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Unsafe Food: MILLION DEATHS, BILLION $ COSTS By Shivaji Sarkar , 6 June, 2015 Print E-mail

Economic Highlights

New Delhi, 6 June 2015

Unsafe Food


By Shivaji Sarkar


The Maggi noodles boiling controversy reiterates the unsavoury fact that India is lax in ensuring packaged food safety. Even the US is not that alert. Europe too has had many mishaps. It is surprising that the world over nobody is concerned over the real junk food being served by the largest companies across the globe. In terms of treating various ailments related to these, it costs billions of dollars to the consumers, says the World Health Organisation (WHO).


Maggie 2-minute noodles problem is not limited to the shores of this country. Europe and the US have been debating it for the past many years. Peoples’ lives across the world are at stake. In many countries there had been occasional hue and cry over the chemicals injected into food packed or put in deep freezer. Meat, fish and other sea food across the world are known to be injected with chemicals as preservatives and to give a fresh look weeks or months later.


The WHO estimates 2 million deaths linked to unsafe food annually, stated its regional director, Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, on April 7, 2015. Pregnant women, elderly people and children are the worst hit. “Everyone has a role to play in making food safe and I urge food handlers and consumers to be familiar with common food hazards,” he urged. So it is a global problem. Yes, China has this problem so has Africa. But action taken is largely only at times when something appears in the media, sending authorities into a tizzy.


The UK’s The Telegraph reported on April 9, 2011 that baby foods were found to contain alarming levels of toxic contaminants including arsenic, lead and cadmium. (China also recently had similar problems). The findings were made by the US Food Standards Agency and the European Commission conducting an urgent review to establish new limits for the long term exposure of these contaminants in food.


The products tested by the researchers were made by major baby food manufacturers including Hipp, Organix, Nestle and Holle – some of which are available in British supermarkets. Researchers found feeding infants twice a day on the shop-bought baby foods such as rice porridge can increase their exposure to arsenic by up to 50 times when compared to breast feeding alone.


Exposure to other toxic metals such as cadmium, which is known to cause neurological and kidney damage, increased by up to 150 times in some of the foods tested by Swedish scientists, while lead increased by up to eight times. It gives a distinct impression that globally health officials are lax in combating the might of large business houses for ensuring public health.


The Maggie contaminant finding in India was more an aberration and wasn’t that the national food safety authorities were alert. A UP food officer in Barabanki, VK Pandey, in a routine check to detect adulteration of milk and khoya and other similar products during Holi, in March 2015, picked up some other stuff including the Maggie packs. Gorakhpur Public Analyst laboratory two weeks later found monosodium glutamate (MSG) in the noodles packs. Then its samples re-tested by Central Food Laboratory, Kolkata reconfirmed 17 parts per million (ppm) lead against the permissible 0.01 ppm. Kolkata lab virtually says that the product is dangerous for anyone. So rightfully, almost the entire country is banning its sale.


But this brand of noodle alone may not be the culprit. There are many other brands in the market. Even many so-called health drinks, calcium supplements produced by other companies are equally suspect. Quality of many drinks supposed to be better than milk has never gone through any test. Advertising blitzkrieg leads to sale of many of such products to gullible buyers. Even skin whitening or beautifying cosmetics do more harm than what they promise to enhance.


This developing country is not alone bearing the brunt of such unethical sales. Further, it’s not enough that we need to be concerned about what’s in our food—we also have to be concerned about what our food is in. According to a new study from Europe, food packaging materials there contain as many as 175 dangerous chemicals. And neither are things looking any better in the U.S.


The July 2014 study from the US Food Packaging Forum indicates that more than 170 potentially dangerous materials are used in the packaging of food—things that have been linked to cancer, infertility, hormone disruption, and even genital defects. But largely the US has not banned their sales.


Databases of food contact substances included the list of food additives authorized in the U.S. published by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2013 and the European Food and Safety Authority  (EFSA) found plastic food contact substances that are said to interfere with the hormone system, so called endocrine disruptors.


Red-flagging the rising incidence of food and water contamination in India, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said there is need for strict enforcement of the Food Safety and Standards Act and strengthening of the food testing laboratory infrastructure and skills. “Scientific evidence has shown that contamination of food is a serious issue in India as unchecked microbial activity and the use of pesticides and antibiotics seriously compromise food safety, while consumption of junk food and other chemically-laced foods adds to the problem,” said Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General, CSE, in a statement.


Pointing out that in 2013, about 10 per cent of deaths in India of children below 5 years were due to diarrhoea, Bhushan said the exact burden of all food-borne illnesses in India has still not been estimated. The CSE study says that packaged food is laden with chemical additives that make the food unsafe. Food adulteration, especially milk, is another key challenge, CSE said, adding that India can no longer afford to remain in the dilemma of whether it should provide ‘food’ or ‘safe food’ to all.” Yes, Nestle and others sell milk and other milk products in cans, which have hardly been tested.


Unfortunately, the doctors in this country are not exactly leading the discussion either, since nutrition is not currently a focus in medical school. The government agencies either have been in the awe of big businesses or unconcerned. More junk the companies’ sell more are their profits. Nestle profits increased from Rs 828 cr in 2010 to Rs1186 cr in 2014. Its competitors also have increased profits phenomenally.


Using banned ingredients that other countries have determined unsafe for human consumption has become a pandemic in this country. India has now to set standards to discontinue the use of banned ingredients to ensure food is without toxins. --- INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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