Monday, August 24, 2015

Banning sale of of Junk foods near schools-Is any one serious?

In India if no decision is to be taken on any issue, especially at government level, the most effectively used strategy is to "set up" a committee which guarantees that the issue is buried at least for some time! Most recent case is the "decision" by the Women and Child Development Ministry of Government of India (GOI) to "consider" banning junk foods near schools constitutes an excellent one to illustrate this point. It was about 5 years ago that Uday Foundation, an NGO approached Delhi High Court (D-HC) pleading to impose a ban on sale of junk foods near schools where kids, with pocketful of money liberally provided by parents, buy unhealthy foods affecting their health in the long run. It was indeed a noble effort by this Foundation to help the nation to protect its budding citizens from the harmful effects of so called junk foods and they deserve our gratitude for this visionary focus attention on this much neglected area. Looking back the D-HC, progressive as it is, allowed the appeal in December 2010, asking the central government to respond suitably to address this issue.

What is a junk food? Unfortunately there is no consensus on this much debated subject though food industry considers all the products manufactured by it are foods providing at least calories and/or proteins and/or other nutrients required by human beings. They further aver that the products made by it are as per safety norms prescribed by the appropriate authorities vested with strong powers. May be the industry has a point in that all foods which conform to national quality and safety norms are edible and serve the purpose of satiating hunger. Besides the industry is selling products which are accepted by the consumers on their own volition with no compulsion or external pressure. Implications of fat, that too saturated fats, in many life style diseases like CVD, obesity, blood pressure etc and unveiling the role of dietary fiber in diseases related to gastrointestinal tract created a great awareness about the importance of balanced foods and physical exercise leading to the campaign by consumers and consumer organizations against the food industry to change the product portfolio to shun products which according to them are unhealthy. It is generally understood that consuming regularly foods with "empty" calories (nil or low nutrient density) is not good for health and this can severely affect growing children in terms of starving them of vitally needed nutrients at the most critical stage of their development. That is how the junki food concept arose originally in wealthy countries like the US where more than 35% of the population is considered obese as measured by the Body Mass Index (BMI) yardstick.

Whether it is the desire to ape the West or due to genuine concern, in India also the issue regarding junk foods was raised from time to time with neither the social organizations nor the government giving serious attention. Though a segment of the consumer community was worried about the long term impact of not restraining food industry to churn out unhealthy foods, targeted especially at the most vulnerable group of children. The topicality of the subject can be gauged by the fact that even to day many countries are finding it difficult to address this problem with total satisfaction to all the stakeholders. The problem became acute with the explosive growth of electronic media and kids became more vulnerable to commercial advertisements promoting these so called junk foods and to add to this the proportion of the commercials to the actual content of the programs is continuously increasing. Unfortunately many parents find it difficult to resist demands by their wards to buy these patently unhealthy food products which do provide fantastic eating pleasure making it addictive. Foods which are so appealing and irresistible are invariably rich in sugar, fat or salt while healthy foods with low levels of these ingredients, rich in fiber are unappealing to most of them. It is conceded that promoting eating of fruits or vegetables in place of fried or baked snacks is a near impossible task.   

Though scores of seminars and workshops have been organized from time to time to discuss this issue, nothing concrete emerged during the last 3 decades. It was left to a young voluntary organization, Uday Foundation devoted to helping promote the cause of distressed children to rake up this issue in the year 2010 approaching D-HC which resulted in the directive given by D-HC to the Central Government to ban junk foods near the vicinity of schools. After debating the issue for almost 2 years , the court issued another order in Jan 2012 asking the Health Ministry to take action to ban sale of junk foods within 6 months. Shamelessly the GOI after sitting on the issue for almost 8 months, "informed" the court that the task of laying down guidelines had been entrusted to its toothless agency pompously called Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). Nothing happened till April 2013 till D-HC gave another 3 months for GOI to complete the work by July 2013. In Sept 2013 the Court again asked GOI to put in place necessary guidelines for banning junk food sale near schools. Still nothing happened and to add to the delay the industry filed objection to any such ban in Oct 2013 which was over ruled by D-HC. It is against this background that GOI set up an expert group in March 2014 to consider the issue. Alas this group only"recommended" regulation of sale of junk foods. Subsequently another expert committee deliberated the issue and came up with some guidelines in August 2015.    

This high-level committee set up by the Women & Child Welfare Ministry suggested to impose a ban by street vendors within 200 meters of a school. It also wanted the civic authorities not to issue licences to shops and restaurants selling food to uniformed children within 200 meters of a school. Unfortunately the onus of determining what constitutes a junk food was put back to the GOI. It wanted GOI to decide about a comprehensive definition of junk food in the context of children. It is reported to have further suggested that a list should be drawn of "desirable" food items to be offered in school canteens as well as labelling of pre-packaged food, stating clearly as "unfit" for infant/children/pregnant and lactating mothers or persons with specific ailments".  It further claimed that it reviewed the prevalent practices of regulation of junk food in 23 countries and suggested establishment and management of school canteens besides bringing about comprehensive advertisement/promotion campaign to be undertaken jointly by different stakeholder Ministries. The Ministry had constituted the committee under the Chairmanship of Director, National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, to look into matters relating to availability of junk food at various places accessible to children.The committee included representatives from Niti Aayog, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Department of AYUSH, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Bureau of Indian Standards, food regulator FSSAI, National Institute of Public Cooperation & Child Development, Indian Council of Medical Research and independent experts in the field of nutrition and clinical psychology/behavioural science.

Now there is some thing to go on regarding this issue, but it is not clear how long the GOI will take to legislate on this important issue. One must remember that India does not lack laws with teeth on the statute books but the country fails miserably in administering these laws to achieve the intended purpose. Whether it is lack of funds or lack of seriousness, it is difficult to understand. It is understandable that being a federal governing system, GOI has to depend on local authorities to implement national regulations and in this case also passing legislation to ban junk foods is not going to help unless adequate monitoring system is put in place to enforce its provisions. Probably putting in place a ban on sale of junk foods may be a beginning which will at least deter a few vendors from selling them near the schools. Ultimately an acute awareness about the dangers of junk foods among the kids as well as the school authorities can contribute much to eradicate this evil. 


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!