Tuesday, October 21, 2014


One of the oft repeated statements by the marketing pundits is " consumer is the king"! (One wonders why they have left out the queen!) But the cardinal principle involved in making a product and selling it, is that consumer acceptability and patronage can be expected to a reasonable extent. It is also a known thing that a dissatisfied consumer will never buy the same product. The free market gurus propound the theory that when there is competition consumer gets better service. But are these theoretical considerations work in India? Probably not if the following report is an indication.

"Inspite of all these healthy signs and the availability of the latest gadgets concurrently in India and the rest of the world, there is a disconcerting gap in the attitudes of companies selling the same products in these regions. In the West, for example, complaints against goods purchased are given top-most priority and most retail outlets do not have the slightest hesitation in refunding the consumer the amount he has paid for his goods or offering him an exchange in case he is dissatisfied with the product. As a rule, this facility is not easily available to the average Indian. Even though the Department of Consumer Affairs of the Government of India has stated that the mantra of "Goods once sold cannot be returned or exchanged'' is not permitted and amounts to unfair trade practice, most Indian retailers blatantly print this statement at the bottom of their cash memos and adhere to it strictly in practice. Lack of after-sales service and prompt redressal of complaints can lead to immense harassment to the unfortunate consumer who lands up buying a product which has in-built defects. Even though courts have held that a product which malfunctions within a few months of its purchase will be presumed or deemed to have a manufacturing defect, manufacturers continue to give a tough time to the consumer who buys such a product. Customers who have had the misfortune to buy a defective mobile set or a two-wheeler narrate stories of untold misery in getting the manufacturer to even acknowledge their complaints. Even when these issues are taken up by representative consumer bodies, most companies turn a deaf ear to the calls for help. In most Indian hospitals, the medical care may be world class but the post-operative care lags far behind and leaves much to be desired. Similarly, Indian consumers feel that the products they get are world class but the after-sales service is almost non-existent. With international e-tailers like Amazon, E-bay and others vying for the Indian market and news reports stating that the on-line purchase system is making inroads into the marketing and sales of goods, the problem is likely to further intensify.  It would be far easier for the consumer to fight with a face he sees in his store than an unknown post box address in Gurgaon or Noida, with call centres giving mechanical answers and unfulfilled promises of succourLack of laws and regulations to discipline errant manufacturers and retailers is the other major hurdle for the consumer to succeed in his attempt at getting justice in such cases". 

In that land of free enterprise, viz the US, a consumer is really a king or a queen when it comes to product servicing. any dissatisfied consumer can invariably return the product within 30 days of purchase for a full refund and this makes the purchasing decision easy for millions of consumers which may be the reason why American market place is vibrant and a consumer delight. Product servicing in India is at best a laggard affair involving hours or days of chasing the manufacturer or the retailer to get the grievances addressed satisfactorily! With the FDI in retailing now allowed in the country there are both domestic and foreign players who have set up their shops with glittering super markets and Malls, copying the picture that exists in western countries. Unfortunately these big players are the ones who do not entertain product return while the mom and pop shop near by invariably accepts returns! Why Government regulators are not taking action on these big players is a mystery.  


With new government in charge at Delhi and a brand new Railway Minister taking over the portfolio of railway "administration", citizens had a ray of hope that things would look up and better days are ahead for the hapless passenger community. When the quality of foods served in premium trains was under attack during the last few years, there has always been wishy washy response from the babus who rule the roost in this government sector organization with no perceptible improvement happening at the ground level. In this context one is shocked by the attempt last year by the Railway Board to bring in "foreign" auditors to prepare a "report" on the quality of foods served in the trains! It is rather ingenious on the part of the Railways to bring in "experts" from abroad who will have no clue regarding the needs of Indian consumers vis-a-vis food quality especially the eating quality. May be they would be able to point out the safety deficiencies based on standard tests and investigations but why foreign experts? Why cannot Indian agencies like CFTRI do the same job and Indian institutions not only would have done a diagnosis but also are capable of suggesting solutions appropriate to the domestic situation. It is interesting to listen to the rationale of the Railways in bringing foreign experts as stated by agency last year.   

"Fed up with complaints about food served on trains, Railways has decided to deploy international food auditing firms who do quality checks at five star hotels to do its quality assessment. On Thursday, it abandoned its one-week-old menu on Rajdhanis and Shatabdis following constant passenger complaints. As a pilot project at present, a Swedish company is carrying out third-party audit of the food and hygiene on the premium trains on the Mumbai-Howrah route. It will present its report to the Railway Ministry on November 5. "There are renowned multinational auditing firms who do quality audits for five star hotels. Once we get the report for this one, we will formalise this policy and call for tenders for all trains. And we will recover the cost from the vendor who serves food on trains," D P Pande, Member (Traffic), Railway Board, told The Indian Express. The firms will not only check quality and quantity of food served but will also assess the condition in which the food is made and served, the hygiene standards and the like, he said. In the past one week, two catering vendors have been fined Rs 1 lakh each based on complaints from passengers. "We will revise the upper limit of the fines to be charged from errant vendors so that the heavy fine becomes a deterrent," he said. After rolling out a new menu with reduced food items and at the same time jacking up their prices on Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto trains on October 17, Railways quickly reverted to the old menu on Thursday because passengers had been complaining of getting "too less for more money".

Not much was heard about the report of any foreign auditors but the new government's efforts to address the issue is are interesting. in a major announcement recently the concerned Minster announced a series of measures to "improve" food quality and one such attempt is to bring in on-line ordering and delivery of foods from star hotels on some trains if the passengers are computer savvy and after all most travelers in the upper class should have smart phones with 2G/3G facilities and credit card payment provisions. Also being brought in is a system where packed foods from reputed branded processors like ITC, MTR etc would be offered though cost could work out very high. These are good moves but it begs the question regarding the inability of in-house Railway Catering service to meet the aspirations of the traveling public, in spite of decades of experience in this field. It is still not clear why Railways have not made any attempt to use this opportunity where it has millions of captive consumers to build up a thriving public-private partnership in catering with the help of food technology institutions like CFTRI, DFRL, NIFTEM and Universities to back up the safety and quality credentials. Probably this will never happen unless there is a dynamic management cadre with vision, foresight, dedication and commitment. The new government should not fritter away this golden opportunity for a long term effective solution to the serious quality problems being faced by the Railways for the last few years!


Monday, October 20, 2014


These days consumers are bombarded with so much information, some useful and others just trash that it is difficult to "pick the grains from the chaff". Even well informed food scientist are confused by such information explosion that they also become victims of misinformation and distortions. Every day one can come across reports, most of them of academic value and some even planted by vested interests in the name of science with no evidence that it is difficult to get a coherent picture on any aspects of food or related issues. Latest to emerge is an alarmist report from the United States of America which says sensationally that Ebola threat is nothing compared to the threat to public life from dangerous chemicals used by food industry. How serious is this allegation can be revealed only by the food safety experts who run the safety monitoring programs in that country. Here are some excerpts from the above mentioned report. 

Pizza boxes (and other kinds of food packaging) harbor what are called perfluorochemicals or PFCs. Manufacturers employ PFCs for several reasons, but the primary role of PFCs is to make products resistant to water and grease. Now do you see why it's in pizza boxes?  PFCs are dangerous though. How dangerous? Dangerous enough that even retailers like H&M won't sell clothing containing PFCs. As the Washington Post reported, PFCs have been linked to thyroid disfunction, slowed prenatal and postnatal brain development, and testicular degeneration.  So what the hell is it doing in food packaging?  In 2011, the FDA banned the substance due to its ill effects. However, food suppliers are still allowed to import pizza boxes containing the chemicals from overseas. The imported pizza boxes, as well as other kinds of food packaging, also contain perchlorate, a hazardous chemical pollutant with similar health defects as PFCs that's used in the sealing for food containers and as an antistatic agent.  So does this mean we have to stop eating pizza? No, not unless you want to anyway. What it does mean though is that we might want to be paying attention to two recent petitions filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). One asks the FDA to prohibit the use of perchlorate in food packaging. The other asks the FDA to amend its ruling on PFCs so that food companies can no longer use packaging containing PFCs period, regardless of where it's from. The NRDC petition protesting perchlorates cites studies noting the chemical is fairly ubiquitous in dry-food packing. The most alarming part is that perchlorate has made their way into baby formula packaging. The petition noted why that's harmful: "If the formula packaging used the perchlorate as an antistatic agent to allow the powder to flow more fully and freely from the container, then the infant would have much greater exposure to perchlorate. Also, infants and children consume more food per body weight than adults, adding to a higher exposure." The petition about PFCs is similar. It discusses the FDA oversight that allows companies to get away with using PFC-laden packaging. Then it states there are "significant gaps in our knowledge of the safety of long-chain perfluorocarboxylates" in regards to how it impacts our health. Like perchlorates, PFCs also had a detrimental effect on fetal and infant development. Studies in the petition found PFCs could be responsible for decreased fetal body weight, "skeletal variations," delayed hair growth, and other symptoms. The documents (all 70+ pages of each one) are embedded at the end in case you'd like to check them out.

There is no doubt that all chemicals are dangerous when consumed by people through processed foods but the extent of threat depends on factors such as their degree of toxicity, concentrations used and their long term effect on human body. Therefore whether it is perfluorochemicals or perchlorates their use in food packing or wrapping, must be certified to be safe at concentrations transferred to the consumers due to storage, distribution, vending or retailing. If the above report is true food safety authorities in the US seem to be more sympathetic to the industry than to the citizens by obfuscatory attitude. Regarding the sensationalism inherent in such reports, citizens will have to be wary about such alarming proclamations and learn how to wade through them to reach at the truth. How can any sensible person compare Ebola virus epidemic with Obesity in terms of potential for death? Of course both are dangerous but in different ways. While Ebola can kill millions if an epidemic arrives in a matter of few months, obesity is an affliction of choice for those who indulge in gluttony and consumption of junk foods. There must be a right perspective when such issues are brought to the public domain by investigative journalists.  


Saturday, October 18, 2014


It is difficult to decide whether one has to cry or laugh when grandstand statements are made by new ministers in new governments, repeating the same made by many of her predecessors which really means nothing but an empty talk. Neither the minister nor the those who listen to her believe a word of what they say or hear. It is nothing but a charade which has been going on for the last 5 decades in this country without any thing happening at the ground level. The present minister in the highly redundant and irrelevant ministry of food processing industry who must not have been born when the "40% food waste" story was invented by some one which was being repeated ad nauseum by every "tom dick and harry", the last heard being from our erstwhile "silent" prime minister last year. Funnily there is not even an iota of data derived by scientific studies to make such inane statements and it is like a "recorded tape" stored some where in the dusty office of the ministry being made available to every new unfortunate minister who is allotted this portfolio, to speak whenever and where ever there is a seminar, workshop or meeting for inauguration or press briefings! It is the turn of this new young minister to "speak" these words of "wisdom" in a seminar of no consequence recently! Here it is.

Our government is currently working on the National Food Processing Policy to reduce wastage of perishables and improve the supply situation. Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal recommends that agriculture credit should also be connected with food processing sector as the ultimate beneficiary is the farmer. "There is an urgent need of some integrated policy for the food processing sector. We are working on it with the purpose of reducing the wastage of perishable fruits and vegetables so that we can bring down the inflation," the Minister said. She was speaking at the National Cold Chain Summit organized by CII jointly with Ministry of Food Processing Industries and Ministry of Agriculture and National Centre for Cold Chain Development (NCCD).
Some of the stock words like "reduce wastage", "supply situation", "perishable", "agricultural credit", "cold chain", "integrated policy" etc will always appear in such statements whether the minister understands the nuances of such words! Government does not realize that food industry is capable of developing it self if it does not interfere or puts road block in working smoothly with least control at every level. Of course the Government has a duty to provide infrastructures support for any industry worth the name and facilitatory policies for sustainable growth. Last year this country had to "invite" foreign companies through the FDI incentive for "helping" our farmers without realizing that the MNCs are least interested in the well being either the farmer or the consumer! Probably it is time that the glorified MoFPI is wound up soon for which no one in this country will shed tears!  


Wednesday, October 15, 2014


The two worship places  in Southern India famed for their prasadam are Tirupati-Tirumala Balaji Temple in A.P and Sabarimala Ayyappan Temple in Kerala where millions of devotees visit on pilgrimage and crowd controlling is a logistical nightmare of gigantic dimension. Still during the last so many years no major mishaps have been reported jeopardizing the lives of the pilgrims. There may be issues concerning cleanliness, hygiene, filthiness  and sanitation which continue to persist in spite of frequent claims of satisfactory remedial measures. Even to day Sabarimala is a veritable dumping place for garbage, plastic pieces, human excreta, rotting food left overs that make the environment unbearable for most of the visitors though as devoted Hindus they suffer such discomforts in silence. As for prasadam, Tirupati laddu and Aravana Payasam and Neyyappam of Sabarimala are world famous with each devotee carrying them to share the blessings with relatives and friends back home. But the "11th hour firefighting syndrome" is characteristic of Sabarimala where food safety officials are seen active only during certain festival seasons. Though the prasadam is prepared near the vicinity of the Temple where modern gadgets are supposed to be deployed, the products suffer from severe scientific limitations including limited process standardization, vague quality specifications, ill trained working personnel, inadequate sanitation and hygiene and lack of accountability. Here is a report emanating from Kerala which says that the Food Commissionerate finds it difficult to manage the food quality and safety due to lack of personnel to carry out sampling and analysis keeping in pace with the production. 

"With the High Court mandating food safety certification for 'aravana' and 'prasadam' sold at Sabarimala,  the pilgrimage season will be a real test for the food safety commissionerate. According to authorities, the food safety officers from every district will be randomly appointed at Sabarimala to ensure round-the-clock services. Commissioner of Food Safety T.V. Anupama told DC that Pathanamthitta district would be given top priority during the pilgrimage season.  The commissionerate is planning to appoint special officers at Pampa, Sannidanam and Erumeli to ensure quality of food and 'prasadam' being served to the pilgrims. The department will recruit three analysts in the lab to check the quality of jaggery coming from Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. "Around 40 lakh tonnes of  jaggery is required every season and we have to be on our toes to check the samples from each truck arriving from other states. Either day or night we must scrutinise the loads to ensure that there is no adulteration. It's a tough  task," said a top official. Two of the total six analysts will be appointed in the lab at the shrine to check the quality of 'aravana' and four analysts will scrutinise the raw materials being transported to the shrine for 'prasadam' preparation. "Starting from November for a period of three months, the focus of the department will be on Pathanamthitta and Kottayam – where lakhs of Sabarimala pilgrims arrive," said the official. Sources say that the pilgrimage season will slow down the normal activities of the commissionerate as the full focus would be only on the two districts. "We are carrying out intensive drives every month throughout the state and the coming months we will not be able to carry out the drives. Staff crunch is a severe issue and around 80 posts are vacant," added the official."

It is most unfortunate that the responsible Food Commissioner is on record admitting that due to lack of personnel, the task is difficult though maximum efforts would be made to lessen the burden of unsafe and low quality foods on the pilgrims! What type of assurance is this from a senior representative of the mighty FSSAI in Delhi and how can the pilgrims place any confidence on them? It is the duty of FSSAI to ensure that adequate trained inspecting officials and analytical chemists are positioned on a priority basis in places like Sabarimala and Tirupati where lives of thousands of pilgrims are put in jeopardy every day. Even after three decades since the premier food institute in the country offered to undertake standardization and quality/safety related work, nothing much has been done and products like Aravana Payasam and Neyyappam remain almost inedible from the point of view of eating quality. Though there were some court strictures on this issue, the die-hard bureaucrats know well how to circumvent them with impunity! A time has come for the pilgrims to collectively put pressure on these politicians and bureaucrats to mend their ways and make the Shrine a lovable place to visit and enjoy the presence of the divine Ayyappa without any hassles and fears for their life..


Tuesday, October 14, 2014


The organic food movement which started in a small way a few years ago to satisfy the growing demand in the market for safe foods produced/processed without using synthetic chemicals and other unnatural inputs has become a force to reckon with to day. Its share may not be high, less than 10% of the food sector market, every one wants to get into this band wagon and this has naturally caused some distortions vis-a-vis quality of organic foods in some parts of the world. Similarly the local foods and farmers market movement became a rage in the US, most states providing a platform for the small farmers in the locality and nearby to sell their products directly to the consumer without any middle man or retailer in between. The basic presumption is that local farmers bring their produce from nearby with least green gas emission foot print unlike the long haulage involved in most organized retail operations. Besides small farmers are presumed to be honest and do not indulge in unfair agricultural practices. Most farmers markets maintain a degree of integrity that has endeared them to consumers. However recent findings that there are frequent frauds happening in this sector is raising eye brows all around. Here is a take on this subject as reported from the US.

"One doesn't usually think of farmers' markets as being prime locations for fraud, but apparently they do see their fair share of unethical behaviour. When a vendor misrepresents products, whether through direct mislabeling or lack of labeling, the integrity of the market is undermined for everyone. The state of California has decided to crack down on farmers' market fraud. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law authorizing the creation of a group of investigators to ensure that market vendors are following the rules – that is, selling local produce that they've grown themselves and was not purchased wholesale. Every market has its own set of regulations. In New York City, most of the major farmers' markets are run by a non-profit organization called GrowNYC, which ensures that markets are producer-only. That means that vendors can only sell items that they've grown themselves; no reselling, even if clearly labeled, is allowed. As Modern Farmer reports, GrowNYC maintains its high standards by employing investigators who keep an eye on vendors, taking note of any suspicious things such as retail boxes, waxed fruit, or consistently high volume of produce."

It is gratifying that states like California are promulgating stricter laws to deter potential fraudsters from -misrepresenting the products as locally self grown while really they are resellers owning no responsibility for any violations. Farmers market is an excellent concept worth emulating all over the world to encourage small farmers who are at the mercy of mega corporations dealing with food for reaching the market. In India it is incongruous to see a situation where government does not allow direct selling of farmers produce to the consumer. In stead only middle men are licensed to buy the produce from the farmers and most of the time the prices are rigged leading to exploitation of the poor farmers by these sharks. Even in a country like Malaysia there are so called "wet markets" where any one can bring their produce to the market for direct sale to buyers. The weekly shandies in some states in India, mostly in rural parts, do serve the purpose of direct sale but in cities direct sale is not invariably permitted. States in the US like California and New York have strong monitoring regime for safeguarding the integrity and credibility of the Farmers markets and fraudsters are severely punished for violating the concerned regulatory regime put in place for the purpose. India must consider removing the much hated APMC Act that comes in the way of setting up exclusive markets for farmers all over the country, providing necessary infrastructure for handling and storage of perishables and ensuring fair trade practices.



It is only recently that the world is recognizing the ill effects of high calorie diets, especially high sugar products churned out by the food and beverage industry. During the last few years efforts have been going on to persuade the processing industry to voluntarily reduce the sugar levels in their products and down size the serving portion so that consumers are discouraged from imbibing too many calories. The damage sugar can cause to human health is well documented and if no action is taken now to curb such consumption future generation will never condone the same. Mandatory actions, punitive policy steps, consumer education, warning labels, high financial levies on finished products etc are some of the options considered to discourage consumption of high calories foods. But to date no single action in any country seems to have worked satisfactorily and industry merrily goes on producing these foods, attracting consumers through lower prices and other promotional efforts. But a recent report from Mexico shows glimpses of a contour of a policy that seems to be helping the country in making a small impact on reduced consumption of high calories products. Here is a take on this subject. 

"No wonder Coke and Pepsi are spending millions of dollars to fight proposed taxes on sugary drinks in California. PepsiCo reported a higher quarterly profit Thursday as global sales rose, but one weak spot was Mexico. The company said snacks sales volume declined by 3 percent, hurt by a new tax on junk foods. Recent declines suffered by Pepsi and Coke in Mexico underscore why the beverage industry is fighting tax proposals on sugary drinks in in San Francisco and nearby Berkeley. PepsiCo — which makes Frito-Lay chips, Gatorade and Tropicana — reported similar declines in its snacks business for the first half of the year, starting when the tax went into effect. Coca-Cola, which reports its third quarter results Oct. 21, has also reported beverage volume declines in Mexico for the first half of the year, citing a similar tax on drinks. Mexico has the world's highest per capita consumption of Coca-Cola drinks. Hugh Johnston, chief financial officer for PepsiCo, said in a phone interview that declines in Mexico were in line with what the company expected. To mitigate the impact of the tax, he said PepsiCo plans to target different package sizes for different outlets. The taxes in Mexico add one peso, about 7 cents, to the cost of a liter of sugary drinks, and 5 percent of the price to foods with 275 calories or more per 100 grams. It's not yet clear whether the taxes' impact on consumption will last or how significant it will be over time. And while PepsiCo monitors such tax initiatives around the world, Johnston said he doesn't expect them to become more common. Back in the U.S., San Francisco and Berkeley are seeking to become the first cities to pass per-ounce taxes on sugary drinks in the upcoming November election. The measures are being closely watched because many say defeats in the Bay Area, which is known for its liberal politics, would be a major blow to advocates of such taxes as a way to improve nutrition. Similar measures in other U.S. cities have failed. Health advocates have pushed taxes as a tool to cut consumption of calorie-laden junk food, similar to tactics that have successfully been used against cigarettes. Makers of such products say they are being unfairly singled out. During a conference call with analysts and investors, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi addressed the measures in California and said she believed such "discriminatory taxes" are "wrong." "We will make our case and hope the voters are sensible enough to look at the right answer," Nooyi said. Since the start of this year, the American Beverage Association contributed $7.7 million to defeat the proposal in San Francisco alone, according to a filing made this week. That's far more than the $391,000 in contributions reported by supporters of the tax over the same time. In the meantime, the beverage industry has touted its commitment to reducing the calories people consume from drinks by more aggressively marketing drinks with less sugar. The industry has also stressed the need to raise awareness about balancing the calories people consume with how much physical activity they get."

Taking a clue from the tobacco experience, Mexico increased the taxes on junk foods containing nutrient light and calorie dense products making these products significantly costlier to the consumer. While absolute data regarding any dip in consumption is not yet forthcoming, the industry reaction does indicate that the new approach is working. The business volume for junk foods seems to be declining in Mexico, affecting many major manufacturers though it cannot be termed as dramatic. If the whole world moves in this direction there is a possibility that over a period of time industry is forced to rethink about their obsession with high sugar and high salt products. A silver lining is the commitment given by American food industry to reduce calories served by their products by 1.5 trillion by 2015 and it is reported that on the whole 6.4 trillion calories have been cut between 2007 and 2013 by the industry collectively. Whether such calorie cutting has any meaning can be gauged by the fact that on an average each consumer consumed 74 calories less which may not be significant considering that calorie over consumption is rampant in that country and much more rigorous reduction is called for. The unusual interest taken by the industry to beat back balance initiatives to impose high taxes in some of the states in the US by pumping huge resources to defeat the motion, is any indication voluntary action is never going to work for this industry obsessed with profits ignoring the well being of the consumer. As of now punitive taxation as being enforced in Mexico seems to be the only way to achieve any meaningful result in the years to come.