

Though In March last year, the government informed the Parliament that a Joint Committee for Research on Food Safety had been set up in August 2010 and the committee had recommended further research studies to generate information and data regarding the extent of use and effect of artificial ripening agents and other chemicals in fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately nothing seems to have happened and CC treated mangoes still continue to harm the consumers with no fear or deterrent even to day. Interestingly the very same regulator proclaims in its web site that
consumption of CC treated fruits may affect the neurological system by inducing prolonged hypoxia (low oxygen reaching the blood and tissues), which causes headache, dizziness, mood disturbances, sleepiness, mental confusion, memory loss, cerebral oedema (swelling in brain caused by excessive fluids) and seizures!. While mangoes, bananas and papaya are generally ripened with calcium carbide, this practice is spreading like a wild fire with even fruits like sapota, dates and tomatoes being subjected to the chemical treatment. Yet no coordinated action seems to be taking place except for sporadic raids of mango sheds where the fruits are ripened which appears to be an eye wash, throwing dust over the eyes of the citizens! Imagine a whole session of parliament was washed off recently due to irresponsible behavior of the law makers who have no time to discuss problems like this for the welfare of the citizens!  

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