Wednesday, September 30, 2009


There are always two views for any issue confronting mankind, often diametrically opposite and truth is invariably difficult to be discerned. The advantages of food processing and consuming only unprocessed foods have been endlessly debated without any unanimity of views on this issue. There is also the view that food technology is inevitable for the survival of humanity as food is seasonal and perishable and intervention of technology only can preserve and extend the supply by preventing avoidable wastage, estimated any where between 20 and 40% of total production. But the manner in which some in the profit-motivated food industry apply technology without caring for social, ethical and safety considerations is a matter of concern to many. From time to time"horror" reports do emanate damning the industry for a variety of "crimes", some real, some motivated and some imaginary.

The latest to come out depicting the undesirable practices by some food manufacturers is a documentary film which has received accolades from many quarters. "In 'Food, Inc', filmmaker Robert Kenner lifts the veil on the nation's food industry, exposing the mechanized underbelly that he contends has been hidden from the American consumer with the consent of the government's regulatory agencies, USDA and FDA. Kenner maintains America's food supply is controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers and the environment".

If such films can offer a lesson, it is that food industry world over must adhere to certain minimum standards in tune with international norms without compromise and transparency in thoughts and deeds can only win over alienated consumers who are skeptical about the motives of the industry in general. Faithful adherence to GMP, HACCP and other safety regimes now available can help the industry, if it is serious about its concerns for the consumer.


Any responsible nation must be concerned about the way the health of the children is affected by poor choices and forced buying of foods considered devoid of much nutrition and causing health problems later in life. The food services in the schools are often controlled by private caterers and their concern invariably is how to protect their margin rather than promoting health of their 'captive' customers. Many a time due to lax monitoring system and lack of regular studies on the impact of the program on the health status of school kids, policy makers remain in dark as to what is going on at the ground level. This is true of almost all countries where foods are made available in the schools as meals and snacks.

Credit is due to the US for coming to realize the implications of lack of realistic hard data regarding foods consumed in their schools by youngsters. The national concern is reflected by the proposal to enact a law that will force the government to commission a critical study of the present system. "It calls for an in-depth study of the nutritional value of foods and drinks marketed in middle and high schools, as well as the vehicles advertisers use to reach young consumers in our nation's schools. Previous studies have shown that some foods available in schools have minimal nutritional value, and are high in sugar, fat and sodium".

In a country like India, GOI is concerned only with earmarking funds for school meal program and its achievements year after year is measured in terms of ability to spend the budgeted amount, not the results. Increasing allocation for the program regularly is also a talking point though in any management system, future allocations are decided only after assessing the performance. It is left to NGOs and multilateral international agencies to bring into focus flaws in the program based on some limited local studies. A nation concerned about this issue must have a statutory authority to audit the program
technically and bring about changes to make it more effective and ensure that tax payer's money is not wasted.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Organic food business has been able to capture about 2% of the food market during the last one decade and consumers are increasingly taking to such foods for their daily consumption, in spite of the higher cost tag attached to them. The prevalent belief amongst the public is that organic foods are natural, safe and more nutritious. But in reality these beliefs are not based on reality and at best organic foods may be safe from undesirable extraneous matters unlike normal foods. A number of studies have brought out the fact that organic foods are not more nutritious than normal ones.

In the US where organic food movement originated, the vested authorities to regulate their production and sale have been able to bring clarity regarding what a consumer can expect from a food certified as organic."Marking a food item as organic does not necessarily indicate that the food is healthful and nutritive. The USDA does not claim that food produced organically has more salubrious benefits than conventional food, but it does assure that such foods do not contain any pesticides or harmful chemicals. Therefore, the picky consumers, who pay a lot of heed to nutritional values of everything they eat, are still required to read labels attentively in order to decide how nutritious their diet is going to be. Another interpretation conveys that the term 'organic' does not mean 'natural.' All it means is that USDA has approved the food".

The consumer to day is probably more worried about the safety of marketed foods than the nutritional value but the above clarification must make them alert when they go for shopping next time. An organic 'junk food' is still a junk food with low high caloric density and the consumer therefore should not be carried away by the organic label! Probably there may be a need to label organic foods with low caloric density separately to help the consumer pick the right food from the market shelf.



A new strain of bacteria isolated from compost dumps has been reported to be efficient in increasing ethanol yield from corn when used to process the spent residue to recover another 15-20% alcohol. Touted as a plug-in technology for the existing corn ethanol plants, the developers claim that there is lot of energy economy as no drying or disposal steps for the spent material is necessary besides increasing the profitability significantly. Investment cost for installing additional processing system will have to be considered before coming to a conclusion regarding the viability of the new technology.

"Biofuels are currently made mainly from food crops such as grains, vegetable oils and sugar cane, which has led to debate about whether they might help to drive up food prices. They are seen as a way to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases believed to contribute to climate change but environmental groups have questioned the green credentials of some processes, including U.S. corn-derived ethanol".

Present practice of diverting corn for ethanol production under the fossil fuel reduction strategy in some developed countries like the US is already being frowned upon by the global community in the face of massive food shortages in many parts of Africa, Asia and South America. If there is an international commitment on preventing diversion of food crops to non-food use, most of the ethanol plants may have to be closed making the new plug-in technology redundant. Probably the strain of bacteria may still be useful for converting cellulosic materials into ethanol.


Monday, September 28, 2009


Global recession and stagnating markets for value added food products are naturally turning the attention of agri-business giants to business opportunities in third world countries for staple foods. It is an undeniable fact that many poor countries with vast land holdings are unable to marshal the critical input resources necessary to raise staple crops, necessary for the very survival of their populations. Multinational companies with deep pockets are willing to invest in these countries provided favorable policies are in place. Many countries have already succumbed to this ploy but how far the humanitarian aspect will get precedence over the economic factor, remains to be seen.

Chinese government which was late in entering the WTO circle, always had a protectionist policy towards its farmers and their vigilance regarding the moves by multinationals is making it difficult for foreigners to establish any toehold in the agricultural sector. On the other hand Chinese themselves are behaving like a multinational corporate by investing in agriculture in other parts of the world."The food price rises of 2007-8 have sharpened criticism of the global traders, and there is evidence that China is now reviewing its policy on foreign direct investment. Chinese investments in vast agricultural projects in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, aimed at exports to its domestic market, point to the adoption of an alternative strategy for ensuring food security that may eventually challenge the hegemony of the global traders. Such a strategy, however, is not without its risks, and the hostile reactions to similar investments on the part of South Korea in Madagascar serve as an alert".

India also may be in the same boat though there are pressures to let multinationals enter the country and deal with agricultural land owners through contract system of growing. As long as such deals raise farm production through better inputs and the produce is channeled into value addition route, such arrangements may be mutually beneficial. But if the fresh produce so raised is exported without value addition, country has to be concerned about it. Foreign investments, as a policy must not threaten the food security of the country either due to unjustified price rice of the staples or because of uncontrolled exports creating a shortage.



Day in and day out we hear the monotonous claims by health pundits that eating wholesome foods is more 'profitable' in the long run, though junk foods, rich in calories, fat and sugar give 'immediate' benefit by way of sensory satisfaction. A drug addict is unlikely to concede the point that drug abuse can be dangerous in the long run and on same analogy a calorie-dense food addict also may have similar mindset. It is a paradox that good foods such as whole grain based, fresh fruits and vegetables, pulses and nuts cost much more than processed foods rich in sugar and fat. Probably the very survival of food industry is linked to this distortion in market place!

Linking bad and indifferent foods to diseases like CVD has to be drilled into the minds of the consumers, especially youngsters through vivid messages. Here is an example. "There is no denying that diets based on fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, "good" fats and lean animal protein are diets that infer "good health." And guess what? Your health is worth the investment. Pay for it now, as in, buy "quality" food, or pay for it later, as in, "pay for your angioplasty" — your call".

The mundane question is who will do the 'messaging' and at what costs? With a majority of the citizens covered under health insurance, Americans may be slow to respond but in India where hospitalization cost is becoming astronomical, such messages may still have some impact. Where does one start? Of course at the kindergartens and primary schools where children, at the most impressionable ages of their life, congregate for 'learning', either voluntarily or through government incentives.


Sweet sensation is much liked by majority of the population in the world and consumption of sugar from cane or beets is invariably curtailed for those affected by diabetes. Similarly weight watchers, looking for reduced calorie intake also shun sugar in their diet as much as possible. Though there was a time when such consumers have to depend on synthetic sweeteners like Saccharine, Aspartame, Acesulfamate etc, advent of new generation sweeteners derived from natural sources which include Sucralose, Erythrytol, Sorbitol, Stevia plant, etc has obviated the need to use artificial chemicals. Sweetener material obtained from Stevia plant(Steviol glycosides), one of the ancient plant sources for sweetening foods in South America, recommends itself as a safe one since it was being used for centuries without any reported ill effects.

Though Stevia sweeteners were cleared for use in many countries, the US did not permit its use by the food industry for long, probably because of lobbying from the manufacturers of synthetic sweeteners. Paradoxically, it was allowed to be sold as a supplement for general use! Ultimately it was allowed some time back under GRAS egime, enabling the food industry to launch many products. "Nine months after the Food and Drug Administration proclaimed that two zero-calorie sweeteners derived from the stevia plant were Generally Regarded As Safe, stevia is bigger than ever. The food industry has introduced more than 110 stevia-based products since then, and stevia sales hit $95 million by July — up from $21 million for all of 2008".

Probably one of the reasons for the lukewarm response from the consumers may be due to the reluctance of authorities to give Stevia sugar unconditional clearance and lack of clarity on its safety. Also the slight after taste perceptible when Stevia sugar is used in products may be a hindering factor for which food industry will have find a technological solution.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Growing potato for products like french fries and chips or wafers is a highly exacting job and the manufacturers in the organized sector have effective control on the production of the raw material since ultimate quality that is characteristic of the brand can be delivered only under such conditions. There is an acute conflict between the manufacturer and the consumer on one hand and between the former and the share holders of the company regarding what and how the products must be manufactured. The industry has the unenviable job of reconciling the expectations of all stake holders without affecting the financial bottom line.

The French Fries major, McDonald's is facing precisely the above challenge and evolving necessary strategy to change the present mindset. "In March, McDonald's acceded to the wishes of shareholders who wanted it to develop best practices for reducing the pesticides used to process its potatoes. The term "best practices" tends to be slippery, but any actions by McDonald's will by definition have a massive impact on the food industry. With that in mind, the company is working with growers and food scientists to develop new strains of potatoes that will satisfy customers while supporting the environment".

The experience of companies like McDonald's will be watched closely by others and may herald a new beginning for a shift from "reckless" production of raw materials with single objective of increasing the yield at any cost to "responsible" production with multiple vision that will benefit all the stakeholders. Food industry must play its role in protecting the environment through moderating its practices in a way that will not jeopardize the lives of people in general.


Controversy generated by the Swedish report in 2002 regarding presence of Acrylamide at ppb levels in high carbohydrate foods exposed to high temperatures during preparation or processing is still eluding a definite conclusion though several studies in animals have implicated it in some serious health hazards. In a few countries upper limits have been suggested while many others have not yet taken seriously the data generated in rat studies. Even some fast food companies in the West have been taken to the court or fined for presence of this chemical in their products.

"A natural byproduct of cooking high-carbohydrate foods at high temperatures, Acrylamide also turns up in a wide variety of roasted and baked foods, including breakfast cereal, baby food, bread and crackers. Research has shown that the chemical can cause tumors and neurological problems in lab animals when they are fed unnaturally large doses".

One has to note that the results implicating Acrylamide in health problems have not yet been demonstrated in humans and even the present data pertains to use of unusually high levels of this chemical in feeding trials. How far such data can be correlated to humans is still uncertain. It is commendable that many in the industry are developing ways and means of avoiding Acrylamide generation during the processing stage and the awareness about possible dangers may spur the consumers also to exercise caution while cooking certain foods at home. A global consensus needs to be evolved regarding this issue through cooperative scientific studies.



Health status of personnel employed by the food industry has a bearing on the safety of the end products made by it. Infectious diseases pose a high degree of risk and the extent of microbial load on the personnel handling the food in the processing facilities can under cut the process adequacy and undermine the quality of the product manufactured. Under GMP regime sick employees are not allowed to attend to the work and medical examination is often made compulsory to certify their fitness to enter the processing environment.

There are many carriers of a particular disease causing microorganism but it is not necessary that they can pass on the infection to food if they are allowed to handle the same, unless such infections can cause problem in the oral and gastrointestinal route. Hepatitis Virus B (HBV) is supposed to be transmitted through sexual contacts and hence HBV carriers are not considered a risk if employed by the food industry. According to reports coming from China " the Nanjing government officials planned to set up the city's own regulations for people working in the food industry in accordance with the central government's latest revision toward HBV carriers in July. Earlier, China issued the Food Safety Law revision, which lifted the ban on HBV carriers working in the food sector. This marks a further step by the provincial government to implement the new food regulations and grant HBV carriers a fair chance for employment in food industry".

Though persons with certain infections may not pass on the pathogens to food or even if the food is contaminated by these pathogens, their infectious potential is considered practically nil. But the problem arises for the co-workers who may be reluctant to work with such carrier persons, though the infection is not passed to others under normal circumstances. HBV is one such infection and therefore the Chinese decision is considered reasonably safe and truly progressive.


Saturday, September 26, 2009


Food preservation can be achieved employing a spate of technological options and the very foundation of the food industry is based on innovations in the field. While conventional technologies like chemical preservation, thermal preservation and physical methods of preservation continue to be used for thousands of processed food products, newer ones like irradiation and other novel processes are getting increased attention from the industry. The necessity for carrying stabilized foods with extended shelf life into the space during exploration spawned the airocide technology which does not use any chemicals for obtaining practically complete kill of all microorganisms.

'While keeping perishables fresh is important to all food suppliers, the extra time in Food Banks creates a unique challenge. It is especially critical for Food Banks to ensure their donated food remains in the freshest, most nutritious state and has the longest shelf-life expansion as possible. The solution is AiroCide PPT. This NASA developed Air Sanitation technology will purify the air of airborne pathogens like mold, bacteria and even the swine flu virus without using ozone. It also eliminates VOC's like ethylene gas".

The very simplicity of this process makes itself attractive though the details are protected under IPO regime. How ever its relevance is limited to storage of foods under cold conditions where air circulation is a critical factor that will determine the efficiency of preservation. Installing airocide units in conjunction with cold rooms and air conditioning systems results in practically sterile air that will not contribute to spoilage through contaminated air.


It is vital for the food industry to monitor the changing consumer perceptions regarding attributes they expect from newer food products and accordingly develop such products to assure of a better chance of success. With huge expenditure incurred for R & D by the organized food industry, new products must reasonably assure fair returns once launched in the market. Consumer perceptions may differ from country to country and there are well recognized tools that can gauge the newer trends. The report for European and American markets which are based on scientific surveys indicate that consumers do respond to newer information in health, nutrition and food fields and expect the industry also change its product portfolio to reflect their preferences.

According to projections for future direction for the food industry to grow, consumers are yearning for more products that are considered natural and showed a marked tendency to shun products with other claims. "In 2008, food and beverage claims classified as "Natural" - including all natural, no preservatives, organic and wholegrain - were the most frequently featured on new products globally, according to Mintel's Global New Products Database (GNPD). Claims of 'fortified products', on the other hand, took a hit, while declarations of "low" (e.g. low-fat) stagnated"

It is an encouraging sign that consumers are maturing fast to distinguish between natural foods and others containing preservatives or processed, obliterating the fresh nature of the food. Probably such an attitude may discourage the industry from indiscriminate fortification of foods at the processing stage, the effectiveness of which is increasingly being questioned. At the same time foods which are low in sugar, fat, salt, calories which ought to be promoted, are stagnating with hardly any growth. This may be some what of concern especially when developed countries are struggling to cope with obesity, diabetes, blood pressure and other life style diseases threatening future generations. In India in absence of any such reliable data base, food industry is on a costly 'trial and error' mode to hit at the right product having maximum acceptance.

Friday, September 25, 2009


No matter how long we debate the issue of misleading promotional practices in the food industry sector, the impact of public opinion is often limited because those who perpetrate deceit on consumers through false or bloated claims, some of them very absurd, believe that public memory is short. There are hundreds of instances when industry gets away with obvious malpractices because of public apathy and laxity of the enforcement agencies. Vast scientific reports that get projected in the media often confuse even the knowledgeable consumers, let alone the layman. But an informed consumer can always play a role by bringing to limelight some of the actions of the industry and share the same with fellow consumers.

Here is what a conscientious consumer has to say about woes of a typical buyer in a grocery store or a super market. "With the ridiculous and misleading claims that are made on the packaging of many foods, it can be difficult to differentiate the truth from devious marketing. This is important because the failure to make this distinction can have a significant impact on your health and wellbeing".

In a country like India such mislabeling and dubious claims can go unchecked allowing the culprits to get away scotfree. As for the consumer, limited competition, uncertainties regarding the safety of products manufactured by small processors and intense advertising by the big fishes leave very little choice but to buy these products at the price demanded on the label. Probably consumer is more concerned about health and the common perception is that such protection is assured only with branded products.


Coffee is better known for its stimulatory effect and many believe that too much coffee consumption can be harmful to health. Presence of caffeine, which is supposed to be a stimulant, makes many consumers wary about any adverse effect on health though recent reports have been able to absolve it of any harmful effect on humans. It is a paradox that cola beverages containing high concentration of caffeine are consumed in large quantities with out giving any thought about caffeine content in them. Similarly cocoa and tea, also containing caffeine are not shunned to the same extent as coffee.

Now comes the startling findings by coffee researchers that its consumption can be beneficial. "Consuming three cups of instant coffee a day for three weeks resulted in increased populations of Bifidobacterium spp.Our results show that the consumption of the coffee preparation resulting from water co-extraction of green and roasted coffee beans produce an increase in the metabolic activity and/or numbers of the Bifidobacterium spp. population, a bacterial group of reputed beneficial effects, without major impact on the dominant microbiota.".

As coffee is a cocktail of many chemicals it is very difficult to pin point as to the factor responsible for this beneficial effect. While the above empirical observations, arising out of the studies by one of the major instant coffee producers in the world, are significant, there are many issues that need clarification. If instant coffee is so effective, what about the house hold filter coffee, so popular in India? It must be realized that during the process of commercial extraction of coffee under pressure a significant part of the carbohydrate present in coffee gets hydrolyzed and do these artifacts contribute to increased bifidobacterial population? What about the instant coffee version obtained from chicory-coffee blend, which are popular in some countries? Probably an impartial study can only bring out the facts and the results from the above studies must be corroborated independently.



Big fish swallowing smaller ones is a natural phenomenon and no one needs to be too much concerned about the fate of the poor small fish as it is the law of nature for survival. But it does become a matter of concern when it comes to mega mergers in the food or pharmaceutical sectors as it has potential for stifling competition and create monopoly, damaging consumer interests.

The reported courting of Cadbury by the global giant Kraft Foods is being viewed with interest by the industry and could be a fore runner for similar mergers in future. "Several analysts said that a Cadbury acquisition could make sense for Kraft, which would greatly expand its confectionery business. Cadbury would also give it strong sales in emerging markets, like India, where the chocolate maker has strong sales and has seen impressive growth".

In India the existence of MRTP commission or its new avatar, Competition Commission of India, is supposed to take care of such mergers and market manipulations, though food industry so far had no occasion to face any action from this regulatory agency. Probably very few Indian players in the food field are big enough to be noticed and almost all large scale manufacturers are multinationals with their roots outside the country. How far mergers between two companies outside the country will affect their independent operations within the country after the merger remain to be seen. At the present level of development of food sector where processed food consumption is very low, such mergers may not be of much concern to the consumers, at least for the time being.


Thursday, September 24, 2009


Food safety concerns are exercising the minds of the consumers, industry and the national governments all over the world. The fact that safety management is not effective is borne out by the spate of food poisoning and costly recalls of suspected products from the market during the last 2-3 years. It is true that there are well laid down guidelines under the GMP and HACCP protocols as to how foods are to be handled for avoiding food contamination and ensure their safety to the consumers. Unfortunately most of the food industry do not follow these practices in spite of their proven benefits. If voluntary efforts do not yield results, it is time governments step in to protect the consumers through mandatory action.

Even a country like the US is vulnerable to management failure when it comes to ensuring safety to the consumers from food contamination, reflects the magnitude of the problem and suggestions are made from time to time for addressing these concerns. "A single agency that handles food safety in America would probably have a better chance of addressing nationwide cases of food-borne illness, such as the hundreds of cases of salmonella poisoning resulting from contamination at a peanut factory in Georgia earlier this year. That's especially true if that agency didn't have to rely on corporations to voluntarily recall unsafe food products. We've long advocated for the consolidation of the food safety system under a single government agency, creation of a national food-tracking system, and the granting of authority to federal agencies to recall food products".

In a country like India effective consumer protection measures just do not exist with several agencies involved with practically no coordination. Added to this no reliable recording and reporting system exists to understand the seriousness of food borne illnesses caused by consumption of unsafe raw as well as processed foods. With the food portfolio coming under the State government jurisdiction, there is precious little GOI can do in this regard. It is time that a national approach is considered for monitoring and enforcing food safety uniformly across the country, rather than leaving it to the States, most of which seem to have other priorities.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


It is rather late for the Food Authority in India to realize that market is flooded with innumerable products with dubious health claims and according to media reports steps are being 'envisaged' to bring out comprehensive 'guidelines' for the industry to follow when health claims are made. These guidelines, if and when they come into force are supposed to be applicable to imported foods also which at present are having a roaring time without being strictly monitored for their quality and safety.

"From oils that protect your heart by reducing bad cholesterol to juices that fix your iron intake or curd that lines your stomach with good bacteria — the marketplace is flooded with nutraceutical or functional products. But consumers are not quite biting into the health hard-sell, say food and pharmaceutical industry representatives. The credibility of unsubstantiated claims stands in the way of the nutraceutical industry tapping the market potential".

With literacy level phenomenally low, a country like India is ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous manufacturers of many food products with false or exaggerated claims. Nutrition and health sciences, as interpreted by experts with differing perceptions provide sufficient scope for dishonest trade practices and one can hope that the new awareness that is dawning on the food safety agency may yet save the situation for the Indian consumer. In stead of improving the economic 'health' of the industry through questionable claims, new policy must ensure that such foods really improve the health of the consumer!

Monday, September 21, 2009


Prediction of massive starvation due to near stagnant food production and unrestricted growth of population, especially in the developing countries during sixties and seventies of the last millennium was proved false, thanks to the Green Revolution that achieved quantum jumps in food grain production. Of course this was achieved through better technologies based on greater inputs of energy and water besides causing environmental degradation affecting the quality of life in this planet. Sustainable agricultural system, now being promoted, calls for increased food production with least damage to the nature.

"Demands frequently fall under the banner of sustainability, which many define as balancing the needs of people and the planet with economic viability. The food system looms large as a major user of fossil fuels and water and a producer of greenhouse gas emissions. Several supply chain-wide initiatives made up of diverse stakeholders are developing sets of quantitative metrics that together will define how to measure sustainability".

Those countries already riding high on wealth, blessed with stagnant populations with negligible, some times even negative birth rate, can preach restraint and moderation from others which are on the threshold of high economic growth and development. It is a big dilemma for the developing world as to how they can balance the increased need for foods to their population, at the same time make agriculture a sustainable proposition as being discussed in many international fora. The present dialog between developed and developing countries on measures to reduce greenhouse gas emission does not seem to be going any where with no consensus emerging regarding future course of action and responsibilities to be shouldered by each country.


Sunday, September 20, 2009


How can any consumer decide whether a packaged food is safe for eating? Obviously many depend on the label declaration printed by the manufacturer during the production stage but no product label ever contains any information regarding the safety of the product. The issue becomes more complicated when dealing with date expired foods. What is the responsibility of the manufacturer vis-à-vis the consumer? One cannot expect that a product put on the market shelf will last for ever and the label declaration can at best be a guidance to the consumer regarding the safety of the product within a certain period.

It is mistakenly believed that all foods after the marked date are not safe. Some can still be edible and safe though the quality may not be comparable to that existed at the time of manufacture. According to consumer activists " product date labels refer only to the quality of food, warning of the gradual changes in taste, color and nutrient content that can occur after the printed date. Consumers are largely left to figure out when food has become unsafe".

The problem is universal and probably has no effective solution. Food being a complex bio-organic material, chemical and physical changes are bound to occur at ambient conditions and such changes are exacerbated under higher temperature and humidity environments. Probably industry can give assurance only regarding the microbiological status of the product as long as the package integrity is not disturbed.


World is never short of nice sounding jargon which can attract large audiences. The latest in this jargon dictionary is "green rush" which refers to the emerging trend of seeking land in Africa for cultivation of food by many resource limited countries mostly for their own benefits. Though some refer to this trend as "land grab", it may not be as simple as that because investors spend money for reasonable returns and obviously not for charity. If these experiments, if you can call it so, helps the countries leasing out land by raising the land productivity and increasing food availability for the local population, there should not be any objection from the world community to such mutually beneficial deals.

"The move takes place against the backdrop of an international rush for African land. Large tracts of land are being snapped up by cash-rich but resource-poor countries, as well as by countries struggling with the burden of feeding their swelling populations. Whether it is land for food production, or as some reports suggest, for bio-fuels, alarms bells have begun to ring about whether this investment in African land is a threat or a gain for the continent".

It is interesting to see India also included in the grabber's list along with countries like China, Korea, UAE, Saudi Arabia, etc and the Indian interest is mainly on account of the perennial shortage of edible oils and pulses that are considered essential, being experienced during the last 3 decades. International bodies must evolve some guidelines for such cross border land leasing to prevent local population from exploitation.


Saturday, September 19, 2009


No matter how many meetings take place under the WTO for establishing really free trade amongst member nations, the issue of overcoming inequities that exist amongst the population in the third world is not going to be solved unless rich nations come forward to remove many distortions in their economies that contribute to the miserable situation vis-à-vis hunger in the developing world. Huge subsidies regime that exists in Europe, USA, Australia, New Zealand and many other developed countries continue to deny market access to third world countries many of them depending on exports of raw agri commodities.

"The promotion of social and economic equity, which the WHO and many civil society organizations maintain is central to respecting human rights obligations in health, therefore depends upon "narrowing the gap" between the worst off and best off over time. This process involves "a progressive flattening of the health gradient", says the WHO Commission, by improving the health of all social groups to a level closer to that of the most advantaged. Put simply, the unacceptable discrepancy in living standards between the developed and developing countries, with almost half the world — some 2.5 billion people — living on less than US$2 a day, is a fundamental factor in the global crisis of ill health".

Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) continue to hinder export of foods from poor countries to affluent nations and such measures come in many forms which often are arbitrary in nature. In spite of the existence of WTO for so long, nothing seems to have changed in reality. There is some substance in the concept of TCDC which was evolved a few years ago to foster better technical cooperation amongst developing countries for solving their problems themselves, instead of cringing for "aid' from those few fortunate wealthy ones.



There are views and views as to how best humanity can survive against food shortages, water depletion and environmental degradation. But there is near unanimity regarding the need to raise food production significantly in the coming years though how this can be achieved is a subject matter of intense speculation as a clear cut answer is still eluding the planners. 'Sustainable agriculture', a phrase very commonly used by many stakeholders in this food search, does make sense in that food production is not a one shot process and the valuable soil in which it is raised must be preserved/refurbished for at least maintaining the production level, if it cannot be raised.

A workable and realistic food policy must be evolved to work out a strategy for production of agri-livestock based foods with the definitive objective of achievable targets within a time frame. "Growing so many grains to feed cattle, pigs and poultry in feedlots affect water supplies and air quality. Producing ample supplies of fatty meats adds to our waistlines. Subsidizing crops like corn takes a big bite out of the federal budget".

Well said, but how to go about making a U-turn now, after so much damage has already been done? Is there really a solution to the problem? May be, there is scope for at least trying to bring about radical changes in the current agricultural practices in a small way without affecting the large scale farms which have to meet the food needs of bulk of the population.

Friday, September 18, 2009


When consumers lose confidence on the ability of the domestic industry to deliver products with assured quality and unquestionable safety, they look to imported goods from countries with high reputation and reliability. This is what is happening in China which went through a harrowing time when there were avoidable mortality of children due to kidney ailments after consuming adulterated baby foods. It is sad that domestic industry does not exercise its responsibility for the safety of its patrons when such sub-standard products are put in the market for short term gains.

If reports emanating from China are true, domestic industry there is bound to suffer by the skepticism of the consumers regarding their reliability. "It seems Chinese nationals don't trust domestically produced food products as much as they once did. After last years melamine-contaminated milk powder incidents more and more Chinese people are buying milk from overseas".

It is another matter that two of the functionaries of the industry found responsible for the above crime had to pay with their lives for the negligence that caused misery to many families. Food industry in other countries must learn a lesson from the Chinese episode and resist the temptation to short circuit the quality and safety process for short term gains.


Indian farmers have been exploited for decades by the repulsive middle man system that is prevalent in the country for decades. The money power of the crop contractors, difficulty in accessing to distant markets and high perishability of the produce force the farmers to surrender their precious possessions from land at literally throw away prices. The cooperative sector supposed to be capable of replacing the current system of agri marketing has not yet taken off in any significant way, continuing the misery of the growers. Organized retailing which have come to stay in the country is not able to establish linkages with the growers and integrate their back office operations to any meaningful extent due to many reasons for which solutions lie at the door steps of the GOI.

A recent study in Jharkhand has brought out this reality, literally mocking at out impotency in not doing any thing to address these burning issues. " Based on a primary survey conducted with vegetable farmers, it has been found that the average farmer spends 7.5 hours (two hours to travel to the market and another two hours to return as well as 3.5 hours at the wholesale market itself) to conduct an agricultural transaction that is valued on an average at about Rs 3,000.Further, it has been found that few of the regulated market rules are respected in these markets and that brokers routinely charge commission rates to farmers as well as retailers that exceed the mandated rates".It transpires that the farmer has to fore go 25-38% of the realized price, leaving practically nothing for his efforts in growing, protecting the crop, harvesting, packing and bringing to the regulated market!.

The fact that big retailers are able to by pass the middlemen in many cases and give higher prices for their procurements does not seem to have sunk in with the political bosses at Delhi as reflected by the reiteration by a Parliamentary committee not to permit foreign investments in retailing business. Just bad luck for the Indian farmer. Only hope, for a better wisdom in Delhi, can sustain his will to continue!.


Thursday, September 17, 2009


The raging controversy regarding diversion of farm lands which produce valuable staple food crops for biofuel yielding plants like Jatropa does not seem to be fading away as many multinational and large players in this field are eying fertile lands in African continent for cultivation of such plants. This raises the pertinent question as to what will happen to the food security in these countries since food production is bound to suffer in the long run. No doubt fuel supply for running the modern industrial society is crucial but it cannot get precedence over food that is critical for very survival. If the recent reports are to be believed, many countries in Africa and other regions of the world are increasingly diverting their food farm lands for biofuel production.

"Over 20 companies from around the world, including from Brazil, China, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and Norway, are acquiring land in Ghana to produce biofuels, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Between 15 million and 20 million hectares of farmland around the world have been subject to biofuels negotiations since 2006, according to the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)".

Past experience of Palm oil diversion for biofuel use clearly showed how such changes can affect the global prices of a commodity, which cannot be considered as absolutely essential though nutritionally it is required at certain levels. Already most of the African countries are net importers of food commodities and biofuel 'invasion' will reduce food production significantly making the matter worse for the poor citizens of the countries involved in such activities.


Monday, September 14, 2009


In a democratic country there will be difference of views and when it comes to the safety of citizens such divergence of opinion should not cause inertia and laxity in deciding on the best course of action to ensure consumer safety. Powerful technological tools have made it possible to churn out thousands of food products with different sensory quality offering a wide choice to every segment of the society. But world has not yet come up with a fail-safe system to help consumer to know whether a packed food is safe or not at any given time. Any description that advices the buyer regarding the quality of the product does not explicitly commit whether the product can still be consumed after the date indicated.

It is not only in India that consumer is left in the lurch on this issue but even in developed countries like the US, the problem does exist. "Millions of consumers experience the confusion of product dating, primarily because it is confusing. One package might have a "sell by" date, another a "best before" date, and yet another, a "use by" date. Some products even use what is called a Julian Date, which is perfectly understandable as long as you're a mathematician"

Probably it may be unfair to criticize agencies entrusted with consumer safety in India about any laxity on the issue since it is a global phenomenon defying a satisfactory solution. Probably an expiry date indicating a cut off time point beyond which the product is unsafe may be more appropriate. The recent exhortation by a British Minister to the citizens to ignore "best before" date declaration on food products label in order to avoid unnecessary food wastage further highlights the confusion that exists to day vis-à-vis this area.


Railway catering system always draws flak from majority of the travelers who use this mode of transport for want of a better alternative. Lot has been spoken and written about the quality, safety and adequacy of foods served in the trains as well as at the stations. Some changes came about with the induction of private caterers and by setting up a separate catering entity under the name IRCTC which along with the in-house catering departments provide food service to a few trains. No doubt there cannot be universal appreciation of any government service, even if they are good but scientifically proven sound foods will win over a large percentage of the traveling community.

How can one justify the action of one of the zonal railway units in approaching the issue casually by asking its employees whose qualification does not go beyond cooking at home to assess the food quality served in the trains coming under its purview. According to the reports emanating from Kolkatta, "Call it the influence of a woman railway minister or an acknowledgment that the fairer sex is a better homemaker - the South Eastern Railway (SER) has deployed a team of its female employees to test the quality of food and beverages served in trains". Any takers for this 'novel' idea?

What is needed is not involvement of administrative staff, men or women, in quality checking but improving the whole system including recipe design, preparation of foods, presentation mode, preservability, serving personnel and their disposition, sanitation and hygiene issues and ease of consumption inside the train. Railway Board must wake up and inject large number of technically qualified people for managing the food business more professionally with products of maximum acceptance and safety.


Friday, September 11, 2009


Japan, being a land starved country depends on import of practically all natural resources from others and its survival is ensured by the technological edge it has in value addition to them through cutting edge processing technologies. How ever it is self-sufficient as far as rice is concerned which happens to be the staple cereal for most of the population. Wheat and soy consumption is a post world war II phenomenon, mostly due to the influence of Americans who have sizable presence and influence in Japan and both these food grains are imported to a large extent. More than 60% of wheat and 74% of soybean required are met from imports, mostly from America and Canada at a huge cost.

Under a massive agriculture revival plan running into more than $ 10 billion, the agricultural sector in Japan is set to challenge the dominance of American farmers on the dining table of Japanese consumers, hoping to reverse the trend significantly with in a decade. "The DPJ will take power for the first time after winning the recent election with promises including paying farmers when prices drop below production costs and achieving self- sufficiency in "important grains." Japan depended on imports for 59 percent of its food in the year ended March 31, the highest rate among developed countries".

Are we seeing another subsidy regime being born and even though western countries are going to be the sufferers, the WTO philosophy of removing such subsidies under free trade regime is going to take a beating. How this is going to affect developing countries is not certain at this time, though it might be minimal. Many food imports originating from developing countries are difficult to be produced in Japan. One off shoot of this development could be rapid commercialization of newer production technologies like hydroponics and aeroponics in the near future.


Criticism regarding inhuman practices prevalent in the animal food industry is invariably brushed away as "inspired" without any substance. Recent documentary films highlighting some of the undesirable practices being perpetuated by the food industry have caught the imagination of the world and it is no more a partisan view by vested interests. Vegetarian pundits can be severe in their outlook as far as animal foods are concerned and they can never be won over by the meat lobby in spite of many reasons which justify consumption of foods derived from animals and fish. While no one can force any change in the attitudes and practices of human beings, least one can expect is to give a decent treatment to the animals that are sacrificed in billions for satisfying the food needs of non-vegetarian population in the world.

In a recent video record posted by some animal activists, the stark reality about horrors that take place in hatcheries routinely has been graphically shown creating universal revulsion."According to the video, the males at the hatchery are separated and tossed into a grinding machine, where they are torn to pieces by a macerator. The female chicks are snapped by their heads into a spinning de-beaker, where a laser removes a portion of their beaks, before the future egg-layers are placed in crowded boxes for shipping".But Industry defends such practices which are considered standard and unavoidable.

It is not that seeing a video like this will instantly convert a non-vegetarian into a "grass eater", as vegetarians are jocularly labeled, but there must be sanity and sanctity in what ever endeavor humans undertake. Food Regulatory Authorities world over must wake up to this insensitive behavior by the meat and poultry industry and bring some discipline in their operations. The industry must realize that more such documents and videos emerge showing their darker side, less and less will be their patrons who provide "bread and butter" for their sustenance.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


One of the fundamental principles of food technology is that at low pH most bacteria cannot survive. Salt, sugar and acids are three of nature's own preservatives that can protect foods from microbial spoilage. Against this background claim by a Swedish food company to have developed a juice product containing probiotic strains of bacteria is a break through worth watching. It is remarkable that the juice products containing the active cells are able to stand the thermal processing schedule under acidic conditions, assuming this is the method used, without affecting the viability of the culture.

"Swedish dairy pioneer, Skånemejerier, has extended its Scandinavian-leading juice range, Bravo, to incorporate probiotic strains, believed to be the first in the world to do so in a fresh 100 per cent juice product with a cold-fighting claim.The new products, called Bravo Friscus, come in the form of one-litre 100 per cent apple and orange juices cartons and incorporate two probiotic strains that have been clinically proven to resist colds and flus". 

The strains of cultures used L.plantarum and L.paracasei are specially developed for their ability to withstand the acidic environment of the juice and the recipe is designed such a way that the cells are kept alive during storage and distribution. The product is supposed to contain about one billion 'colony forming units' (cfu) per 250 ml serving. However the claim that the product can protect one from cold and flu may be a bit far fetched and probably designed to exploit the current near panic situation vis-à-vis swine flu all over the world..



Dramatic transformation of food production methods from one that was based on open farming or open rearing of animals a few decades ago to the present input intensive operations for increasing the productivity and profitability has also brought along with it many problems of undesirable nature. These include increased green house emissions, higher inputs of energy, fertilizers, water and pesticides and to top it, the nutritional and health quality and safety of foods so produced have been under a cloud. A typical example is Salmon farming which has practically made the wild varieties extinct with more than 90% of this variety of fish contributed by the former.

"While salmon "farming" conjures an agrarian image, the industry is more akin to CAFOs -- the concentrated animal feeding operations -- used by the industrial meat industry that is responsible for most of the chicken, burgers and pork that Americans consume. They're also responsible for a lot of waste and pollution that comes with raising a whole bunch of creatures in a confined space".

As the captive aquaculture farms that raise Salmon use feed concentrates and antibiotics, some of them not permitted, at concentrations much higher than that tolerated by humans, the output from these farms cannot be said to be absolutely safe for regular consumption. Besides the high levels of poly chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) present in the farm grown Salmons can also pose greater health risk. In their eagerness to get Omega-3 fatty acids present in Salmon, consumers may not be aware of other dangers posed by the domesticated versions, flooding the market.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Buying fresh produce from the retailing stores can be a hazardous job and high wastage is routinely experienced between bringing them home and consumption. Many housewives routinely check the quality by smell or touch, though she can go wrong many times. With produce prices touching three figures in the case of many fruits, Indian consumer can hardly afford any post-purchase waste. Big global players like Dole or Chiquita have the necessary wherewithal to maintain prime quality of their products with well streamlined technologies, experienced personnel and high quality infrastructure. But there are many middle level retailers with hardly any choice but to absorb the wastage and consequently the economic losses due to their inadequately equipped quality assessment system. Development of a sensitive sensor to evaluate the eatability or otherwise of fresh produce, probably will help these retailers to manage their back shop operations more reliably.

"Researchers in Germany have come up with a new system based on metal-oxide sensor technology, that could check food quality and safety in a cost-effective way. The researchers from the Fraunhofer Institutes for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology (IME) and for Physical Measurement Techniques (IPM), claim that their system can check the emission of gases from food on the spot, without waiting for lab results. It can also quantify the time for the ripening of fruits and vegetables to their readiness for consumption at homes".

Most attractive feature of the device is its ability to quantify the time required for the produce to attain optimum eating quality and consequently plan better to put the right produce at the right time on the shop shelves for sale. Though the device could be expensive, being a one time investment, it may be worth the money spent for procuring it in terms of reduced wastage on the market shelves. This in turn will boost the confidence of the consumer on the retailer to sell safe and good quality foods.



Nutritional labeling and health claims printed or promoted through the media help the food industry to reap rich benefits and many such claims are based on general publications taken in isolation or limited animal and clinical studies. In India one can see every day products being promoted to make children tall, smart and sharp. Or the double protein hoax played on the consumer just because the product contains marginally higher proteins of unknown quality. One manufacturer uses the unheard of terminology 'nutriabsorption science', whatever that means, to impress on the consumer about better availability of nutrient through more efficient absorption, if their product is consumed. All these claims apparently have no shred of scientific evidence to support.

Look at Europe where concerned authorities are making it difficult to make such claims by insisting on data generation to support. " Breakfast cereal manufacturers will be forced to abandon many health claims used to promote their products unless they can be scientifically proven, under a European Union clampdown. The move will hit some of the UK's most popular cereal brands and other foods, many of which claim to improve health because they have been enhanced with ingredients such as vitamins and oat bran, but which also contain high levels of sugar, fat or salt. Kellogg's, which makes Special K, Frosties and Optivita, and Nestlé, which produces Shreddies and Cheerios, could be among the biggest firms affected".
Obviously there is some one in Europe who cares for the interests of the consumers unlike in India where many manufacturers are indulging in such wild claims day and night with total impunity. Neither the Health Ministry nor the MFPI seems to be bothered about such a state of affairs, leaving consumers to decide themselves about the veracity of such claims!



GM foods have been commercialized in the US to such an extent it is difficult to find a processed food product there which does not contain one or more of GM food constituents. On the other hand Europeans are more cautious in embracing GM foods. Countries like China, India and Brazil are increasingly adopting GM crop technology, probably because of the imperatives of increasing the production to meet the needs of their growing population. Though this is an intensely controversial subject on which scientific community is divided, lack of transparency by the seed technology giants who had invested heavily in GM technology compounds the problem further.

In the US itself there are fierce opponents to GM technology, their simple argument being that the technology has not been adequately tested for its safety to humans in the long run."In March 2001, the Center for Disease Control reported that food is responsible for twice the number of illnesses in the U.S. compared to estimates just seven years earlier. This increase roughly corresponds to the period when Americans have been eating GM food".

The critical observation above is fraught with grave implications for future generations and there must be global cooperation amongst governments to clear the safety aspects as early as possible without further delay. World cannot be divided based on GM crop eating countries and natural food consuming nations!

Saturday, September 5, 2009


It is shocking that a slow realization is dawning upon a significant section of India's population that the food situation in the country is worse than that prevailing in many sub-Saharan African countries. Who is responsible for this sorry situation in which the country finds itself, though 'authorities' in Delhi continue to declare from their plush offices that the present situation does not call for pressing the panic button? Blaming monsoon is a favorite pastime which is the only excuse to hide behind. Of course due to poor irrigation infrastructure development, water availability is continuously dwindling and reduced crop yield is inevitable as the green revolution success is critically dependent on adequate water supply.

Here is what a commentator has to say about the situation in the country."Therefore, the government, if it really means business on the price front and acts to urgently secure access to food and nutritional requirements of the 'aam aadmi', will have to decisively reverse the current trend of dismantling the PDS and exclude vast numbers. The answer to the current crisis lies in creating a truly universal PDS and do away with misplaced computation of the poverty line which has no consonance with the ground reality. This will have a double benefit: Ensuring food security for the vulnerable and bringing down the price line in the open market. There is enough empirical evidence to suggest that such government intervention, insulating large numbers from the whims of the market, will have a sobering effect on the price line".

With annual food grain production swinging between 180 million tons and 210 million tons, the future production increases are uncertain and more than 6 million hectares are not being cultivated this year for want of sufficient soil moisture. The PDS is already in shambles and the vulnerability of those not having access to a universal PDS continue to rise. The encouraging weekly figures of inflation and WPI do not bring solace to the population which face a totally different ground reality with prices of every staple food sky rocketing with GOI as a mute spectator!. When the farmers look up the sky, he is not only praying for rains but also to God pleading for salvation from this desperate situation!


It is believed that about 25-50% of the fruits and vegetables produced are spoiled between harvest and the consumer's table due to many reasons. Low temperature transportation in refrigerated trucks on the roads and reefer containers in overseas freight carrying vessels give protection to some commodities though optimum storage conditions for many others are still to be worked out. Though Modified Atmosphere Storage(MAS), which is becoming the industry standard for global trade in perishables, it has not yet become universal due to inadequate availability of such specialized carriers for meeting the demand. While use of a mixture of air and CO2 in varying proportions can regulate respiration and transpiration in live commodities, microbiological damage due to many spoilage organisms is also controlled to varying extent depending on the commodity. Purfresh, one of the industry leaders in fresh food transport business has come up with a new technology where ozone is used to retard microbial spoilage.
"Purfresh Transport, the industry`s only ozone-based, active 
atmosphere management solution, constantly monitors
and dynamically manages the environment
the refrigerated container throughout the voyage-providing
the ability to
ship even highly sensitive fruits and vegetables
long distances. Using powerful
ozone molecules
to kill molds, yeasts, and bacteria in the air and on surfaces,

Transport provides superior decay control without
impacting the
product`s natural characteristics".

How far this technology will be effective on different varieties of fruits is not known though claims are being
made that it works for Mangoes, Cherries, Ginger and Papaya. Though technology trials were carried out using
Mexican mangoes and even after 22 days the fruit remained firm, how some of the premium Indian
mango varieties like Alphonso will behave in presence of ozone is not known. It is worthwhile to explore
the relevance of this technology for some of the tropical fruits produced in abundance in many developing
countries like India, for which there is good demand in the international market is worth exploring.