Friday, October 30, 2009


France seems to be highly impressed by the potential opportunities for working with India in the area of food processing as the abundantly available raw materials in the country could be the envy of the world. Very low extent of processing domestically has probably giving ideas to developed world that investments here can be rewarding with a vast market supposed to be ready for tapping. The French experts apparently have done their home work as reflected by definite proposals put forward by them during their recent visit.

"She highlighted five areas in which the visiting French delegation and the Indian counterparts can work on. Business models for dairy and poultry industries; interface with public and private agencies on policy framework; dialogue on standards and guidelines for quality, safety and traceability; study of cycle from crops and cattle to processed food and consumer market; and links between research development institutes in the two countries are the five areas. Speaking on the occasion, Minister for Food Processing Industries Subodh Kant Sahai said while India had the potential, France could help tap it. "We have the raw material, you have the technology. India is in the middle of two big markets - the Middle East and the Far East - and we can help French companies reach out to these markets," he said. He also called for the setting up of a joint quality control laboratory by India and France to remove hindrances on exports of Indian food products to the European market".

While it is customary for visiting delegations to say right things to please their host, how far this will transform into viable projects remains to be seen. One of the constraints could be the language as practically all scientific endeavors in India use English for communications and documentation, whereas in France English is not the popular language. This is not to say that cooperation is not feasible but there could be impediments in making use of the rich experience of that country. Making use of French cooperation to boost India's exports to EU countries can be a strategic move for which MFPI must be complimented.



Consumption of spices and condiments is thought to be a predominantly Indian phenomenon and global trade in these culinary adjuncts, some of them with health promoting properties, is dominated by India. From raw spices which were used extensively in house hold preparations, the industry has progressed significantly producing a variety of value added products which find extensive applications in formulated and processed foods. Essential oils and oleoresins from some of the spices and condiments like black pepper, red chilli, ginger, cardamom, turmeric, cumin, coriander etc are important ingredients in many packed foods on the market shelves world over. It was only recently that Chinese started using more condiments in their diets and the industry there is reported to be on a fast track of development

"Chinese condiment consumption increases year by year with the improvement of people's living standard and the rapid development of its primary sales channel – the catering industry. The sales revenues of Chinese condiment industry were RMB 38 billion in 2003, RMB 59 billion in 2004, RMB 61.4 billion in 2005 and RMB 68.647 billion in 2006 respectively".

While consumption of spices in a country like India is wide spread with the 'spice collection', an essential part of the kitchen store, in China the catering sector is the drive engine for the growth of spice and condiment industry. Similarly meat and poultry based preparations use them more widely in China and other countries while in India they are regularly used in day to day preparations, mostly in vegetarian foods. Probably China can take a lesson or two from India in developing their condiment industry through the new bilateral initiative being pursued for boosting trade. After all India produces about half of the global production of spices and condiments numbering about 70, valued at $ 4.2 billion while its share in the international trade is more than 86%.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Global food production is trying to catch up with the increasing needs of a population that is growing much more rapidly than we can cope with and there does not appear to be any unanimity regarding our ability to meet the challenge in the coming years. While green revolution of the sixties in the last millennium was able to avert mass starvation and misery, what can be done now to achieve quantum jump in production to prevent such a catastrophe in future, defies an answer.

Though technically it may be possible to raise enough food that is needed, putting these foods in the hands of those who really need them is a matter of economic logistics. "Agronomists and development experts who gathered in Rome last week generally agreed that the resources and technical knowledge were available to increase food production by 50 percent in 2030 and by 70 percent in 2050 — the amounts needed to feed a population expected to grow to 9.1 billion in 40 years. But the conundrum is whether the food can be grown in the developing world where the hungry can actually get it, at prices they can afford. Poverty and difficult growing conditions plague the places that need new production most, namely sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia". Even if resources are available, how to mobilize them is a big question mark and must be addressed with some urgency.

It is real a catch 24 situation where even if scientists come up with technologies that can achieve required production, making the food available to the needy ones is a difficult task because of poor buying capacity of people in some of the least developed countries. Parallel efforts must be made to equip these unfortunate people with the necessary wherewithal to increase their purchasing power through development oriented economic assistance.



In India 70% of the population coming under the category of farmers produce food for the remaining 30% who are urbanites with no clue regarding the dynamics of farming including raising live stocks and poultry. Because of these sheer numbers, the average size of such farms, if they can be called so, is very small, some times less than two acres. In contrast, in the West farming operations are gigantic with hundreds and thousands of acres cultivated using highly mechanized operations. Hardly 2% of the population in some of these countries raise food for the entire country. A new trend is now emerging involving non-farmers who take up 'gardening', mostly as a part time activity in small stretches of land producing crops like sweet potatoes, squash, cabbage, cucumbers, turnips, beetroot etc largely for self consumption. Excess, if any is channeled into farmer's markets and road side stands, earning small returns supplementing their regular income.

"The produce and meat raised by these small farms, sometimes called "hobby" or "lifestyle" farms, provides much of the food found at the nation's farmers' markets and roadside stands, said Maria I. Marshall, an associate professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. Many of the farms raise specialized crops and practice organic or sustainable farming".

Most of the hobby farms believe in organic foods and local produce movement and earning is only incidental. In the US alone there are more than 232000 such small farms operating with less than 10 acres of land for each. Large farms are getting bigger and bigger due to consolidation. How long this trend will last remains to be seen. It is an irony that small farms provide hobby for western families whereas it is the norm in many developing countries where subsistence farmers struggle to keep their body and soul together!.


Keeping the astronauts healthy is a pre-requisite for the success of any space mission and vast investments have been made in the past to develop highly convenient foods that can be consumed with minimum preparation protocol under zero gravity condition. While earlier missions were of a few days duration, the advent of the permanent International Space Station, manned together by the US and the Russia, called for months of stay in the outer space by a group of astronauts. In a new approach to the issue, attempts are being made to grow fresh foods using new technologies that can be adopted for the purpose.

"Among all foods, carrots have the highest carotenoid content. They also contain a natural pigment known for provitamin A and have been associated with protection against cancer, cardiovascular diseases, cataracts and macular degeneration as well as enhancing the immune response. Astronauts can be exposed to elevated levels of radiation, which might put them at risk for some types of cancer. Researchers believe that the addition of unprocessed carrots to their diets may help reduce the negative effects of radiation and cancer development. The hydroponically grown carrots were issued nutrients in two different methods. One method is the nutrient film technique (NFT), in which the roots were exposed to a nutrient solution within a plastic film trough. The second method is the microporous tube membrane system (MTMS), in which nutrient tubes were embedded into Turface—a material similar to crushed clay— where the carrots were planted".

Space exploration efforts during the last 43 years have thrown up a number of spin offs for the civilian population in almost all areas of human endeavor. Probably the space technology for carrot production may eventually become a 'terra firma' phenomenon soon and it is a question of time before fresh produce obtained by this space age technology become common in the market place. Vertical farms may become viable if land availability and cost become critical in the coming years.


Food adulteration is a highly profitable 'business' in India since the culprits are confident of going scot-free without suffering any punishment under the prevailing lax consumer safety enforcement regime in the country. Though some of the deterrent provisions in the PFA are draconian in nature providing the needed teeth, it suffers from lack of biting power as manifested by poor infrastructure for implementation. The result is wide spread adulteration of practically every food that is traded in the market place. Even the so called bottled water at Rs12-15 a liter, is not safe because untreated water of indifferent quality is also sold along with genuine ones, in spite of the existing mandatory provision for ISI mark. Interestingly very few convictions take place in a vast country like India and even these cases take years for the court to take decisions.

Except for a few diligent journalists and some NGOs, no one seems to be too much concerned about this sorry state of affairs and consumers are in the vice like grip of this food mafia who seem to be a law unto themselves. Here is a sample case. "The revelation of large-scale anomalies at an edible oil wholesale store at Sham Nagar yesterday brings to the fore the illegal practices being adopted by some traders of food products in the city who are playing with the health of the residents by selling sub-standard quality food products found spurious and adulterated in many cases".

Such occurrences are too frequent and common across the country and the new food safety over lords in the FSSA of India excel only in platform proclamations with lot of platitudes, in stead of any meaningful ground level action. As long as the situation does not seriously compromise the health of the population, very little is going to be done, leaving the consumers to bear with the economic burden in the form of sub-standard foods. Unless there is a political will, as we have seen in China where the perpetrators of the melamine tainted milk tragedy were executed, adulterators will continue to have a field day playing with the lives of the hapless citizens of this country.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Many policy options are being considered in different countries to discourage consumers from gorging on high fat foods which are incidentally are cheaper and tastier than nutritious foods. Fast food joints are banned near residential areas in some places in the US but the effect of such forceful denial of these high calorie density foods to craving consumers and hypothetically tackle the rampant obesity epidemic at best is marginal as has been brought our by some studies. Latest attempt to impose higher taxes on fast foods to make them costlier is an option being considered in some countries.

"Cheap, abundant corn enables mass production of economical, aggressively marketed beef and pork. The corn syrup that sweetens soft drinks and candy oozes from the same source. That's why it's so cheap to be fat and -- comparatively -- so expensive to be thin. In response, a comprehensive preventive health strategy should shift subsidies away from corn toward the production of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as organic farming, so healthier, more natural foods become as accessible as Happy Meals and tax fast food, soft drinks, and packaged foods high in processed fats and sugars to decrease demand for unhealthy food. A study published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine recommends a tax on "sugar-sweetened beverages," projecting that for every 10 percent rise in price, consumption of soft drinks would decline a corresponding 8 to 10 percent, leading to weight loss and reduced health risks".

If history has some thing to offer, it is that making a product costlier does not deter the consumers from going for it as seen in the case of cigarette or alcohol. During the last 7-8 decades prohibition as a policy to prevent people from consuming alcoholic beverages failed miserably all over the world and to day governments themselves are selling liquor products in the name of preventing spurious and unsafe products that can harm the citizens. It is debatable whether that is the real intention of the governments or it is the massive revenues generated by this line of business!



H1N1 virus pandemic is invariably being described as Swine Flu though it was identified as a mutant version scientifically and pigs were not the main source of infection. Flu epidemic becomes rampant during winter times as the weather condition is conducive to its growth and transmission and during the last century there were several flu epidemic episodes killing millions of their victims. Comparatively the present episode is milder with mortality figures not alarming yet. There are dire predictions that during the forthcoming regular flu season, there could be higher human casualty compared to that in last year. At least pigs will not blamed if these predictions come true.

On the contrary, it appears pigs are becoming vulnerable to transmission of H1N1 virus from human beings as reported in Europe. "This is the first time that swine flu has been diagnosed on pigs in Norway, and the mass slaughtering is a measure to prevent the disease from spreading. The slaughtered animals will be burnt in a refuse disposal plant. The animals had contracted the infection through contact with a human, who has been carrying the disease" If it can happen in Norway, the potential is there for large scale reverse transfer of the infection in other pig rearing countries also unless adequate precaution is taken to insulate pig farms from carriers of H1N1 virus.

Some harm has already been done to the pork industry due to the false alarm raised during the initial phase of the pandemic, consumers and importing countries shunning pork and pork products because of misplaced fear of contracting the disease. Avian flu and mad cow disease which created panic amongst consumers, also affected the industry very badly and it is time we learn a lesson from these episodes not to press the panic button prematurely without really comprehending the situation.



Much was made of the voluntary efforts by a few major food business players to come out with a consumer guidance system that can be printed prominently on the label, obviating the need to take pains to read the nutrition content of each and every label on different brands of products on the shelves. Thus was borne the much hyped voluntary "Smart Choices" symbol evolved in the US earlier and immediately adopted by some of the manufacturers. Now it turns out that many products with no credentials to be called nutritionally good, were able to get the symbol attracting strictures from the authorities and subsequent withdrawal of the system.

"The Smart Choices logo began appearing on food packages this summer but immediately met with criticism from some nutritionists who felt its criteria were too lax. They pointed to sugary cereals, like Froot Loops, and fat-heavy products like mayonnaise, which they said should not be considered among the healthiest choices in the supermarket. The first ingredient in Froot Loops is sugar. The F.D.A. sent the program a letter in August voicing concern that the label could lead consumers to choose highly processed foods over healthier foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains".

It is unlikely that any single mechanism can be put in place to categorize foods based on nutrient content and health considerations. Food is a complex organic matrix and any processing is bound to affect its natural equilibrium to some extent. Our knowledge about impact of various processing techniques on different varieties of foods is still incomplete and prediction based on such limited data cannot be considered reliable. It must be born in mind that quantitative values of different nutrients, present in a product,do not reflect the quality of the final product.



'Botulism' is a serious consequence of consuming Cl. botulinum infected food in which
the bacteria excretes its toxin material. This toxin is more familiar to beauty parlors where 'botox' facial treatment is offered for removing wrinkles. During the hey days of canning industry Cl. bottulinum was a dreaded infection and there were few fatalities on account of this. With the processing conditions for elimination of this organism well established, especially the acidity and temperature requirement, bottulism seemed like a thing of the past. The baby food recall, as reported recently in the US, will revive the anxieties about cl.bottulinum again.

"The recall was undertaken as a precaution due to the risk of potential contamination with Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism, a serious and sometimes life-threatening condition. Consumers should not use these products, even if they appear to be normal, because of the possible health risk. Symptoms of botulism poisoning in humans include general weakness, dizziness,double-vision and trouble with speaking or swallowing. People experiencing these problems should seek immediate medical attention".

As long as the safe process conditions are followed, there should not be any serious apprehension regarding botulinum infection in modern day processing facilities with dependable instrumentation to ensure the adequacy of the process. As Cl.botulinum survives only under anaerobic condition, there are very few products that can be affected by this organism. With most of the industry adopting HACCP system for ensuring safety of processed foods, there should not be any undue concern on this account.



'Technical Barriers to Trade' are not supposed to be practiced under the WTO regime which is based on equal opportunity for trade to all the countries. The 'high and mighty' countries were ruling the roost before the advent of WTO finding one excuse or the other to bar imports, especially valued added products, from third world countries to protect and shelter their domestic industry. Rejection of imports on flimsy basis was order of the day causing huge losses to exporters from developing countries. With the technology gap between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' narrowing down considerably, products from developing countries are to day competing successfully in the global market place.

The US, once considered as the most powerful nation on earth has found out how other countries can also play the quality and safety 'card' and reject their consignments when they arrive at the ports of destination. "Global drinks giant PepsiCo is one of a number of western companies whose imported food and beverage products have failed Chinese quality inspection tests, reports Shanghai Daily, one of the country's two leading English language newspapers. More than 150 imported food and cosmetics items failed quality tests including PepsiCo's orange concentrates and Mead Johnson's milk powder for babies".

If European and American sellers of processed goods want to avoid rejections, a time may come when buyers from countries like Asia or Africa could insist on their experts, certifying the quality before shipment. At present buyers from rich nations often insist on intrusive inspection of the manufacturing facilities in the countries from where imports are made under the guise of quality confirmation. USFDA, even had the cheek to open their offices in countries like China and India to prevent shipment of sub-standard products to the US. In a meek country like India any thing and every thing can be imported with practically no control over their quality. Probably China can teach a lesson or two as to how self esteem is asserted even against Goliaths like the US without fear or favor.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Samonella contamination of fresh produce like tomato, spinach and, jalapeno pepper, encountered during the last two years in some counties was an alarm signal regarding the risks involved in producing and marketing fresh vegetables, even if the hygiene infrastructure used in the packing sheds is of impeccable standards. The fact that food poisoning was not traced to the source even after 6 months of the first reported case highlights the practical constraints in ensuring absolute safety of these products. Supply chain logistics can be daunting since modern retailing involves sourcing from different regions and even outside the countries in some cases making it difficult to trace any contamination to the original source. Recent initiative in the US, is an attempt to overcome such traceability problems through administrative action and electronic based systems are being thought of to make such systems work more efficiently, reliably and fast.

The bar code technology which is used world-wide for product identification and incorporating lot of information about a product can be helpful in evolving a system that will help to trace the origin and history of a farm produce. The US is in the fore front in this important endeavor."The Produce Traceability Initiative aims to create a common standard for electronically tracing produce by the end of 2012. The plan involves adopting a standardized system of bar-coding for all produce sold in the United States, allowing products to be tracked throughout the distribution chain". In order for the farms growing the fresh produce to set up such systems, retailers will have to extend their support and a mutually beneficial alliance can make it a reality.

While bar code technology can help trace the original source of an agriculture produce, it can have some consequences on the present trading practices. With local produce movement gaining grounds, bar code will reveal the supply source giving an advantage to local producers. The way retailing industry works to day, sourcing its supplies from around the world, will also undergo dramatic changes as more and more local materials will have to be stocked and central procurement, processing and packing centers may also yield to more decentralized operations in the coming years. Products coming from developing countries also could be discriminated against, if the source is identifiable. Environmentalists would be delighted to see such bar code system operating as it will encourage consumption of products with less carbon prints.


Hand washing has received wide scale attention after the swine flu pandemic that has affected more than 50 countries and is predicted to become more virulent in the coming months. It is not that man is not aware about the efficacy of hand washing in curtailing spread of viral infection in general but the helplessness in controlling viral disease like swine flu, for which there is no vaccine available yet, appears to have pitchforked hand washing to the center, with some hope that this will halt or at least reduce the progress of this disease to some extent. The desperate situation even led to observing a day recently as hand washing day in many countries!

In spite of the mass media going full throat in reporting about the mortality due to swine flu around the world and many promotional efforts to sensitize people regarding the importance of hygiene, impact seems to be practically zero! According to a study in Australia, "three out of 10 men you shake hands with won't have washed after going to the toilet. For women, it's fewer than one in 10, according to a study by the nation's Food Safety Information Council. The observational study of 200 people, who used the public loos at a food hall in an Australian shopping center, also showed no improvement in post-toilet hand-washing since 2002". Probably the survey can be faulted for the limited number of subjects chosen but it is a pointer to what could happen in the modern society where people are more obsessed with their day to day chores, ignoring more serious life threatening issues.

Though there are many ways of sanitizing the hand, washing with soap and plenty of water is considered most efficient as the accumulated virus is loosened and washed away. Virus is known to be transferred from surfaces which are contaminated through sneezing or coughing by the carriers, especially in public places or through direct contact by shaking hands with infected persons. The mute question is how the common man in a country like India can get access to clean water or soap in public places for hand washing when even the basic amenities like clean toilets and water are not easily available, even in metros! Hand washing message, under such trying conditions may look more like preaching, knowing fully well that it cannot be practiced every where.



The errant monsoon this year, which is being blamed for the food problem India is currently facing, is not going to be forgotten easily considering the damage it can do in the immediate future. Added to this, fast deteriorating climate conditions are likely to pile more miseries in the coming years. International pressure is building up on India to take more steps to cut down its greenhouse emissions as a part of cumulative global action program

"Over the last 48 hours, India's ruling combine had two reasons for euphoria: electoral triumphs in three states and the announcement that the economy will grow by 6.5 per cent this year. But a footnote in the economic data has revealed how the euphoria must be put aside immediately, as climate change poses the next big political challenge for the Congress party. A season of withering drought and damaging rainstorms is predicted to cut India's agricultural output by 2 per cent, despite a 400 per cent rise in rural spending on jobs and infrastructure by the government since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took office in 2004. With climate-change models predicting harsher droughts, storms and floods across India as the earth warms, rescuing the livelihoods of 670 million Indians who survive on farming is an immediate and long-term economic and political challenge".

It is not realized that budgeting more money is not the answer to overcome India's problems but political will, missionary zeal, commitment and result-oriented, time bound, dynamic action only can achieve lasting solutions to the country's manifold problems. Years have been lost 'debating' the issues and more years should not be lost with more such 'debating'!



Taiwan, compared to mainland China is a very small country but technologically it is not far behind China in many spheres of industrial activity relevant to modern life. Solar energy is the focus all over the world as the time for exhausting the fossil fuel sources is fast approaching, necessitating alternative options for renewable energy systems. The acute nature of the problem can be realized when it is known that not even 2% of to day's energy comes from non-conventional energy sources, in spite of decades of efforts and massive investments in practically every country on this planet. The progress made in this area by Taiwan is impressive and solar energy and photovoltaic cells are priority areas for this country.

"There was also a solar powered cockroach  elimination machine developed by Hung Der
Technical and Commercial High School that re-charges with solar power to
sense and
electrocute cockroaches. This brought in many inquiries from visiting
buyers and offers to
collaborate in production. International buyers were also
highly interested in Ching Yun
University`s trendy solar car; the Industrial
Technology Research Institute of Taiwan`s
solar cooking pot (that cooks food
using optical reflection) and Solarfocus Technology`s solar
powered clothes,
which helps blood circulation, and maintains a comfortable temperature for
the wearer".

Department of Non-conventional Energy at Delhi is vested with the responsibility of developing new sources
of energy as India is importing more than 65% of
its energy needs at present. It is imperative that the country
extricates itself
from the vice-like grip of petroleum products on its development. Probably India will be better off
having bilateral technical cooperation with Taiwan and
at the University level, lot can be achieved. It is time
the antenna is turned
180 degrees from the West to the East from where there are many things to learn
and be benefited.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Food is a multi-disciplinary subject and it is difficult for any single specialist to comprehend the inter disciplinary dynamics that play a part in the development of food processing industry. While consumers depend more or less on the government to protect their interests in terms of safety and quality of products that are manufactured and marketed, industry focuses more on the viability of its investments, some time compromising on consumer interests. Here is where a well orchestrated and sound policy frame work will help. All countries should have a distinct mechanism for evolving and fine tuning the national food policies taking into consideration interests of all stake holders.

"Utah is one of only 20 states with a Food Policy Council, which seeks to educate and inform the public and policy makers about nutrition, but it does not have a state-level policy for improving the availability of stores that offer healthy foods".

In India GOI has not yet thought of such a council and it is time to make a move in that direction. True there is MFPI, the nodal ministry for food industry but it is more an administrative set up obsessed with spending targets and incentive programs. Any food policy council should have members from different sectors like agriculture, food, health, manufacturing, finance, legal, marketing, commerce, retailing and social welfare. Probably the Planning Commission could the ideal nodal agency for such a broad based council.



Massive restructuring of the economies of the third world by international monetary agencies, while offering financial support, has helped them to achieve perceptible progress as measured by growth in GDP and infrastructure. But it seems to have changed the social fabric by increasing the disparity between the rich and the poor. True, some developed countries offer economic aid to cushion the effect of such transitional efforts but it is considered too little to make any visible impact. Often such aids come with strings attached and many countries are forced to accept them for their very survival.

Recent economic crisis precipitated in industrialized, rich nations due to mismanagement had the percolation effect on developing countries which had to bear the "cross" for no fault of theirs. The very idea of providing a "safety net" for such countries, as being mooted by international agencies is a welcome initiative. "Meanwhile, the head of the IMF on Friday called for a tax on the financial sector to protect the world economy from the "systematic risk" it creates. According to the IMF the global economic crisis is hitting low-income countries harder than anticipated, increasing their need for aid. It said however that past gains from macroeconomic stabilization and debt reduction, together with some increase in aid, have created space in many countries for counter-cyclical policies, and IMF-supported programs have accommodated such policies to address the impact of the global food, fuel and financial crises".

How far such a proposal will find favor with those who have the wherewithal to raise the required resources, remains to be seen but if accepted it can be of great relief to the teeming populations in Asia, Africa and South America whose numbers seem to be increasing day by day. Even if the proposal finds broad support, the "nut and bolt" details about the program need to be worked out.



High calories foods invariably are less nutrient dense and processed food products belonging to this category are rich in sugar and fat, considered culprits in the lives of the present generation. While industry looks for maximizing their profits, the society expects them to be equitable in their pursuit of commercial goals. There is a lurking suspicion that industry invariably puts more money in developing and promoting products which cater to the sensory pleasures of the consumer neglecting those qualities that protect and boost their health.

Such a situation as above is attracting attention in the US and same has now been authenticated by scientific research, proving the point. "The center is trying to expose the marketing tactics that make kids clamor for a sugary start to the day, crispy calorie bombs that are often low in fiber and high in junky carbohydrates. Rudd researchers just finished crunching Nielsen and comScore data — which track television and Internet marketing — to figure out exactly how much cereal advertising kids see. The result: obesity researchers for the first time have hard data proving that the least healthy cereals are the ones marketed most aggressively to children".

It is inconceivable that a responsible industry that deals with food can play such a negative role and bring long term misery to the lives of people and nations, who sustain its very existence. It is more like "biting the hand that feeds"! Before the situation gets worse, some discipline needs to be "imposed" on the errant industry.


Sunday, October 25, 2009


Consumers world over are dazzled by the bright, shiny and impeccable appearance and ambiance which are hall marks of a well run super market. In a country like India, people seem to have overwhelmingly taken to super market culture and the small scale vendors still survive because of restrictive investment policies of GOI. The major difference between a super market place and the traditional grocer is that lot of pre-opening operations take place before the super market doors are open for the day. As the consumers' proximity and exposure to products displayed is very close, there has to be extra caution to keep the place clean all the time. Controversy has arisen now regarding the type of chemicals used for sanitizing the place and the health hazards posed by such practices.

Sanitation workers feel that not only they are exposed to dangerous cleansing chemicals, even the products on the shelves could get contaminated during the cleaning process. "According to the EPA, one-third of cleaning products today include ingredients that have a negative impact on indoor air quality and human health. These may include carcinogens, asthmagens, skin and eye irritants, and endocrine disruptors associated with cancer, reproductive disorders and other health issues According to the union, 6% of janitors are actually injured by the chemicals they use in supermarkets. Just as it made no sense for the public to unknowingly accept the spraying of DDT and other toxic chemicals on the food that ended up on America's dinner tables, consumers are unlikely to accept toxic chemicals in the supermarkets where they buy their food".

Can such a situation arise in India in future?. Possible, if organized sector of retailing is able to grow and capture a significant percentage of the market and the country should watch closely the experience of others facing the problem now. This will help in evolving a deterrent regime that will ensure safety for the workers as well as the consumers.



Sweden is in the forefront as far as the control of greenhouse gas emission is concerned taking unilateral initiatives, instead of waiting for any global consensus that is eluding the world due to unwillingness of many developed countries to cut down on emissions. World average emission is estimate at about 1688 kilogram of oil equivalent (kgoe) per person where as in India it is less than 30% of the above figure. A rich country like USA emits 7900 kgoe of CO2 per person!. Economic aspirations of developing countries can be met only if they are not pressurized to cut down on emissions very drastically as fossil fuel is the main driving engine for progress, in the absence of any viable alternate option. This was orchestrated by no less a person than Prime Minister of India Dr Manmohan Singh when he said recently that India would not agree for drastic reduction of such emissions that would choke its economic growth.

Food sector both production and processing is known to be a source of heavy CO2 emissions and it is believed that the eating practices world over must change shifting more towards foods with less and less carbon print. The initiative in Sweden envisages declaring on the label CO2 emission caused by each product before arriving at the market shelf. "The Swedish effort grew out of a 2005 study by Sweden's national environmental agency on how personal consumption generates emissions. Researchers found that 25 percent of national per capita emissions — two metric tons per year — was attributable to eating. The government realized that encouraging a diet that tilted more toward chicken or vegetables and educating farmers on lowering emissions generally could have an enormous impact. Sweden has been a world leader in finding new ways to reduce emissions. It has vowed to eliminate the use of fossil fuel for electricity by 2020 and cars that run on gasoline by 2030"

Obviously there is a disconnect between the intention behind such a move and the preparedness of the consumer to understand and appreciate the initiative. Abstract numbers of CO2 emission may not carry much meaning unless it is correlated to a scale of acceptable to unacceptable figures and consumer is educated about understanding the concept. Probably in a country like Sweden this could be done with little effort as environmental awareness there is high and per capita income is one of the highest in the world. Eventually every country will have to emulate Sweden, if this planet is to be saved from misery and destruction through environmental degradation. .


Saturday, October 24, 2009


Swine flu pandemic seems to be chugging on in almost all parts of the world causing minimum damage so far and it is believed that the virus may transform into a more virulent form in the coming months when the environment becomes more conducive for their proliferation. Global efforts, starting from Mexico where swine flu emerged as a dangerous infection, have been commendable and it is a tribute to the capability of man to manage such episodes with minimum consequences. Availability of vaccines for containing this infection is a welcome development though its full impact will only be known later.

"The outbreak will no doubt garner international attention because of the potential for the virus to mutate into a more serious strain when it jumps from one species to another. That did not happen in this case. Canada is the second country to experience an outbreak among turkeys. Chile discovered an outbreak in August, prompting the United Nations to issue a warning about the possibility of H1N1 combining with another influenza strain, creating a more virulent one".

Transfer of H1N1 virus from humans to animals is supposed to be dangerous and already pigs have been infected with this virus through human contact as reported earlier. Now that turkey birds are also affected, more diligence is called for, to prevent such inter species transfer and avoid evolution of more destructive form of this virus..



Rail food attracts wide criticism from almost all segments of the traveling population as they are unappealing, unsafe, unimaginative, monotonous and most of the time insipid. Being the captive customers of the railway catering service, passengers do not have much of a choice but to swallow what is offered in the name of food. Catering services are managed partly by railways by itself and partly by the food contractors duly appointed by the organization based on some criteria. The new rail minister reversed the policy of private catering and in-house food vending has been propped up to meet the needs of customers traveling in hundreds of trains every day.

Over the years the management of food services by unqualified managers attracted strong criticism and to overcome the situation railways went in for recruitment of qualified people recently. "Faced with increased complaints about the quality of food served in trains, a railway PSU has roped in over 80 quality control professionals to conduct inspection in pantry cars and base kitchens".

Probably if what is reported is true, a good beginning has been made but the credentials of the so called professionals are some what questionable when one considers the prevalent shortage of trained food technologists in the country. The only course currently running in the country to train quality control personnel can churn out only about 20 personnel an year, most of them being female trainees. It is unlikely that any one of them would have been appointed. If it is so what one can expect from such an announcement by the railways? Travel and find out!


Fossil fuel based packaging materials have dominated for the last 6-7 decades making them omnipotent and their influence on day to day life of the common man is alarming. Though every one knows that these packaging materials are not environment-friendly, their convenience of use makes it difficult to wean people away from them. Regulating their use by the public by mandatory actions also does not seem to be succeeding, probably because of alternate option not being available to the public. Bio-degradable packing materials are increasingly being used though their availability in required quantities is uncertain. Reported development of a lactic acid based plastic material, commercially available and easily degradable within 90 days, therefore is a welcome news for the food industry.

"Poly Lactic Acid is a renewable plant based material, produced from the fermentation of starch from crops, (most commonly cornstarch or sugarcane in the United States), into lactic acid that is then polymerized. Its blends are used in a wide range of applications including computer and mobile phone casings, foil, biodegradable medical implants, molds, tins, cups, bottles and other packaging".

The ability of this bio-plastic to withstand temperatures up to 105C, its recycling properties and ease of usability make it an acceptable material for many applications including fabrication of containers, bottles, cups, etc. Its easy biodegradability without releasing any toxic substances to the environment unlike other plastics which take 700 years to degrade, makes it a 'green' packaging option with low carbon foot print.


Friday, October 23, 2009


Puritans and old folks invariably blame the current health crisis being faced in many countries on the processed food industry which churns out thousands of new products every day from raw foods. It is no more practical for house wives to spend a better part of the day in the kitchen cooking foods from raw materials and food industry has been an ally in cutting down cooking time and increasing the variety of foods served on the dining table. Naturally any food processing operation calls for developing appropriate recipe and making it amenable to mass production. In the process, several additives are added to make the recipe acceptable to the consumers with highest common denominators.

There are many detractors who see danger in processed foods because of the use of additives, some for genuine purpose while others for making the product more attractive. "One glance at the back of a label and you'll see that the food industry has kidnapped real ingredients and replaced them with science experiments. And lots of them. Milkshakes with 78 ingredients? Bread with 27? Even more troubling is the possibility that if you recognize the name of one of these additives, it could be because it's been linked to bad news—think cancer in mice, or ADHD in children. It almost makes you want to eschew the devilish chemical you know for the one you don't. There are more than 3,000 ingredients on the FDA's list of "safe" food additives, but while researching Eat This, Not That!, we found more than a few preservatives, dyes, sweeteners, and flavoring agents that gave us a reason for concern. That's why we packed the book with a Food Additive Glossary—so that even if you don't have a Ph.D. in chemistry, you can still understand the foods you're putting into your body every day".

Organic foods which are becoming increasingly popular, do provide an alternative option for such skeptics, though wide scale use of unnecessary chemicals in foods needs to be curtailed. "Scare and fear" based on non-scientific arguments, cannot be accepted as such tactics can only demoralize the consumer.



Consumers are increasingly being confused by some of the information contained in the labels of food packets though industry is trying to be more and more transparent declaring even the percentage of each ingredient that go in making their products. Attempts are continuing to simplify the mechanism of making the label more and more consumer friendly though no single system, considered satisfactory, has yet been established. Neither the 'Smart Choice' System of USA nor the 'Traffic Light' System in UK is considered perfect though it is a good beginning.

Here is how the Traffic Light system works for guiding the consumer."If we want to eat a healthy diet, one of the key things we should be doing is trying to cut down on fat (especially saturated fat), salt and added sugars. Food products with traffic light labels on the front of the pack show you at-a-glance if the food you are thinking about buying has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt, helping you get a better balance.In addition to traffic light colors you will also see the number of grams of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt in what the manufacturer or retailer suggests as a 'serving' of the food".

Traffic lights are basically three in number and each label indicates percentage of red, amber and green components reflecting the relative nutrient and health values. If red is predominant, it may be rich in calories, fat, sugar or salt and caution needs to be exercised in selecting such foods too frequently. Low values or absence of red on the label is supposed to be safe for regular consumption. It is not an "absolute" system but a comparative indication to choose from a plethora of similar products on the shelves.


Thursday, October 22, 2009


There was a time when salaried class of consumers made only monthly purchases from their family stores, that too on credit and monthly bills were settled after receiving the salary for the previous month. People settled in places far away from the urban markets also do bulk purchase to avoid traveling too frequently. With the advent of large modern wholesale stores selling products in large packs at discounted prices, bulk buying trend became part of the life styles of modern day families. One of the criticisms leveled against such practices is that consumer buys more than what he really needs leading to unnecessary wastage. Food is a material with relatively short shelf life and bulk buying is confined to mostly dry products with longer life. Continuous efforts by food technologists to evolve technologies that can give extra life to processed products have enabled industry to manufacture some foods with shelf life as long as two years!

Recent reports emanating from the US do indicate a trend where shelf stable products with assured quality and safety and long life are attracting the attention of the retailers and consumers. "Costco is selling an entire year's supply of food for $800. That's only $67 a month. Made by a company called Shelf Reliance, it's all freeze-dried or dehydrated and is primarily marketed as emergency food (10-20 year shelf life). However, it also claims to taste pretty good, and they suggest to use it in rotation as a regular meal supplement". Probably with the recession now affecting the people in a serious way, consumers may go for such a strategy to reduce their food bill significantly.

It is a universal truth that no matter what technology one uses, foods have finite life and it deteriorates progressively, at least chemically producing artifacts some of which can affect the eating quality and some others impacting on health. Therefore the new strategy of capturing market through bulk selling of foods to meet one year's requirement is fraught with implications on the health of the consumer. It is true astronauts, spending months together in the outer space, do eat such foods, not willingly but out of compulsions and whether this strategy will work on terra firma remains to be seen.


Gamma radiation for food preservation has been a subject matter of scientific research for more than 50 years and it has been more or less agreed by scientists and the industry that it is a safe method of keeping food safe for considerable length of time without fear of risks associated with pathogenic microorganisms. Effective and safe dosage of radiation, optimum for each food has also been worked out based on international consensus. However wide scale use of this 'clean' technology is constrained by two factors. First there is a misconceived notion amongst the consumers about possible residual radiation left in the product after processing though hundreds of studies have clearly ruled out such a possibility. Second, irradiation facilities are not easily available to the industry as the capital investment is very heavy and handling radiation sources is tightly controlled by the governments due to possible misuse by unsocial elements in the society.

A non technical issue which is mired in controversy is the insistence by many governments to declare on the label of products irradiated for the consumer to know about it whereas industry is resisting such a move fearing possible consumer back-lash. "Since 1999, FSIS has permitted the use of ionizing radiation for treating meat, meat byproducts, and certain meat food products so long as labels disclose the product is irradiated. But putting radiation labels on food has not gained consumer acceptance. AMI's request is different in that it wants to allow low-dose e-beam radiation over the surface of chilled carcasses as a processing aid and not disclose that the meat has been irradiated on labeling". Probably industry has a case as the technology used is is based on low radiation electronic beam which is considered innocuous.

Considering that pathogen related food poisoning is on the increase, especially in meat based foods, a rational decision needs to be taken and not acceding to the pleas of the industry could prove to be counter productive. This is especially true in countries like India where hygiene and sanitation standards and environmental quality are very poor and irradiation technology only can help to reduce the incidence of food borne diseases significantly.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


There was a time when United Kingdom (UK) was synonymous with a country where sun never sets and milk and honey are supposed to be flowing, symbolizing its prosperity and power status with many colonies under its thumb. Struggle for independence by these colonies systematically led to shrinking of its power, finally ending up with one small bit of an island in the European continent. Even in Europe UK was being overshadowed by other nations and life is not as rosy as it used to be during the good old days of colonialism

Look at the present status of UK as being reported by a recent study which highlights the current plight of UK citizens. "Familiar bugbears such as longer working hours and the high cost of living contributed to Britain's bottom place in a survey of 10 European countries. Relatively low holiday entitlement was another reason the UK came last in the European quality of life index".

Though income wise UK may be high on the list, the quality of life is not guaranteed by gross annual income alone and the cost of living ultimately decides the same. It is a surprise that countries like France and Spain once ridiculed for their relatively backward status are much better placed to live compared to UK! What ever be the reasons, this is a lesson for other powerful countries that nothing is perpetual in the world and "every dog has his day"!


Restaurant foods are raising new worries amongst consumer activists and nutrition experts in Australia because of the frying oils they are using regularly in preparing various foods. Already high levels of fat in these products which give high sensory satisfaction are implicated in uncontrolled obesity epidemic and added to this presence of trans fatty acids in some of the foods is of grave concern. Restaurant sector has some how escaped the scrutiny of food authorities and except in some places, the nutritional quality of the foods served is a matter of conjecture.

"Of particular concern to the foundation is the amount of fat consumed outside the home, with restaurants immune from food labelling laws. We've become so particular in the supermarket, but when we eat out we have no idea what our food is being cooked in. There is a lack of transparency about what's going into a lot of our food. While some companies, such as McDonald's, Unilever and Goodman Field, have voluntarily switched to healthier oils, an increase in the amount of cheap imported palm oil, from 113,000 tonnes in 2003 to 130,000 tonnes in 2007, showed the industry as a whole was resisting change".

While restaurants can be made to display in broader terms the nutritional profile of the preparations served by them, how far this will help the consumer is a moot question. After all "eating out" is considered a change for the whole family and taste guides the selection more than the composition. The report quoted above indicts palm oil as a cheap one but castigating it as a non-healthy oil is not acceptable and the bias against this oil from Asia is apparent!


Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Meat processing industry has to take extra care to keep the products offered by them safe as animal products are more susceptible to incidence pathogenic infections. The rigorous licensing and monitoring regime that is in place in many countries makes it mandatory for the abattoirs to register with the regulatory agencies with their facilities open to inspection any time. In India under the Meat Food Products Order of the Ministry of Food Processing Industries, clear guidelines are laid down as to the mandatory facilities to be in place before stating the processing operations. How ever such stringent measures can be insisted on only for units operating in the organized sector and there are many crude slaughtering facilities working illegally outside the ambit of law, which has serious consequences on the health of the consumer. .

It may not be a consolation for the Indian consumer that such violations are reported in other countries also. Here is a case from Australia."The Government is committed to ensuring food production is properly licensed and audited and we'll crack down hard on those who think they can cut corners," he said. "Laws already in place mean anyone caught processing meat for sale illegally can face a fine of $55,000 for an individual or up to $275,000 for a corporation." Well, the intention is clear but whether in practice such heavy impositions will be a deterrent against chronic violators remains to be seen.

In India the situation is indeed alarming with organized abattoirs, under the licensing regime accounting for a fraction of the meat production offered to the consumer. Thanks to a vibrant meat export industry that supplies products to several countries, the abattoirs operated by them can boast of international standards. It is a pity that most of the abattoirs working in urban areas, owned by the local civic authorities, are dilapidated and their modernization is still a cry in the wilderness.


Monday, October 19, 2009


Admirers of China often highlight how that country is helping poorer nations with low GDP and technological capabilities, through bilateral economic cooperation and assistance. It is rarely understood that cooperation is a two way street and involves giving and taking and no country can be expected to be totally charitable towards any other party. When economic aid is extended, there will invariably be strings attached to it and this applies to even Indian aids being offered to third world countries. If this is so why China is being singled out lately for criticism for being some what selfish in expecting benefits to flow back to the country from such endeavors.

According to the current views amongst the China watchers, that country is orienting its aid strategy for political and economic gains for itself, diluting the objective of helping the aid receiving countries."Some critics have suggested China's investment and trade strategy is unfair and, ultimately, disadvantageous to Africa. Business partnerships are often vague, with loose promises of compensation and profit-sharing that never materialize. Chinese loans often stipulate that ensuing contracts must be awarded to Chinese firms and employ Chinese labor. The influx of Chinese labor and cheap Chinese goods that often follows has weakened local economies and caused unemployment in parts of the continent".

The argument that aid receiving countries are weak in negotiating for most favorable terms for themselves probably will not cut much ice and well laid down international norms in the form of legal framework are available with some of the UN agencies like UNCTAD. Then there are regional associations like ASEAN, SAARC, SAARD, ECA etc which can assist its members in striking most favorable deals. Under these circumstances why China alone should be blamed for its aid program defies logic!.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Leasing land in other countries for raising food crops to satisfy self needs, has become common these days with many land and water starved countries trying to strike bilateral arrangements with those having cultivable land to spare or are forced by circumstances to offer their lands on lease. Already serious doubts are being raised regarding the impact of such large scale land transfer on the local food security environment and international agencies seem to be concerned about such distortions in the world economic order. Unlike land leasing another approach being considered is to strike business partnership with global agricultural companies who operate in some of the countries for ensuring return in the form of food commodities.

The new initiative by some of the Gulf countries in forming a consortium is worth watching. "Gulf Arab states will pour $2 billion into a new agricultural fund in coming months to secure food supplies by buying stakes in existing agricultural firms; Gulf countries mainly reliant on food imports, have ramped up efforts to secure food supplies through buying farmland in developing nations or buying stakes in agriculture companies. The new Arab agricultural holding company will be part of the broader Arab Authority for Agriculture Investment and Development (AAAID), an organization made up of 20 Arab and African states all keen to lock in food supplies".

Food is going to be a critical issue for many countries in coming years and every nation is aware that food security only can ensure normal productivity and peaceful life for their population. While taking up such ventures investing countries should not make the lives miserable for people in those countries where agricultural activity is pursued.


Free trade regime which is mandatory for members of WTO, brings along with problems hitherto unseen or unanticipated. Different countries have food quality monitoring systems of their own and some are very strict while others have less rigorous enforcement practices. No country in the world is self-sufficient in all foods and dependence on imports of some ingredients is inevitable for the processing industry to flourish. Taking the case of India, the Food Standards and Safety Authority has some of the best provisions for protecting the consumers from food related problems but enforcement is totally lacking raising questions about the dependability of the system. Export rejections at the importing countries are often high while there is very little control about what is imported into the country.

If foreign buyers have to repose confidence on Indian food products, necessary world class infrastructure to assess and control the quality of products is absolutely necessary. What India has now, is an apology of a system that cannot be an envy of any one! Look at a small country like Northern Ireland where no effort is spared to ensure their food products are of world class standard. "The £2 million (US$3.2 million) Centre for Assured, Safe, and Traceable Food (ASSET), funded in part by Northern Ireland's Department for Employment and Learning, will research new technologies to detect contaminants in food, which agri-food industries will implement in their facilities to ensure high standards of food safety".

Rampant adulteration of foods go undetected and unpunished, in spite of stringent laws on paper which attract more and more criminals into food retailing. This has led to a situation where foreign buyers are becoming increasingly intrusive to protect what they have ordered and prevent food related safety problems with imported foods from India. There is no worthwhile central agency with necessary power and facilities to prevent manufacture, market and export of processed foods of sub-standard quality. Northern Ireland is showing the way as to how quality and safety can be upgraded, if one has sincerity, vision and resources.