Friday, January 22, 2016

Reckless control over an industry and its consequences-India's "bitter" sugar story

It is an irrefutable fact that india is one of the top sugar producing countries in the world as well the top sugar consuming country. Whether these achievements are due to the extraordinary skills of the farmer, efficiency of the sugar industry or the proactive government policy interventions, is a tough question that begs for an answer. Another crucial issue is whether this most regulated industry is really healthy providing equity to all the stakeholders, the farmer, consumer and the industry. Though we call India a market driven economy, when it comes to sugar industry it is government driven with neither the industry nor the farmers being truly happy. Some time one feels that sugar is a product that has got more importance that it deserves. Its consumption at high levels has been implicated in a variety of lifestyle diseases like diabetes and obesity and still this is one commodity government considers as an essential one to be included as an item for subsidy under essential commodity basket distributed through PDS! 

Is sugar really an essential commodity? A highly debatable question. Health experts world over point out the havoc sugar has brought about among the population in developed countries like the US. It is an irrefutable fact that two out of three Americans are either over weight or obese and high consumption of sugar has been implicated as the major cause for this epidemic. As against the recommended maximum consumption of  45 grams of added sugar per day for sound health, the present average consumption of almost 180 grams per day proves the point that over consumption is responsible for the health crisis being faced by that country. The US seems to be on a suicidal course as its consumption of sugar and refined wheat flour is incongruously high reported at 60-65 kg each per capita annually. White flour from wheat is equally dangerous as its GI values are even higher than that of white sugar and this flour is the major ingredient in practically all the food products including bread, biscuits and cookies, pastry products, pizza, pasta and noodles and others. Can India learn a lesson from the experience of this country to prevent a catastrophic situation where people with increasing income opt for a lifestyle that is characterized by high sugar and white flour consumption? 

Sugar consumption in India is estimated to be 20 kg per capita per year which works out to about 60 grams per day, considered tolerable from health angles but the average figure hides the real fact that extent of daily consumption can vary enormously with poor segments of the population consuming much less than the average figure while well to do citizens might be taking sugar at a level higher than the average. Similarly taking refined flour (Maida) intake which also contributes to quick boost in blood glucose, the production by roller flour mills is comparatively low More than 65% of the wheat produced in the country is milled in conventional plate mills (Chakkis) and the healthy whole wheat flour (Atta) from them is consumed directly by the households for making many traditional preparations. The 900 and odd roller flour mills just produce about 12 million tons of maida which works out to just 10 kg per capita per year and therefore this is considered to have insignificant adverse impact on the health. Probably the relatively low incidence of life style disorders like diabetes in India can be explained by the lower consumption of sugar and maida by the vast majority of the population. Still any rise in sugar price due to a long term policy of restricting sugarcane cultivation or encouraging fuel alcohol will be good for the health of the consumer and economic well being of the farmer as well as the industry in the long run.

Series of farmer suicides in the sugar belt during the last few years raises the inevitable question whether government should really micromanage the industry or leave it to the market forces to determine the extent of sugarcane cultivation in the country from time to time. It is an anachronism that while the country is facing huge shortages of pulses and oilseeds which are the backbones of nutrition especially for vegetarian population, during the last two decades precious little has been done to shore up their production. The country is watching with dismay shortages of these critical foods in the market and escalating prices that deny many people access to these critical food components in India diet. Billions of rupees worth imports are taking place expending our precious foreign exchange and India has the unenviable position of being the biggest importer of edible oils in the world! As most of the sugarcane cultivation is carried out in areas in 6 states where irrigation facilities have been created to help farmers to grow this crop, pulses are relegated to the background growing mostly as drought crops with meager productivity. Successive governments must answer for this criminal negligence of both pulses and oilseed crops that has condemned the nation to a nutrient starved one. Can this be condoned? 

It is rather amazing that sugar is intricately linked to vote bank politics and  to say that the industry is controlled by a few sugar barons with political power and clout is an understatement!.  Successive governments have played into the hands of the sugar industry by instituting regulatory controls that distort the sugar landscape in the country. It is an irrefutable fact that vast number of people are employed by the sugar industry and tinkering with it may turn out to be disastrous if not carefully planned. What will happen if the sugar industry is totally deregulated leaving it to the pulls and pressures of the market? If sugar prices to day are ridiculously low making the entire industry sick, the responsibility must be borne by successive governments which held it in its vice like grip because of vote bank considerations. Why should the government give unlimited licenses to sugar mills which eventually become sick though those well connected politically prosper because of many reasons?  If such a total decontrol takes place only fittest ones will survive and there may be temporary hike in prices for the consumer which will not be felt especially when food costs are constantly on rise without the consumers raising any serious alarm.

It is said that when India sneezes the sugar world catches the cold! This is because of the influence of surplus sugar lying with sugar mills which are not allowed to be exported beyond a certain limit and naturally if too much is exported the global prices crash and vice versa. With the recent decision by the government to mandate blending of petrol to the extent of 10% with ethyl alcohol the demand from the fuel industry is likely to grow manifold. However has the country enough capacity to produce alcohol from sources like molasses at present?  Probably not and is it not then incumbent upon the government to give priority for more production of alcohol rather than white sugar? Brazil has shown to the world how sugarcane crop can be harnessed to make more sustainable fuels and its example ought to be followed by India. If sugarcane crop is diverted for alcohol production there might be some price hiccups in the market but consumers will not mind it when they are already coughing up Rs 150-200 for a kilogram of commonly used pulses. 

Look at the global scenario vis-a-vis sugar and alcohol. Brazil produces more than 35 million tons (mt) of sugar compared to India's production of 28.5 mt in an year. While Brazil exports 23.8 mt of sugar Indian export is pegged at 2.5 mt reflecting the high control government has on the sugar industry in the country. World wide sugar production and consumption are more less balanced though the industry carries a large stock as a buffer against wide price fluctuations. Brazil is also in the fore front in utilizing sugarcane for alcohol production as recently it has increased the mandatory blending level from 25 to 27%  Interestingly Brazil uses only 40% of its cane production for making sugar while the balance goes for alcohol production. In contrast India has not even been able to enforce effectively the 5% blending policy so far and the reason attributed to this shoddy performance is shortage of alcohol in the country..It is against this background that government has to think of diverting the sugarcane crop directly to produce alcohol instead of relentlessly pursuing sugar production through unnecessary and burdensome subsidization policies. Government does not seem to be worried about the enormous outgo of foreign exchange on import of petroleum fuels and an effective policy to ensure alcohol blending can substantially reduce our petroleum import bills. As added bonus the country will be able to reduce its carbon foot print significantly as ethanol-petrol blend is less polluting compared to petroleum fuels. 

As a part of such a policy the country must incentivize setting up alcohol production units which can directly convert sugarcane juice into ethanol. If the avowed policy of mandating 20% blending by 2017 is to be realized India will need about 4.5 billion liters from the current production base of 1.5 bn liters of fuel grade ethanol. Though the established capacity of 350 distilleries is placed at 1.5 bn liters, they also produce rectified spirit to the extent of 4 bn liters per annum for industrial and other uses. It may be difficult to divert the latter to fuel ethanol production as it will adversely affect the industry which uses alcohol as its feed stock. As increasing biofuel ethanol production solely from molasses is impractical, direct conversion of crushed sugarcane juice seems to the only alternative available to the country. One ton of sugarcane is supposed to yield 70 liters of alcohol and naturally a huge quantity of sugarcane may have to be diverted to direct ethanol production which could limit sugar production to some extent. Sooner the government takes a policy decision on this crucial sector better it will be for the country. .


Friday, January 1, 2016

Safety of PET bottles for packing medicines, foods and beverages under cloud-Will the real truth emerge ever?

What do we understand by the oft used word PET when it comes to food packing? Probably common man may have no clue about the chemical nature and the implications underlying its use by the food industry. But there is a general awareness that all plastics are not good when it comes to their use for food contact applications. It is true that plastic materials, mostly made from fossil fuels, have taken over the lives of people in to day's world because of convenience and cost. Glass and metal containers are unbearably costly though they are much more safer than plastics. There are a number of plastic materials varying in their characteristics and functionality and food industry has a wide choice before them for packing foods. Protection from air, moisture and tainting from the environment are the primary concerns when plastics are used as far as the industry is concerned but environmentalists are more worried about the pollution caused by the used plastics which take more than 800 years to be completely degraded in nature. World over restrictions are being placed on use of plastics and make recycling a priority to save the planet. 

Quality and safety requirements of plastics vis-a-vis food contact applications are more or less standardized though there could be small variations in the methodology used to determine their suitability. Safety authorities in developed countries focus on the foods consumed in their countries and tests using model systems reflecting these foods are used to arrive at the permissibility of various packaging materials. However in India there is a sea change in the chemical, physical, biological and sensory characteristics of foods we eat here and therefore the interaction between food and the packaging materials used needs to be assessed by appropriately tailor made tests. The safety aspects of some of the packing materials used for ethnic foods or traditionally consumed foods in this country have not yet been determined conclusively as the authorities concerned is rather slow in tackling this crucial issue with any sense of urgency. The responsibility of the plastic manufacturer ends once a certificate is generated by testing laboratories using standard testing protocols involving simulated solvent systems for acidic, neutral and alkaline foods. What is appalling is that once such a certificate is produced the manufacturer can produce tons and tons of the materials and sell to the food industry without any further overseeing or vigilance from independent authorities. 

The issue of safety of PET bottles for packing pharmaceutical products became a debating one after some concern was raised recently and the government's knee-jerk reaction in setting up a committee to "look" this controversy. Consumers are genuinely concerned about the impact of packing medicines in PET bottles which is becoming a standard practice of the industry which finds it a better packing material compared to glass due to logistical and economic reasons. This has compelled the authorities to arbitrate on this issue. The demand of consumer organizations and environmentalists to ban PET plastics must be based on an assessment of the balance between risk and advantages and scientific data therefore is necessary. The government approved testing laboratory to which this problem was referred, came out with a shocking conclusion that PET bottles are not safe for packing liquid drug formulations because of high levels of leachates passed on to the contents from the container. The controversy became more "controversial" because both drug industry as well as the plastic industry questioned the veracity of the report alleging that too few samples were tested and no important decision should be taken based on the findings of a single laboratory. Probably they may have a valid argument and further testing can be ordered in multiple laboratories controlled by the government on a proprity.     

If we go back to history of this problem it was due to the diligence of an Uttarakhand-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that works in the health sector which raised this issue requesting the ministry of health to impose a ban on the use of PET for pharmaceutical packaging. The present impasse is due to the testing results showing high levels of some chemicals in the products tested. The Government is sitting on the recommendations of a technical group set up to examine this issue which categorically suggested banning of liquid pharmaceutical formulations to be packed in PET bottles and eventually extend this ban to the entire industry. More concerns were expressed with regard to the potential impact of the contaminants leaching out from the bottle on the health of children and other consumers with normal health as well as with weak state of health. There are documentary evidences to support the adverse impact of leachates like Chromium, Antimony, Lead and Diethylhexyl Phthalate at concentrations much beyond the safety limits. According to experts health risks to people can manifest in the form of diseases like cancer, diabetes, endocrine damage kidney damage, reproductive diseases and obesity when these contaminants are present at levels far exceeding the safety standards and this cannot be ignored that easily. calling for emergency measures to tackle this issue once for all.

An interesting argument put forward by the packaging industry is that instead of banning PET blindly, some way should be found to modify the technology of manufacture of this commercially important material to make it safer. A larger question that begs for an answer is why the industry did not take adequate precaution before and was indulging in making and selling a material of doubtful safety credentials? Similarly why it should have been left to an NGO to raise this issue of grave concern where as a responsible and diligent government with enormous powers at its command was sleeping over it all these years with least concern for the health of the 1.3 billion people it is "ruling"? Is it not criminal and shameful? Probably there will be lot of "passing the buck" game when some thing seriously happens due to possible systematic poisoning of its helpless citizens! God forbid such a contingency.

What is perplexing in this entire saga is whether PET bottles and films are safe for packing water, beverage and foods? In India food safety is a portfolio in the domain of the Health Ministry which incidentally also controls the drug industry. Though there are a few reports indicating that PET bottles are safe for packing water, beverages and most food products, there is no clarity as to the minimum thickness of the bottle, impact of long storage and exposure to temperatures prevalent in tropical countries. The same question that has bedevilled the drug industry vis-a-vis use of pet bottles for packing drug formulations does bother the food sector also and there is practically no report of any real time study using any food product packed in such containers. Here again the safety is assumed or presumed based on model systems using standard solvents and solutions which might not really represent any foods we consume in this country. Also to be borne in mind is that in the absence of overseeing of the PET production facilities, food industry has to depend on the unilateral view of the manufacturers that their bottles are food grade. If toxic materials like Chromium, Lead, Antimony and Diethylhexyl phthalate have been found in drug preparations in quantities beyond the permitted levels, there is all the more reason that chemically complex food can leach out much more of them over the duration of their shelf life. It is a million dollar question as to why the Indian government and the research institutions specialized in food, packaging, health and toxicology controlled by it are sleeping over the issue for so long! 

While the issue of safety of pet bottles for packing food and medicines is sill being debated, there is a tug of war between the PET industry and glass industry, both of them having a vested interest in the business generated by the products they make. According to the PET bottle industry more than 200 manufacturing may have to close shop if the Government enforces an across the board ban for food, beverages and pharma products which together account for about Rs 2000 crores market, almost 50% of the total production of 6 lakh tons per annum. In contrast glass bottle industry which was once the prime materials used by both food and pharma industries is witnessing a decline in its growth because of the increasing preference shown for PET bottles. One of the last bastions for glass bottle is the liquor industry which consumes almost 50% of the production estimated at about 3 million tons per annum probably because of the ability of glass to retain the flavor in its original form. Only cheap liquors have switched over to PET bottles in preference to glass because of cost considerations. If banning of PET bottles does materialize there is no option for the industry but to go back to glass bottles. Thus what is a lose to PET industry will be a gain for the glass industry. We will have to wait and see how the situation is going to develop in the next few months. In the mean time glass industry must invest in new technologies that can give glass bottles with lighter weight and extra strength to with stand rigors of handling and transportation .