Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Stifling innovation-How can governments indulge in such unethical activities?

Ever heard of the term infanticide? That is sacrificing one's own child, whatever be the reason. Why should a parent commit infanticide? Is it because of the potential for the child to become more famous than the parent? Whatever be the reason it is ridiculous that such things happen in real life. Innovations are like children and scientists creating them are like parents to them. Like every parent, innovators also want their findings to be of benefit to the society. But in a quixotic development in the US, the very government which professes its strong commitment to science and technology is reported to have made attempts to "kill" a novel food product developed by a "daring" entrepreneur, through unfair means though there is no explanation forthcoming from the concerned authorities as to why they did it. The case pertains to the successful development of a product by a start up venture that can replicate the taste and other parameters associated with natural egg from poultry birds, based on alternate formulation not involving real eggs. The new product had all the desirable qualities associated with natural egg and could have saved millions of consumer dollars because it was cheaper and healthier than the real egg. Here is a take on this unusual action on the part of US government agencies vested with the responsibility of providing wholesome food to its citizens.   

"A US government-appointed agricultural body tried to crush a Silicon Valley food startup after concluding the company represented a "major threat" and "crisis" for the $5.5bn-a-year egg industry,according to documents obtained by the Guardian. In potential conflict with rules that govern how it can spend its funds, the American Egg Board (AEB) lobbied for a concerted attack on Hampton Creek, a food company that has created a low-cost plant-based egg replacement and the maker of Just Mayo, a mayonnaise alternative. In a series of emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (Foia), AEB staff, a US department of agriculture official and egg industry executives attempted to orchestrate the attack. The documents were obtained by Ryan Shapiro, a Foia expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Shapiro's Washington DC-based Foia-specialist attorney, Jeffrey Light, and passed to Hampton Creek.Just Mayo is just not mayo: FDA says eggless mayonnaise must change name. Among the efforts coordinated between the AEB, the USDA and the egg industry:
    * Outgoing AEB head Joanne Ivy advised Unilever on how to proceed against Hampton Creek after the food giant filed a false advertising lawsuit against its rival last year.
    * The Department of Agriculture's national supervisor of shell eggs joined the AEB in its attack on Hampton Creek, suggesting Ivy contact the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) directly about Just Mayo with her concerns. The FDA later ruled Just Mayo must change its name.
    * The AEB attempted to have Just Mayo blocked from Whole Foods, asking Anthony Zolezzi, a partner at private equity firm Pegasus Capital Advisors and self-described "eco-entrepreneur", to use his influence with Whole Foods to drop the product. (Whole Foods still sells Just Mayo.)
    * More than one member of the AEB made joking threats of violence against Hampton Creek's founder, Josh Tetrick. "Can we pool our money and put a hit on him?" asked Mike Sencer, executive vice-president of AEB member organization Hidden Villa Ranch. Mitch Kanter, executive vice-president of the AEB, jokingly offered "to contact some of my old buddies in Brooklyn to pay Mr. Tetrick a visit".
    * The AEB's research arm, the Egg Nutrition Center (ENC), tested the strength of Hampton Creek's patent for its egg replacer, Beyond Eggs, using a consultant, Gilbert Leveille. Leveille concluded that the patent was "not very strong and could be easily challenged with an alternate product", he said in an email to Kanter. "Were I in your position I would focus on nutritional quality and on the emerging science, much of which ENC has sponsored," Leveille wrote.
The emails, totalling 600 pages, show the AEB has become deeply concerned about Hampton Creek. The San Francisco-based tech company has attracted $120m in funding from some of tech's biggest names, including the Founders Fund, started by Facebook backer Peter Thiel, and Vinod Khosla's Khosla Ventures.
The AEB represents egg farmers across the US and its board is selected by the secretary of agriculture. This year the politically connected AEB provided 14,000 eggs for the White House's annual Easter egg roll and Ivy was photographed with President Barack Obama"

It is matter of shame for the wealthiest country on earth to adopt unfair means to subdue a new entrepreneur in the narrow interest of protecting the fortunes of the natural egg industry. The argument that encouraging strong competition to the natural egg might adversely impact the poultry industry resulting in loss of employment to a few people will not jell because establishment of a new industry that caters to the same market will also provide employment, thus becoming an employment neutral development. What is forgotten in this debate is that the formulated egg products are much more healthier than their natural counterpart in terms of lower cholesterol and other adverse health parameters. It is a curse for this country that most law makers are lobbyists for one industry or the other because of the political donations they receive which the Federal court had made legal. However these law makers are forgetting that their primary responsibility is to the voters who elected them rather than the lobbyists, reposing trust and confidence on their ethical credentials, integrity and seriousness to address the issues affecting them.  

Monday, November 23, 2015

Farming in Canada-The much hated Supply Management System distorting the market landscape

Why do Canadians pay two to three times more for their milk purchase compared to their counterparts in other countries? It might appear shocking that a developed country like Canada has in place a tightly controlled dairy sector held in a vice like grip by the bureaucrats endowed with the responsibility of sustaining the diary economy of the country. The archaic system does not permit the farmers to expand their cow population beyond a quota allowed by the government to prevent a milk glut and consequent price crash. While imports could be much cheaper a deliberate custom duty imposition make them as costly as the domestically produced milk. How this country can break this system to synchronize with that in other countries is a million dollar question. According to critics a cow in Canada can be costlier than an automobile because of the restrictions on the entry of new dairy entrepreneurs into the existing cozy club! Read further below to understand this ridiculous situation to decide whether to laugh or cry! 

"The reference price for milk is going up again today by 7.8%, forcing milk-using industries to pay more coast-to-coast for an important input. Soon, consumers will feel the price hike when they buy fluid milk or other dairy products at the grocery store. Given that productivity has been rising for centuries in agriculture, one might wonder why we keep paying more for milk instead of less. The reason: Theseproductivity gains are being wasted away in our inefficient supply management system. The creation of the Canadian Dairy Commission in 1966 produced Canada's first national agricultural supply management system. This system relies essentially on two major forms of government involvement in agricultural markets. Largely through a quota system that controls the quantity of milk offered, it sets up planning and administrative control over pricing and marketing. And it relies on customs tariffs that are set high enough to keep foreign products out. Through these measures, the government ensures a captive market for Canadian farmers. The establishment of quotas is equivalent to issuing rights to sell a certain quantity at administratively set prices. Milk quotas were initially distributed free of charge but later changed hands on centralized exchanges, becoming increasingly expensive.An average of more than $22000 was required to make use of a cow and sell its milk in Canada in 2002. In 2003, according to Statistics Canada, quotas amounted to an average of nearly $1.1-million per dairy farm and a total of almost $17.6-billion for all dairy farming operations in Canada. This represents close to half the entire permanent long-term asset base of milk producers. To set up a dairy farm, almost as much would have to be spent on quotas as on the assets truly required for milk production, such as animals, land, buildings, farm machinery and equipment. Thus quotas have become a barrier to entry for anyone wishing to start a new dairy operation. The paradox is that farmers already in the market have no interest in ending the quota system. Quotas constitute an "asset" that farmers can sell and that is often used to guarantee loans from financial institutions. Abolishing supply management would result in quotas losing their entire value, posing serious problems for farmers and their creditors. Supply management also deters adapting production to economic conditions. Efficient farmers who might wish, for instance, to raise their production cannot do so because they are not authorized to exceed their quotas. Instead of trying to win market share to the benefit of consumers through various strategies in areas such as pricing, quality, product differentiation, advertising, service or forms of marketing, Canadian farms under supply management must devote an increasing share of their resources to covering the cost of quotas. From a geographic standpoint, evolution of the system is blocked. It is very difficult to modify the proportion of quotas that each province receives. This rigidity is a source of conflict between provinces and of added uncertainty for farmers. Because of quotas, it is impossible to take advantage of more favourable production conditions in different parts of Canada if and when they arise. The costs of the supply management system are, of course, reflected in retail prices. These artificially high prices correspond in reality to an implicit tax that governments have authorized farmers to impose on consumers. The OECD estimates the assistance provided to Canadian dairy producers through supply management at $2.7-billion in 2003, equal to more than 60% of the value of total dairy production that year. It also found that Canadian milk prices have been two to three times higher than world prices since 1986. This has no doubt contributed to a drop of nearly 15% in per capita milk consumption in Canada between 1986 and 2003."

Whether it is the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, the so called financial wizards in these august bodies never cease to chant the mantra of "economic liberalization" and WTO pressurize every country on this earth to ensure exports without restrictions levying practically no import duties! Yet here is a country which likes to preach to the poor countries about the virtues of free trade and open economy. Subsidy is supposed to be a dirty word to these wealthy countries but look what are they doing!.Canadian government is reported to be subsidizing its dairy industry to the tune of almost 1.5 billion dollars every year. While the dairy farmers are fattened by this subsidy, the per capita consumption of milk in Canada seems to be falling to the extent of 15% during the last two decades, which is not an encouraging sign! 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bihar-Heaven for food adulterators and fraudsters?

Though Bihar has been hogging all the lime light lately for all wrong reasons, what is sad to hear is the pathetic infrastructure the state has for protecting the citizens from rampant adulteration of almost all foods sold in the market place. There are lakhs and lakhs of retailers and traders selling a diverse basket of foods that include essential materials like cereal, pulses and edible oils while milk vendors, thousands of them, selling milk at the door steps of many households. According to some studies the extent of adulteration in these essential food items can be as high as 50-60% with the hapless citizens there being taken for a ride with or without their knowledge. While many adulterants might be innocuous and considered economic offenses, there are many instances when food materials contain dangerous components, extraneous to the original food with the potential to cause serious health disorders. Unless there is constant vigilance and deterrent action the food criminals will have no fear of the law. How can any responsible government in a state like Bihar rest in peace when its citizens are exposed to dangerous adulterants in their day to day foods? Obviously this does not seem to be a priority area deserving attention at the hands of the current rulers in the state. Here is a take on this unfortunate state of affairs in that state vis-a-vis food safety. 

"ood safety is a matter of concern, thanks to a nationwide row over Maggi. Bihar's food safety wing has, however, only 14 officers to man its 38 districts.  In contrast, the food safety officers number 554 in Tamil Nadu, 273 in UP, 178 in Gujarat, 169 in Madhya Pradesh and 87 in Jammu & Kashmir, according to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) website. Bihar food safety commissioner Anand Kishor candidly admits this wing is understaffed. "But the health department has accepted a proposal to create 625 posts of food safety officers. The finance department will soon give its nod to it," he said."

Is it not ridiculous that the FSSAI vested with the responsibility of ensuring food safety in all states in the country is wasting its time and resources chasing the noodle manufacturers showing its "fangs" on imaginary safety issues while the common man who hardly consume any noodle is left to fend for himself? They are more concerned about punishing one noodle manufacturer than taking action to protect the poor people of Bihar! Otherwise how can any one explain the sordid state of food safety management that exists in that state where just 14 personnel are supposed to "look after" 38 districts through preventive and deterrent actions which only can keep the fraudsters on their toes? Even in a smaller state like Tamilnadu there are 20 times more personnel to carry out surveillance in the market than that in Bihar. Will the situation improve after the installation of the new "Lalubetaraj" there? Unlikely because the Rs 1000 crore animal feed scam is still fresh in the memory of every concerned India. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Finally here is an "artificial" nose that can help optimize use of flavorings!

How are the foods assessed for their flavor by the processors before deciding about their quality and acceptance by the consumers? In many cases there are marker chemicals representing the major flavor notes which can be quantitatively estimated using advanced instrumentation/ gadgets like gas-liquid chromatography, high pressure liquid chromatography, nuclear magnetic resonance instrument, mass spectroscopy etc. Still in cases where the flavor composition is very complex no instrument will be able to correctly forecast the quality and therefore human nose, oral cavity and tongue play important roles in assessing the flavor and texture. The science of organoleptic evaluation or sensory evaluation has progressed so much to day that there are reliable and dependable objective tests using humans, especially trained panelists to take decisions regarding product quality.Tea tasting, coffee tasting and wine tasting are still in vogue and specially trained taste panels do these evaluation regularly with remarkable reproduceability. Now comes the news that an artificial nose has been designed by a firm in the UK which can assess the quality of chocolates suitable for use by major chocolate producers with some degree of reliability. Here is a take on this new development which may be a standard feature of quality testing protocols by the chocolate industry in future. 

"Snacking giant Mondelez - behind brands such as Cadburys, Oreo and Kenco - has just installed an artificial nose at its UK research headquarters that it hopes can sniff out some new ways to create products, perhaps making them a little more Willy Wonka-ish along the way.The way that the compounds in chocolate work together can be analysed by the machine The machine, based at Reading in Berkshire, has a pretty sophisticated sense of smell, able to identify the compounds that make up different foodstuffs - in the case of chocolate, about 40. "We have always been able to measure the compounds but this is the first time that we've been able to analyse how they interact with each other in real time," explained Alex Webbe, senior group leader at Mondelez international global science and technology research centre.
So when the artificial nose is given some chocolate to smell, it is able to pick out two key compounds - a cheesy note not usually associated with chocolate, alongside the more traditional cocoa flavour. The progress of the compounds as they are put through an artificially created eating process can be monitored via a computer readout, offering a kind of digital signature for the chocolate. Scientists can see how the water-soluble "cheesy" flavour dies off when the chocolate is chewed, giving way to the more familiar cocoa flavour. So what does this real-time view of chocolate tell us about this popular favourite guilty pleasure? One thing it suggests is that chocolate is probably best enjoyed "at ambient temperature", said Mr Webbe. But it isn't just about taste. "Some people like the texture of chocolate straight out of the fridge." The artificial nose is also being used to analyse the flavours in chewing gum and work out why they come to an end, perhaps even suggesting ways that it can keep flavour for longer."

How far this "nose" will correlate with consumer perception of what is to be expected from a piece of chocolate remains to be seen. Though at present this instrument is used largely for theoretical research into the basic flavors of chocolate, the innovators expect this to be useful tool to profile the desirable flavors in many products with multiple chemical substances, each contributing certain notes to the final flavor of the product. Will there be similar instruments evolved in future for products like tea, coffee and wine with a cocktail of complex flavor constituents? Only future will tell!


Ready Meals with long life-New approach

A recent report that in many Western countries the frozen meals are becoming increasingly unpopular, reasons for which are not well known, is creating some anxiety among the major players in this sector. The fact that it is experiencing a negative growth during the last few years cannot be ignored and it is natural that it is a cause of concern.. It surely does send a powerful message about the the fast changing food habits in many parts of the world. Whether it is due to better awareness about the intimate linkage between food and health or the desire to eat safer foods which is the driving force is any body's guess. In contrast the organic food industry which was a minuscule player till about a decade ago is looking imposingly towering over the mainstream food industry which tells a narrative that consumer trust in food industry is fast eroding , probably due to the perception that the industry is more concerned with profits rather than their well being. The emergence of the High Pressure Processing Technology (HPP) probably may give a breather for the main stream industry as it is one of the cleanest technologies man has ever known with no apprehension about quality or safety issues. Here is a take on the fast growing HPP technology which is increasingly being applied to many products including ready meals. .  

"Another use for High Pressure technology is on ready meals. The CSIRO's director of innovation in food, nutrition and bioproducts, Professor Martin Cole, said dinner was nearly ready. "Ready meals as a business are really taking off around the world," he said, at the Future of Food conference at the University of Sydney. "Everyone is time poor and yet everyone wants really good quality food, "With that business is the shelf-life, and that's where the technology comes into play. "It's based on High Pressure technology, which we've been looking at for over a decade, brought here from around the world."We've even taken some things from the CSIRO Total Wellbeing diet, so instead of people needing to read the books, these are ready meals."

Frozen meals are supposed to be the most convenient format for preparing a meal with minimum hassles though thawing still represents a minor hurdle in making a meal in a jiffy. Besides apparent loss of texture during freezing process and subsequent thawing could be a disadvantage  against this category of foods. It is here HPP technology scores over all others and that explains its gaining unparalleled popularity with the industry. From being a limited player till recently handling only fruit juices, HPP can be useful in preserving many food products without exposing to severe processing conditions. The only constraint for its fast growth is the unbearably high cost of the machinery involved in setting up even small scale production facilities. If the technology becomes popular and if large demand emerges, the cost may come down significantly in the coming years.  

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Smart labels-Need of the hour to help consumers detect quality impinged foods

Cold stored foods and frozen products are expected to keep their quality only if the ideal temperatures are maintained during storage, distribution and in the market places. Though accidental, unanticipated contingencies can cause abrupt temperature rise once in a while, there are deliberate actions by some unscrupulous traders to manipulate the cold storage conditions to save on the energy consumption without realizing the adverse consequences on the quality and safety of the products. In India it is a common practice for petty traders with refrigerators to switch off them during night when the shops down their shutters to be restarted in the morning after opening the shop. While safety might not be a major problem, there will be definitely significant quality deterioration if thawing and freezing take place repeatedly and too often.The manufacturers as well as the consumers have no way to know whether quality damage has taken place in side the sealed packs as there is no tell tale evidence of such malpractices at the seller's end. The reported development of smart labels which can indicate adverse quality changes for the consumer to see when purchased may be a boon for millions of people who buy cold stored food products. Read further on this subject below:

"To ensure the "cool chain", the University of Milano Bicocca has developed a label that is sensitive to temperature changes and that changes colour when the safety limits are exceeded. The study was published in the scientific journal "Advanced Optical Materials". The "smart" label was designed by a team of researchers from the Department of Materials Science of the University of Milano Bicocca and the Imperial College of London, coordinated by Luca Beverina, associate professor in Organic Chemistry at the University of Milano Bicocca. The label is based on a chemical reaction optimized by researchers that activates an organic pigment on a porous silica film to be applied on the package. The label is colourless: if during the journey the temperature exceeds 4°C, it becomes light blue; after being above the temperature suitable to ensure correct product storage for three hours, it becomes dark blue. The colouring is irreversible so that the label "always tells the truth" about the storage of a product, from packaging to sales desk"

Of course how far this innovation will be accepted by the industry and the retailers is a critical question which will decide its utilitarian value. Though these labels are primarily intended for use by cold chain players for detecting wide fluctuations in the temperature during transit, it should also serve at the retail level provided every  manufacturer uses them on their products. The cost of making smart labels must be very nominal and cost consideration might not be a constraint. In a highly technological country like the US, such innovations are likely to be accepted fast. But it is rather doubtful whether in most developing countries smart labels will ever find takers as the industry is least regulated and it is used to getting away with selling products of indifferent quality to the hapless consumer because there is no reddressal mechanism for such malpractices by the industry.  Probably the regulatory authorities could step in to make smart labels mandatory for temperature sensitive cold products. 

How ridiculous Indian Food Laws can be! The license seems to back!

There was a time when licensing raj was rampant in the country with the government bureaucrats wielding literally dictatorial powers to decide who is allowed to start an industry which was largely responsible for the stagnation in the manufacturing sector for many decades. This also ushered in the unbridled corruption environment where for every thing to do with the government the citizen has to pay "bribes". One can see where this has taken the country and to day corruption scandals are rules of the day rather than exceptions. As for food processing there were several departments of the government both at the center as well as at the state level, treating the entrepreneurs like dirt dampening the national entrepreneurial spirit very significantly. Then came hope when the Central government brought in the much touted Food Safety and Authority of India to consolidate all laws pertaining to food manufacturing, Alas, what one sees to day is total chaos and gargantuan road blocks before the industry in the form of untenable demands from this arrogant agency. It is still in the fresh memory of people in this country how the "authority" tried to destroy an entire industry recently by banning its products on fictitious technical basis, though the judiciary had to step in to checkmate the authoritarian action of the "authority" ! Why it is so much obsessed with noodles is a big mystery because its latest assault comes in the form diktats ordering a particular manufacturer not to market its branded noodle for reasons known to them only. Here is a take on this interesting behavior of the "authority"   

The instant noodles brand launched by Ramdev's Patanjali does not have food safety approval, the central regulator FSSAI has said, 
a charge that the yoga teacher has denied. "Neither Patanjali Yog nor Aayush, which are the two brand names under which Ramdev's company have got licenses, have got any approval for manufacturing instant noodles," said Ashish Bahuguna, the acting CEO of the FSSAI or Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. He said that only 10 companies have approval for manufacturing noodles. Ramdev rubbished the claim and said that his company had taken permission from the regulator. "I think there is some misunderstanding on this.  Patanjali Atta noodle have product approval for manufacturing," he said. Patanjali said in a statement that it has license in the "pasta" category, which includes noodles.
But the food safety regulator said the company needed separate permission to make "Atta" or wheat noodles."

Earlier the food industry had to submit the label of the product it intends to make to the government agencies and if there was no response., it could go ahead with the marketing. To day FSSAI wants each and every food handling unit including the mom and pop kitchens to take license from it and renew the same every year! While big companies may have the wherewithal to meekly submit to their diktats, it is the poor micro sector that suffers because of various constraints. Is it not a tragedy that FSSAI is least concerned about critical foods like milk, food grains, spices, edible oils, sweetmeats etc which are adulterated day in and day out across the country putting the lives of hapless citizens into jeopardy, doing nothing? Earlier this bureaucratic and authoritative organization is dismantled, better it will be for the country. In stead the responsibility of managing food safety must be left to the state organizations based on well defined national guidelines. What is needed is pumping massive funds into these state level food vigilance agencies to strengthen their infrastructure and personnel, in stead of wasting precious resources on a top heavy bureaucratic organization centered in Delhi in the name of food safety.