Sunday, February 28, 2010


Frogs are best known for the food value their thigh portion has and frozen frog leg export is a significant part of global food business. But in Australia a different problem exists vis-à-vis frogs called cane toads transplanted from Hawaii to tackle the uncontrolled growth of sugar cane beetle. To day these toads have become an environmental disaster literally destroying many native species through the poison emitted by them affecting the heart of the predators. If a new finding that meat ants can kill these toads when they emerge from ponds near the sugar cane fields can be translated into organized anti-toad campaigns, there is a possibility of controlling their population without resorting to other physical and chemical methods of annihilation.

"Researchers with the University of Sydney found that a few tablespoons of cat food left next to ponds in the Northern Territory attracts fierce Australian meat ants, which then attack baby cane toads as they emerge from the water. The results of the study were published in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology this week. It is the latest weapon in Australia's seemingly endless battle against the cane toad, which was introduced from Hawaii in 1935 in an unsuccessful attempt to control beetles on sugarcane plantations. The toads bred rapidly, and their millions-strong population now threatens many species across Australia".



During the bygone canning era, leaching of excessive levels of tin, lead, arsenic, iron etc into the contents was a matter of great concern which led to coating of such containers with epoxy resins to prevent direct contact between the contents and the metallic body of the can. It is a another matter that these so called safe coatings became a source of concern due to Bis-phenol A ( BPA) tainting of the products packed in such cans. When plastics of different configuration became the major packaging material for food products, the migration of undesirable and unsafe chemicals into the food from the plastics became a serious issue leading to development of international safety standards for food grade plastics. But fast paced advances in packaging design and printing demanded many types of adhesives and multicolored printing inks to be used for improving the presentability. EU woke up to the possibility of dangers posed by such materials to the food recently and is currently investigating this aspect.

"The EFSA scientific cooperation (ESCO) working group has been formed in response a number of episodes in the last few years involving the migration of non-plastic contact materials into food - particularly chemicals in printing inks such as ITX, 4-methylbenzophenone and benzophenone said the body. The most high profile of these related to the tainting of breakfast cereal after packaging ink 4-methylbenzophenone leached into the food. The incidents prompted a Europe-wide investigation".

It is expected that with active cooperation and support of manufacturers of adhesives and printing inks that are used in plastics designed for food contact applications, a workable standard would be developed for compliance by the industry. This move on the part of EU speaks well of its commitments to consumer safety.


The budget presentation hardly excites average Indian to day because of the multi dimensional struggle for survival under a democratic government which neither cares for the citizens' welfare nor does any thing that will mitigate the rising food inflation. There fore scanning the just presented Rail Budget may be an exercise in futility. But when protagonists of the budget highlights its provision for reducing freight rate for transporting food, one has to take notice of it, if true. Here is a take on that.

"Making a reference to the hardships faced by people due to high food prices, Railway Minister Mamta Banerjee in her budget speech announced a reduction of Rs 100 per wagon in freight charges for foodgrain and kerosene for domestic".

With the value of rupee falling continuously and its purchasing power being constantly eroded what impact the above reduction can have on the food prices can be easily guessed. a fully loaded wagon to day costs Rs 27000 and a meager reduction of Rs 100 on this is nothing but a joke being perpetrated on the common man. In spite of promises made year after year to introduce perishable food friendly wagons with provision for temperature and air control, nothing has been done this year also to the utter chagrin of the growers and the processors. If food prices are to come down significantly and they are to be uniform through out the country indian Railways must play its role by expanding the freight facility and more than halving the present freight rate. An impossible dream considering the lack of vision amongst to days political class which control the lever of power.


Coconut oil was viewed with contempt during the last few decades because of its alleged role in CVD and other saturated fat related disorders. Vested interests promoting soybean oil, rapeseed oil, corn oil, rice bran oil and others of western origin built this myth, probably to subdue the economies of countries like India, Sri Lanka and Philippines where major production of coconut oil takes place. During the last few years diligent efforts by food scientists have unraveled the extra ordinary health attributes of coco nut oil consumed for centuries in Asia. Virgin coconut oil (VCO) is a much sought after plant triglyceride and thanks to a few leading processors safe and high quality oils are available internationally at competitive prices.

"VCO is rich in medium chain fatty acids, particularly Lauric Acid. Lauric acid is the same fatty acid found in mother's milk that provides immunity to babies. Among the benefits of VCO Virgin Coconut oil are it promotes weight-loss by increasing metabolism, boosts the immune system, it has anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties and it has good moisturizing properties as well. Using virgin coconut oil can help you with thyroid problem, make your skin glow, reduce weight and reduces cholesterol. With all the health, nutritional, and beauty benefits that you get from Virgin coconut oil, there is no doubt why this has been hailed as the miracle oil. It is said to prevent and cure many sicknesses that are almost impossible to heal. Being a healthy oil, it could help decrease viral load of HIV patients, could improve insulin production and thyroid function, it could reduce the risk of diabetes complications, and could even fight heart disease which is the leading cause of death. Virgin coconut oil improves the performance of the digestive system that can make a person lose weight. In addition, VCO may also solve skin problems like acne, pimples, black heads, eczema, psoriasis, or as simple as dry skin".

Thanks to the stupendous efforts by the Coconut Board under the Ministry of Agriculture, GOI, coconut cultivation is expanding steadily and most of the diseases affecting the productivity are under control. If even a fraction of what is claimed is true, there is every justification for intensifying the R & D efforts further on coconut oil through sustained inputs of critical resources. There may be even a case for setting up an exclusive multi disciplinary research organization under the Board to take this onerous responsibility.



There are several types of consumers who are targeted constantly by the marketeers for promoting various consumer products. There are eternal optimists who never take seriously adverse conditions and always look forward to better things in future. These are the target consumers for food industry because they rarely find fault with any products and swallow what ever is thrown at them with good intention. The eternal pessimists are hard to satisfy and it requires tremendous PR efforts to sell any thing to them. They are the "head aches" of consumer goods industry. There are skeptics who may momentarily suspect the bonafides but can be won over through some manoeuvrings. A model consumer analyzes the pros and cons of a product, tries out initially and comes to a reasonable conclusion of his own regarding the claims by the manufacturer. Industry becomes more alert when consumers become more demanding in terms of quality, safety, accountability and pricing.

"Food-borne diseases are a worldwide problem and rising issues concerning the safety of food in India has made Indians wary of the food that they buy. According to the Nielsen Global Online Survey, 97 percent Indians consider safety of food an important factor in deciding where they shop and 73 percent Indians are confident in the safety of the food that they purchase from their local store. As per the survey, India along with Ukraine is the second most willing nation to pay a premium for food that is safe (85%). Saudi Arabia and Phillipines lead with 86 percent votes in their willingness to pay a premium for safe food. More than six in ten Indians think that the Food Manufacturer has the main responsibility for providing them with safe food. 30 percent hold the Government responsible for providing safe food and only 8 percent think that the Retailer has the main responsibility in providing safe food to them. However, Indians trust the Government the most when a food safety scare arises (32%). With 29 percent, Food Manufacturers are the second most trusted entity in case of a food safety issue. 26 percent Indians trust Media and only 13 percent trust Retailers when they are skeptic about food safety".

Though safety is a priority for Indian consumer, the very understanding of safety concepts is skewed because of few reported food poisoning episodes in the country. If a vast number of people consume foods from road side vendors and low end eateries with suspect credentials and still feel comfortable, food safety may be a non-existent issue for them. The survey findings are gravely flawed, probably because of the faulty design of the study. It is a common knowledge that adulteration of food is most rampant in India and most of the consumers know about it. If bottled water has become a staple product in the Indian market, thanks are due to the governments which have shirked their responsibility to provide safe drinking water to its citizens. The fact of the matter is that there is no "typical Indian" whose food purchasing behavior can be predicted with any degree of certainty.


Traditionally fish is preserved for limited periods by reducing the temperature to less than 4C but above 0C and in India ice blocks and crushed ice are often used to transport fresh fish over long distances. Refrigerated transport containers are now available in India for distribution of freshly harvested fish consignments to different parts of the country. Modified Atmosphere Packing (MAP) first pioneered for perishable fruits to extend their life has become an accepted technology for all perishables. Reducing the O2 tension and increasing CO2 concentration with in the confined space of a container or a storage room provide an hostile atmosphere for most of the microorganisms that can cause spoilage. Recently further extension of shelf life of fish has been achieved by combining low temperature and modified atmosphere.

"However, the authors found that the use of the combination of superchilling and MAP incorporating a CO2 concentration of 90 per cent and a g/p ratio of 2.5 resulted in the longest shelf-life of 22 days as compared to 11 days in a control sample. The lowest salmon shelf life was 16 days, and the highest 22 days, values that are representative for the samples with the lowest and highest CO2 concentration and g/p ratio, respectively," .

The increased shelf life achieved is adequate for safe shipment spanning a travel time of less than 15 days between destinations. Probably India can gainfully utilize this technology for fish exports to nearby countries through land routes or across oceans. Quality of fish distributed within the country can also be expected to be better when this combination technology is deployed.


Saturday, February 27, 2010


Use of any chemical in food production and processing attracts criticism, some genuine and others unfounded. Whether it is the use of pesticides for crop protection or thousands of chemical additives as process aids there are always two views. The very basis of the birth of organic food industry is because of apprehensions regarding the adverse health consequences that can result from ingesting external substances via the food. Several antibiotics, widely used in meat industry to prevent incidence of microbial contamination during production and processing, are being blamed for drug resistance in human beings and are being investigated for their impact. The meat industry naturally defends use of antibiotics as necessary to prevent avoidable food poisoning but credible scientific evidence against their use calls for a rethink on the issue.

"Without substantiating these claims with evidence from peer-reviewed research, the briefing provided little value to the antibiotics debate," added Love, who attended the briefings. "There is a sizable and rapidly expanding scientific literature documenting the relationship between antibiotic use in food animal production, antibiotic-resistant bacteria isolated from farmers, and the downstream presence of multidrug-resistant bacteria in the environment."

If antibiotics are banned in meat production there is bound to be increased clamor for clearing genetically modified meat products with built in resistance against serious pathogens like Salmonella. The emergence Bt crops is driven by the desire to cut down on chemical pesticides that leave residues in the processed products. A balanced view therefore is necessary when it comes to use of antibiotics, weighing the risk-benefit aspects of their use carefully.


India is a country full of preachers many of whom do not follow the preachings, probably due to insincerity, incapability or indifference. Being a peace loving nation Indians rarely confront preachers to force them to practice what they are preaching! Probably this trait has contributed to the impressive growth of preachers in this country on every subject on earth. Food is not an exception. Here is a take on that.

"Science, innovation and food safety should touch people. Farmers in India are not even aware of what Codex is, so demanding adherence to safety codes from this lot is unreasonable. It is important that Codex is translated in the local languages to make it reach the grassroot India".

In a country where farmers are driven in droves to committing suicide due to abject poverty and uncertainties of farming, "teaching" them Codex through local languages can at best be termed as a cruel joke! The gentleman, from whose mouth the above pearls of wisdom poured out, had almost two decades as one of the VIP bureaucratic scientists of GOI in planning food industry development but hardly any thing to show as accomplishment in the area. This is a classical example of the fertile field in the country where only such preachers can flourish. No wonder native Indian rooted food industry is facing extinction driven out by the influx of multinationals with innovative technologies and products dominating the processing sector. It needs no enemies if such friendly "preachers" are around!


Street vending of foods is a fairly common sight in towns and cities through out India and those who swear by the taste of the foods served, mostly through vending carts or improvised serving places, are literally addicts, patronizing these road side eateries regularly. It is another matter that most of the foods catered by the street vendors are considered unsafe because of the contaminated water used, unhygienic environment, soiled utensils and serving plates and serving personnel of indifferent health. Still food poisoning arising from foods consumed from them is far and few, probably due to development of immunity in regular consumers through frequent exposure over a period of time. How about the reaction from a tourist regarding the prevalence of street vending in India. Here is a typical response from a foreign tourist after observing the food service on the roadsides in some areas of Kolkata.

"The temptation is real. But talk to anyone who has visited India, and you're likely to hear at least one tale of gut-busting food trauma. More intrepid travelers, though, will be tempted to test their luck anyway. I particularly craved phuchkas, a dish Kolkata is famous for, a one-bite shot of spiced potatoes in a tiny sphere of fried bread, doused with tamarind water".

It is understandable that people coming from many developed countries may not be familiar with the phenomenon of street foods as they are used to eating in well protected restaurants having cleaner environment and food safety norms stipulated by the concerned authorities. Their immunity to many common bugs is either nil or minimal exposing them to possible food borne infection when street foods are consumed. Past attempts by national and international agencies to improve the safety of street foods in India have sensitized many such vendors as reflected by improved awareness perceptible amongst some of them. But establishment of an institutionalized program in regional languages, spanning the entire country, to provide some rudimentary training to these vendors will go a long way to make their products much more safer than what they are to day.

Friday, February 26, 2010


Extra taxation on foods considered unhealthy is an option being considered in many countries to prevent unbridled growth of the obesity epidemic due to consumption of such foods. Though in principle it may be a sound proposition, there can be many practical issues that need to be sorted out before putting such a policy in place. Here is the experience in Romania where taxes are going to be levied on fast foods which are supposed to be extra rich in calories and fat.

"Plans by the Romanian government to wage war on obesity and bolster the country's flagging treasury by introducing Europe's first fast-food tax have met resistance, including claims it will lead to mass redundancies. Romanian trade unions and the food industry have warned that the new levy on fatty, salty and sugary foods, scheduled to come into force on 1 March and already dubbed the "fat tax", could have dire consequences".

The reservation expressed by the food processing sector needs to be given careful consideration as any new policy must balance the interests of all the stake holders including growers, processors, environmentalists, consumers and the government. The very definition of fast food or obesity causing food is bound to generate controversies and there is unlikely to be any unanimity on this score. But start we must some where to tackle this vexatious issue and probably taxing a few foods with very high calories or fat per serving may be a starting point. If food industry is afraid of a slump in business and consequent potential for unemployment, alternate avenues must be explored to address them. Human life is too valuable to be wasted on political, economic or social considerations.


As the processed food industry in India is habituated to crying hoarse on issues important as well as irrelevant, its loud musings are not given serious consideration in the power corridors. But the recent revelation by the marine food processing sector has serious implications having bearing on fish consumption within the country and exports. In the absence of a long term policy on marine fisheries, frequent ad hoc decisions on many pressing issues of concern to this sector have brought the industry to the sorry pass as we see to day.

"About eighty per cent of India's marine food processing capacity is lying idle, says The Seafood Exporters Association of India. The marine food industry today has a capacity to process 14,000 tonnes of fish a day (mostly for freezing), but about 80 per cent of the capacity is not being used currently. This is because of two reasons. First, sea catch is stagnating. Second, the capacity is built to process peak catch. India has 409 modern freezing plants, of which 221 are approved by the European Union.In a bid to utilise the capacity, marine exporters want procedures eased for importing fish for processing and onward exports. Marine exporters are now permitted to import, but there are procedural bottlenecks, says Mr Anwar Hashim, President, The Seafood Exporters Association of India. For example, they have to obtain a "sanitary import permit", which takes at least two weeks to get. In countries such as China, the exporter just gives an undertaking that the imports are meant for processing and onward exports, and the undertaking is accepted".

There appears to be logic in the stand taken by the industry and their pleadings deserve full scale consideration by the governments at the state and central levels. Fish is considered one of the most nutritious foods man has ever known and unless the present problems are addressed with some sense of urgency, fish may end up in aquariums for decoration rather than as a vital food within a few years.



Recent humiliating experience of the Toyota Motors, world's largest auto maker is to e viewed against the craze for things made in Japan amongst consumers world over. There was a time not long ago that world believed that Japan can do no wrong and this conviction was reinforced when Toyota over took General Motors of the US as the largest auto maker in the planet. Probably there will be thousands of treatise discussing the reasons for such a collapse in the image of Japan so suddenly, emerging in the coming days. Is there a lesson to be learned from this episode? Fingers are now being pointed to China whose rise in the economic ladder has been quick and dramatic and one will have to watch the developments vis-à-vis China to discern any sign of decline.

"But China's rapid ascendancy carries with it a far greater risk of overstretch and structural weakness than Toyota's. China's problems are more pervasive and threatening than a sticky pedal, lumpy floor mats, or even electronic signaling issues. Bribery and institutionalized corruption have resulted in massive amounts of unsafe construction and inferior products. There is little or no operative regulatory structure. China barely has a functioning judiciary. Growth is raping its environment. The vast urban migration -- the largest in history -- has created profound tears in the country's fabric. And social unrest is being managed by showering capitalist bennies within an autocratic framework that still views the Internet as a threat".

The very fact that some critics do feel that China can emulate Japan in many ways and its ambitious leap to reach the top may also end up like the present state of that troubled nation. The American obsession with China may also be tempered if China does emulate Japan in its slide down to ignominy. World wants China to succeed and wishes to see its people not only prosperous but also freed from restrictive human rights regime that exists to day.



Informed consumers world over are concerned about the increasing impact of brazen health claims printed on processed food products, most of which target children and house wives. It is known that high decibel promotion of these products are sufficiently persuasive and boosts their sale dramatically. Here is a critique on such devious practices indulged by powerful food manufacturers.

Fast-forward to 1984, when Kellogg's high-fiber All-Bran cereal won an endorsement from the National Cancer Institute. "Within 6 months, All-Bran's market share increased by 47%, sending an unmistakable message that health claims sell products," Nestle and Ludwig write. So perhaps it was inevitable that in 2009, Kellogg would claim that its Cocoa Krispies and other Krispies cereals would "support your child's IMMUNITY" because they are fortified with vitamins A, C and E, three antioxidants that contribute to the immune system. Here's what Nestle had to say about that assertion in a Q&A last year with the San Francisco Chronicle:All nutrients are involved in immune function. But is it remotely possible that Cocoa Krispies might protect your child against colds or swine flu? I wish."

After San Francisco City Atty. Dennis Herrera challenged the immunity claim, Kellogg backed down. But case-by-case enforcement isn't sufficient, Nestle and Ludwig say. Food makers are brazen in their pronouncements that their highly processed products are healthy, and research shows that consumers not only believe the statements but also perceive them to carry a government seal of approval. That leaves only one solution, the coauthors say: "an outright ban on all front-of-package claims." Such a ban would surely face a court challenge on 1st Amendment grounds, Nestle and Ludwig concede, but the FDA should not shrink from the fight:"Claims that sugar-sweetened products make children smarter or boost their immunity are reason enough for the FDA to take this issue back to court and for Congress to consider legislative remedies."

Lot of food for thought for governments that control the industry through administrative policies to protect their hapless citizens. While enacting laws may be easier, their enforcement through rigorous vigilance and deterrent punitive action calls for a sound infrastructure for inspection, market sampling and reliable chemical and microbiological testing.


Thursday, February 25, 2010


Having committed for a 25-40% reduction in CO2 emission within 5 years, Indian Governments (GOI) will have to ponder over the impact of such a program on various fronts. As far as the food industry is concerned, there is a feeling that the CO2 emission control program will reflect on the manufacturing cost of processed foods very significantly. This is probably due to additional investment, which may be necessary to install palliative equipment by the food processing industry for reducing the quantum of pollution from their manufacturing facilities. This, how ever, may not be completely true as reflected by some modeling studies reported recently, simulating the future scenario vis-à-vis CO2 emission controlling regime.

"The Treasury modelling found that in 2013, the average price impact of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme on food bills will be around $68 a year -- less than 1 per cent of household food bills," Mr Garrett said. However, the council chief executive Kate Carnell said this was not realistic, given the role of electricity in the processed food supply chain. "The average shopping basket is about $200 a week, so the government's modelling suggests a barely 0.5 per cent increase off the back of increases in electricity prices of 20 to 40 per cent. That is not even vaguely credible in a manufacturing industry," she said.

As no realistic studies have been carried out in India, it may be difficult to predict the consequences of GOI tightening the screw on the industry for bringing out substantial reduction in carbon pollution. If the western modeling is transposed under Indian conditions, less than 1% increase in the prices of processed foods is just "peanuts" when the consumer in this country is already braving a 20% annual inflation in the food front. GOI must not bend before such artificial scare "taunting" by vested interest and stick to its commitment before the world community. Which is also good for the country.



How do we judge the reliability and quality of foods served in restaurants? Most customers experiment by visiting well presented and attractive eateries and choosing the ones serving tasty and safe foods for repeat visits. But often appearance can be deceptive with well presented out fits offering foods that do not excite the taste buds. According to marketing pundits in Western countries, the quality of menu card which is first offered for selecting the food conveys all about the foods served there. 

"Having a well-designed menu cover is important because food establishments are sometimes judged based on it. Professionalism and dedication can be seen in the cover, and customers can draw conclusions about the food quality and customer service based from it. Long-term customer relationship usually starts with a good first impression, and that is achieved though menu and its cover".

Whether such a view is valid in India is not known. How ever, with low awareness about food safety aspects, Indians flock to eateries where only tasty foods are served, ignoring the environment, the serving personnel, hygiene etc. But those who seek ambiance besides quality and taste, are impressed by menu cards and their quality. Glossy thick cards, multi color printing, attractive design features and well dressed service personnel help to establish a lasting relationship between the restaurant and its clientele. 


Last year's food poisoning episode in China involving melamine tainted milk products that killed 6 children and affected more than 3 lakh others with urinary tract problems is still fresh in the memory of the world. That indignant nation saw the resignation of the Minister Mr Li Changjiang, overseeing the safety of food products, obviously owning the responsibility for the unfortunate fiasco. That it was a drama enacted to pacify the people became clear when the same gentleman was rewarded with a plush ministerial post for overseeing government's efforts to curb pornographic and illegal publications with in an year of the tainted milk episode. Here is a sample of what the indignant parents whose children were affected had to say on this deceitful act of their government.

"My boy is still suffering as he has a stone still in his body, and Li bears responsibility," he told China Daily yesterday. "The government should have asked the victims' families about Li's comeback first." However, Dong Shiliang, a father in Yunnan province whose 2-year-old son became ill after drinking tainted milk, said he felt "angry and helpless" after hearing the news of Li's appointment.

While some of the perpetrators were punished with execution and other prison sentences, the Minister got a promotion! What an hypocrisy indeed! Probably Chinese must have taken a leaf out of their Indian counterparts in the bureaucracy where the highest form of punishment is just a transfer! In India we also have innumerable examples of criminals and case sheeters "adorning" the Parliament in service of people! Of course the "tortoise" paced justice system helps them to perpetuate such heinous acts.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010


With increasing realization that trans fats are more dangerous than saturated long chain fats in the every day diet, serious consideration is being given by many countries to put in place a statutory ban on its presence in foods. While consumers can find relief in such measures, how such blanket ban can be enforced, especially in many developing countries where there are weak safety monitoring regimes, is a relevant issue. In India itself there is a ban on use of animal fats in processed foods but no one really knows whether food products are really free from this fat ingredient. Trans fats are artifacts generated during catalytic hydrogenation process for modifying the plasticity of the fat and food industry, especially the bakery and confectionery sectors, is in deep love with hydrogenated fat as its use gives an end product of unparalleled eating quality. Of course there can be alternate technologies available to day for plasticizing fat that include interesterification, fractionation etc and such fats can play the same role as hydrogenated fat.

"The news is based on a series of recommendations from the UK Faculty of Public Health, which is concerned about the potentially harmful effects of the manufactured fats. The chemically modified fats, found in biscuits, margarine and ready meals, have been linked to coronary heart disease and increases in cholesterol. The proposal has been made as part of a series of recommendations designed to improved UK health over the next decade. The call to completely remove trans fats from the British diet echoes bans in Denmark and parts of the US and Canada".

It is time licenses for operation of hydrogenation plants are canceled and the production of hydrogenated fats is completely banned in all the countries, in stead of leaving it to individual countries to do it. Palm oil, mostly originating from Asia is an ideal source from which plastic fats can be made by selective fractionation and the resulting product must be acceptable to the bakery and confectionery industries. The unjustified boycott call of Palm oil and products derived from it by some multinational food processors under the guise of agricultural sustainability must be fought by the Asian countries collectively and palm oil based plastic fats offer the best solution to the problem of trans fats in the diet.



Coin operated and smart card accessible Vending machines are considered as a convenient mode of retailing consumer products like juices, snacks etc and have become very popular in western countries. However they have not made any dent in the market in India. Probably millions of family stores, located strategically in areas where there is large concentration of population, make distribution easy in a country like India. Besides, establishing such machines and operating and maintaining them in working condition require high investments and other sustainable inputs. Even in places like Rail Stations, Bus Terminals and Tourism Centers there are vending shops readily accessible for the public with multiple choices that cannot be rivaled by any vending machine. While vending machines, if maintained well, can be a boon to consumers, there can be safety problems associated with these units as reported recently in the US where vending machines are ubiquitous by their wide scale presence.

"Coliform bacteria was detected in 48% of the beverages and 20% had a heterotrophic plate count greater than 500 cfu/ml. [...] More than 11% of the beverages analyzed contained Escherichia coli [E. Coli] and over 17% contained Chryseobacterium meningosepticum. Other opportunistic pathogenic microorganisms isolated from the beverages included species of Klebsiella, Staphylococcus, Stenotrophomonas, Candida, and Serratia. Most of the identified bacteria showed resistance to one or more of the 11 antibiotics tested".

If contamination with various microbes is as wide spread as reported, a radical relook at the design and operational mode of these machines are called for. One of the reasons could be the inadequacy of the cleaning regime after each reloading allowing such microbes to reside in the machine for long time, contaminating the fresh incoming product. The consoling factor is that vending machines are rarely found to be responsible for food poisoning episodes in the past, though such incidences cannot be ruled out in future for which precautionary measures need to be taken now. It is the unsuspecting consumer whose life is put in jeopardy by such unsafe machines or the products vended through them.


Sugar is getting "bitter" day by day because of the galloping prices for this commodity in the market. While the blame game goes on regarding who is responsible for this fiasco, there does not appear to be any relief to the "aam aadmi" from this unbearable burden on his food budget. Probably GOI's inscrutable Minister for Agriculture and Consumer Affairs may be preparing to offer his valuable "advice" to the consumers, he does not feel burdened by his incapability to rein in the prices through administrative action giving a free hand to the hoarders and black marketeers.

"In the administrative price regime, what happens is that you can increase the MSP and in case of sugarcane the statutory minimum price and the state advised price, and now the fair and remunerative prices that is being talked about, all these can go up. They don't go down. Sugar prices can go up and down. But the cane prices are stuck. If the state advised price for example in 2007-08 was high and farmers produced a lot of sugarcane and then there was shortage of wheat, if you recall we imported six million tonnes of wheat that year, and then there is a knee jerk reaction from the government policymakers and we increased the MSP for wheat by more than 30% in a single year. So farmers switch away from sugar cane to wheat. So this is a typical three-year cycle. What is happening today in sugarcane the prices today that UP farmers are getting are going to Rs 240 per quintal, you can bet that within two years there will be a glut of sugar in this country and shortage of wheat again".

It is unfortunate that GOI does not have a long term vision for food production in the country and periodic tinkering with the policy can only yield periodic crisis in the food front like the present one. As for sugar it may be a blessing in disguise if such high prices act as a break to increasing sugar consumption, considered unhealthy and unnecessary for which country may well remember the "Minister"! But if the same week kneed policy is pursued with regard to staples, it may spell doom for the country and the "Minister". It was not too long ago that the same Minister advised the consumer to be prepared for significant increase in milk prices, in stead of taking action to preempt such a contingency.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


How divisive the cultivation of GM crops can be, is reflected by the on-going arguments amongst EU nations regarding the desirability of adopting Monsanto's new GM Maize and the consequences there of. The only GM crop allowed in some European countries is Maize and even here there does not seem to be any unanimity. It appears EU may ask for more studies to address the concerns expressed about the negative impact of introducing this crop in Europe.

"HCB called for further studies to evaluate potential drawbacks in MON 810, such as damage to non-targeted insects or the development of resistance to the crop among targeted pests. "The only way to highlight ... a significant increase or decrease in populations of non-targeted invertebrates is to implement monitoring over several years," the HCB said. The committee also said more work was needed to establish the benefits of the maize type versus other growing techniques, especially in areas not significantly affected by the pests MON 810 was designed to resist".

GM technology has put the US and EU on a collision course as the former is the top most country in this planet growing almost all food crops using GM technology. In such an environment the free trade concept under the WTO regime is likely to suffer in the coming years unless some sort of a consensus emerges on the safety of GM crops.



There are many views regarding the cause of the most visible symptom of over eating, the obesity. The blame game for this uncontrollable phenomenon pitches diverse groups against each other though there is no clarity as to what needs to be done to arrest this "giant" problem. All said and done, all are collectively responsible for this undesirable trend being witnessed to day. Individuals are not restraining their urge to eat disproportionate to their body needs, parents are not exercising adequate control on the food habits of their children, community and social institutions are guilty of practicing consumption of rich foods, industry is not serving the cause by promoting blatantly unhealthy processed foods, R & D scientists are not re-orienting their efforts in combating this problem through better foods and government is not using its power of taxing unhealthy foods to make them costlier. It is a collective failure for which the whole world is paying a heavy price in the form of widespread diseases, wastage of human resources and lost productivity.

"While experts argue over whether to blame individuals, society, fast food or families for the rapid rise in obesity rates, perhaps the more pressing question is what to do about it. The answers are pouring in -- from radio talk shows, blogs, editorial pages -- amping up the feelings of the already fed up".

Probably United Nations must consider holding a special meeting of its member nations to consider this "death wish" amongst some of its population through over eating and unbalanced eating to evolve a consensus on the strategy to be adopted to over come the tragic situation through cooperative efforts of all stake holders, the consumer, industry, the governments, food experts, research scientists, medical professionals, sociologists, psychologists and educational agencies.



Relatively little is known about the impact of Vitamin D supplements being peddled by the industry making diverse health claims, none of which has been proved conclusively with impeccable clinical trials. Knowing the limitation of our knowledge of this vitamin, coordinated studies are now being undertaken with human subjects to bring out the real facts. Vitamin supplements are not desirable for normal healthy humans. Many believe that taking them regularly can only help boost the financial health of the pharmaceutical industry and not the consumer. This has been proved by a few scientific studies. Taking a balanced and diverse diet can provide all the necessary essential nutrients and those who want to take these supplements must do so only after confirming deficiency through reliable analysis of their blood.

"People most at risk for vitamin D deficiency are older, have diabetes or kidney disease, stay indoors or have darker skin. African-American teenagers are at particularly high risk, possibly because in addition to their dark skin, they are less likely at that age to drink milk or play outside. The scientific community continues to debate the optimum level of vitamin D. In general, people are considered to be deficient if they have blood levels below 15 or 20 nanograms per milliliter. But many doctors now believe vitamin D levels should be above 30. The ideal level isn't known, nor is it known at what point a person is getting too much vitamin D, which can lead to kidney stones, calcification in blood vessels and other problems".

With processed milk fortified with vitamin D in many countries, it is unlikely that normal consumers would encounter deficiency of this nutrient. When exposure to sun for just 15 minutes is adequate for generating the needed Vitamin D in the body where is the necessity for most of the people to take Vitamin D supplement or foods fortified with the same for a healthy life.


Sunday, February 7, 2010


Ever since poly phenols were found to exert antioxidant properties that could hep fight oxyradicals generated in the body, there have been a spate of well being foods marketed by the industry containing ingredients with high levels of these phytochemicals. What has been ignored in such commercial endeavors is the ability of human body to absorb the active principles across the GI tract from the foods formulated with antioxidant ingredients. Green tea polyphenols were highly valued at one time because of its beneficial effect but many studies indicated that less than 5% of the concentration of the polyphenols present in the tea extract. How ever recently even these findings have been contradicted by new insight into the bioavailability of tea phenols and a figure of 40% is now being claimed.

"The bioavailability of antioxidant catechins from green tea may be more than previously thought, says a new study from Italy.By taking into account metabolites called colonic ring fission metabolites the bioavailability of green tea flavan-3-ol and related compounds is almost 40 per cent, a lot higher than the 4 per cent reported earlier, according to findings published in Nutrition".

With such confusing signals emerging from the scientific community, it is very difficult for any consumer to believe many claims made by the manufacturers of health foods blindly. Added to this these so called well being food products invariably cost significantly higher in the market and those who patronize such products are left to the mercy of the market. It is now that governments world over including that in India are waking up to this reality and trying to regulate the claims demanding scientific validity for such health claims



One of the paradoxes of modern life is that only those who are rich can afford to buy healthy foods while others who are not able to buy good nutritional foods due to economic reasons end up consuming calories and fat rich foods offered by the food industry at lower costs. How the industry is able to make processed foods containing costly ingredients cheaper is any body's guess. No wonder that most people coming under the obesity group hail from lower income segment of the population in rich countries.

"Professor and obesity researcher, Dr. Adam Drewnowski set out to determine why income is the most reliable predictor of obesity in the U.S. To do this, he took a hypothetical dollar to the grocery store. His goal was to purchase as many calories as possible per dollar. What he found is that he could buy well over 1,000 calories of cookies or potato chips. But his dollar would only buy 250 calories of carrots. He could buy almost 900 calories of soda… but only 170 calories of orange juice. If you are poor and hungry, you are obviously going to buy the cheapest calories you can find. And in today's world, the cheapest calories come from junk foods – whether those foods are found at the grocery store, the gas station, or in the fast food restaurant, conveniently located just down the street".

Fortunately in India it is the other way. In the name of value addition, processed foods are priced exorbitantly to the extent of 100 to 500% that of the input material. While corn flake cereal preparation costs more than Rs 250 per kg, the raw material maize is available to the consumer at less than Rs 15 per kg. Probably there is a relationship between the scale of operation and the consumer price. Larger the size of the manufacturer higher seems to be the difference between the cost of input materials and the product price.


Saturday, February 6, 2010


Food Industry and consumer activists are always at loggerheads regarding some of the practices being followed by the former which the latter consider as consumer unfriendly. Latest in this unequal bout is a treatise prepared in the US for consideration by the enforcement authorities containing some suggestions to improve the information content on the label and prevent unsubstantiated health claims.

"Just as the year is ending, the tireless consumer advocacy group CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest) has sent a 158 page report to the FDA, entitled Food Labeling Chaos – the case for reform. In it, the organization claims that nutrition labeling today is insufficient, and that existing regulations are too lax to deal with the marketing brainpower of the food industry. If you have a nutrition label addiction like we do, this report is awesome. The authors break the issues down into 3 areas: improving the nutrition facts panel, improving ingredient labels and stopping false and misleading health-related claims. They provide examples, from a wide range of product by Kellogg's , Nestlé, Gerber, Minute Maid, and others of why regulatory changes are needed ASAP":

The comprehensive suggestions are note worthy and the instances cited in this report, though applicable to the US industry, are nonetheless useful to India also while improving the consumer perception about processed foods. FSSAI can learn a lesson or two from the report, if it has any serious concern about the safety and well being of Indian consumers.



Food safety has almost become an obsession with the Americans and food industry, especially the meat products sector is under the critical as a result of a few food contamination problems encountered from time to time. May experts feel that there is nothing like absolute safety and it is the responsibility of the consumer to take measures to protect himself by thorough cooking of the industry offered food materials. Just like "Defensive Driving" where one expects accidents to happen due to others' fault and still drive safely, in food also the consumer may have to view food sourced from out side his house as a potential hazard deserving appropriate measures to preempt the same. According to the Meat Industry spokesman, the US has the best safety surveillance system in the world and the excellent infrastructure that has been created should instill sufficient confidence amongst consumers about the strength of the system.

" Almost 8000 federal food inspectors oversee 6200 meat plants across the country. Plants that process live animals have inspectors on site during every minute of livestock processing and meat production, and large plants have as many as 24 inspectors on site who are authorized to halt production at any time and prevent meat from entering commerce. Since 2000, the incidence of Escherichia coli O157:H7 in ground beef has decreased 45pc to less than 0.5pc of production, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture sampling data. Since 2000, the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 infections in people has decreased 44pc, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Since 2000, the incidence of salmonella in ground beef has decreased more than 50pc, based on USDA sampling data".

In spite of the awesome preventive action taken by the safety agencies in the US, food contamination is still happening though to a lesser extent. Eternal vigilance has its own advantages but as human is to err, mishaps can still happen. What is to be ensured is that food poisoning episodes do not occur due to callousness or greed for money.



The latest news is Kraft's planned purchase of Britain's Cadbury to create a mac-and-cheese-to-candy-bar megalith with combined worldwide sales of nearly $55 billion. It comes on the heels of Heineken's purchase of the beer operations of Mexico's Femsa to create a $25 billion mega brewer. These aren't even the dominant companies in their business. Switzerland's Nestlé is almost twice as large as Kraft. Heineken will now be about the same size as the brewing colossus built in 2008 when Belgium's InBev bought Anheuser-Busch. At the end of 2008, 10 companies accounted for two-thirds of the world's beer sales, up from 40 percent in 2002.

"Consolidation is sold by corporate gurus as rich in synergy and efficiencies that eventually trickle down to consumers. But the supposed consumer benefits are often unconvincing. Pennzoil's acquisition of Quaker State led to more expensive motor oil, Procter & Gamble's purchase of Tambrands led to more expensive tampons, and General Mills' purchase of the Chex brands led to more expensive cereal, according to one study. Despite limits imposed by antitrust regulators, the merger between Guinness and Grand Metropolitan to create the food and drink giant Diageo led to substantial increases in the price of Scotch".

In India many desi food companies owned mostly by families with traditional experience resist such temptations and do not lend themselves to buying out by competitors. The most notable buy out in India was that by Coca Cola when it entered the country after economic liberalization in early nineteen nineties capturing a substantial market in cola beverages enjoyed by the Thumsup brand of Parle. Though there is a Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission that is supposed to be a watch dog for preventing mergers and cartelling, food industry was never a focus of investigation by this Commission so far.



The Bt Brinjal Minister is continuing his road show around the country presumably to 'elicit' views from the consumers about the advisability of clearing introduction of the GM version of this poor man's vegetable in the country. In a recent interaction with the media, the Minister felt that all those who are protagonists of GM foods should not be accused of supporting the business interest of the multinational seed supplier and others opposing could not be branded as anti-technology. He further promised to take a decision before February 10, 2010 on the issue. In spite of many protests and demonstrations against Bt Brinjal, there are still some supporters who believe it is safe. Here is one of the cases where an argument is being put forward by an NRI scientist from the US as to why Brinjal, of all the vegetables in India, needs genetic modification.

"We need it to bring down the cost of cultivation. Sixty to 70% of planted brinjal is lost to pests during cultivation. Farmers use insecticides and sprays that are harmful to the soil as well as to the labourers working on farms. Brinjal has no natural resistance to the stem borer (pest). Hence, there is a need to have a variant that is resistant to the pest. The alternative technology, other than conventional breeding, that helps achieve this is Bt. Through this technology, cost and pollution can be reduced and the produce will be bountiful. Moreover, the technology is ready to deliver the product now. There are 2,500 varieties of brinjal. If Bt brinjal were to be introduced, will it not affect biodiversity? The premise that that the introduction of Bt brinjal will destroy biodiversity is a scientific falsehood. There are no more than 200 varieties of brinjals".

As a democratic country India must respect the views of every "citizen" who has a right to be heard on any issue concerning the welfare of the country. But the pedestrian "opinion" like the above volunteered by foreign nationals with 'desi' sounding names, not based on ground realities in India, smells of a pronounced bias in favor of the business group that promotes GM foods, ignoring the inherent risks involved for millions of people in this country and affecting the very foundation of our agriculture.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Food processing industry has a high stake in keeping the production facilities always clean and hygienic to make sure the end products marketed are safe for consumption with out any health hazards. This is the reason why water needs of this industry is one of the highest in the manufacturing sector. The microbial hazards to foods are relatively low if the processing operations are dry using no water but wet processing uses water at different stages providing suitable growth environment to microbes including pathogens. Though many synthetic chemicals are available for use in the food industry, most efficient mode is use of steam under pressure to loosen stubborn stains and remove them to make the shop floor clean and almost sterile. Portable units with provision for steam based sprays are now available and this is a must for all manufacturers engaged in wet processing of foods to disinfect floors, walls and machinery regularly.

"Portable steam cleaners have a wide range of commercial uses in the food industry, such as for cleaning baking racks, ovens, and food manufacturing units. There are two reasons for their widespread use: cleaning efficiency and sanitizing technology".

In India also such portable, self generating steam cleaners are reported to be available and some large scale processors are known to be using. What is required is to down size the equipment and make it affordable to small scale processors who are most vulnerable to food safety related problems. Probably MFPI can think of a scheme for subsidizing purchase of such types of critical equipment by the small industries in the interest of consumer safety.


In the renewable energy front Chinese efforts seem to be fabulous and according to some analysts this country is likely to dominate the world in the coming years leaving others like Norway, the US etc far behind. More than two thirds of the power generated currently in China comes from coal using technology that causes minimum pollution to the environment. Of course large sized, renewable energy producing plants are being supplied by China at costs which are significantly lower than those coming from Europe or the US but most of the manufacturers of these equipment are using western technologies provided under collaboration or partnership with foreign companies giving China the advantage of not investing time and resources for R & D on renewable energy sources like solar, wind turbines, geothermal, wave energy etc.

"China has also leapfrogged the West in the last two years to emerge as the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels. And the country is pushing equally hard to build nuclear reactors and the most efficient types of coal power plants. These efforts to dominate renewable energy technologies raise the prospect that the West may someday trade its dependence on oil from the Mideast for a reliance on solar panels, wind turbines and other gear manufactured in China".

If China to day is a major trading nation accounting for a substantial portion of global trade, it is mainly because of its disciplined and cheap labor under tight control by the authoritarian regime, not caring for democratic principles. Added to this is the benevolent attitude of many western countries which look the other way when human rights violations are frequent and severe at times. Probably the sheer size of its population and the vast market it offers make many western countries cozy up to China pumping massive foreign investments and modern technologies into that country.



The very mention of electron microscope evokes a sense of awe because of its high cost and the specialized expertise required to handle it. Advances in electronics and optical lenses have now made it possible for practically any industry to own an electronic microscope at affordable cost. Besides its usefulness as an assessment tool for regular quality monitoring, electron microscope is an essential part of R & D and working out quality specifications during development of new products.

"The new TM3000 is a tabletop variable pressure scanning electron microscope, characterized by even easier operation, with a one button auto start, auto focus and other automated on board functions. These are all controlled through a laptop computer with an intuitive, Windows. 7-based user interface, designed for use by non-specialists. Improved electron optics has not only allowed the maximum magnification to be extended to 30,000x with improved resolution, but also provides three easily selectable modes of operation: surface, normal, and high-brightness/contrast".

At what cost it will be available in India is not clear at present but at least Universities and food research institutions should have such facility to train future technical personnel who will be running the industry after graduation. Probably MFPI of GOI must give a thought of subsidizing purchase of such instruments to help the industry manufacture much better and safer product in the long run.


It is not too often that multinational firms and big industries get credit for social service activities beneficial to large populations in the area where they carry out their manufacturing operations. It is a fact that food processing industry needs massive quantity of water for their production activities and spew out large quantities of waste water with high pollution potential. The Coca Cola experience in Kerala, India is a classical example of an industry which became a "villain" for people in the villages near the bottling plant precisely because of drastic depletion of ground water and contamination of the local water supply sources from effluent seepage. Now comes the welcome news about the same company, probably after learning from their past experience, helping the people to augment water supplies through modern rain harvesting technology.

"The projects have the combined capacity to harvest 36 lakh liters (3.6 million liters) of rainwater annually, benefiting the schools and surrounding communities. "Rain water harvesting has emerged as a viable option to redirect rainwater into the ground, which otherwise goes waste," said Dr. Saleem Romani, former chairman of the Central Ground Water Board, according to "We need to persuade more people and society at large to take up rain water harvesting projects."But the project isn't a first. Coca-Cola (Nasdaq:KO) and its bottling partners have installed more than 500 rain water harvesting projects in 22 states in the country, in an effort to contribute to better water management. In other environmental efforts, Coke and its bottling partners said last month all their new vending machines and coolers are expected to be hydrofluorocarbon-free (HFC) by 2015. The move to HFC-free refrigeration is expected to reduce the equipment's direct greenhouse gas emissions by 99 percent".

While the new approach and attitude will be widely welcomed, these industrial giants must go further in identifying themselves with the aspirations of local people by investing and involving in more socially relevant and impact making projects setting aside their corporate goals of increased profits in what ever they do. There are many areas crying for attention like education, infrastructure, old age homes, child care centers, health programs etc and any contribution from them in these areas will be greatly appreciated and remembered.


Tuesday, February 2, 2010


There is a common perception that good dining environment makes people happy and more the ambiance, greater will be the happiness. But this theory has been proved wrong by a recent survey on the relationship between happiness and quality of restaurants. It appears that relatively obscure areas score over well reputed cities when it comes to happiness of the resident citizens.

"For instance, citizens of New York State, home of what is generally regarded as America's finest food city, ranked dead last in happiness. Those living in the home states of Boston, Chicago, and LA/SF are rated, respectively, as the 44th, 45th, and 46th glummest humans in the land (out of 51, including District of Columbia). On the other end, such decidedly non-gastronomic centers as Alaska, Wyoming, Alabama, Montana, Mississippi, Maine, Arizona, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Hawaii contain ten of the top dozen happiest citizens".

Good food is supposed to make people happy and why such delightful places like New York could not make people there as happy as others living in lesser known places is a mystery worth unraveling. Could it be due to the hectic pace of living encountered in big cities that is coming in the way of happiness? Or could it be the over crowding factor in restaurants in many big cities make people more tense and consequently less happy? Probably food may not be a critical factor that influences happiness of citizens in urban areas.



Human endeavor through out history has been to achieve increasing productivity in what ever man does and the area of milk production is no exception. Hybrid cows were once the most acceptable source of milk with their high capacity to yield milk and more favorable feed to milk ratio. Not satisfied with these achievements dairy industry in some countries like the US started tampering with the natural production of milk by beef cattle and there are six steroid hormones already in use in that country for increased milk production. Advent of recombinant DNA technology gave rise to the development of synthetic hormones like rBovine Growth Hormone (r-BGH) which is used in the US accounting for 42% of country's milk out put, though there are concerns about the safety of this practice world over.

"The use of rBGH has well-known negative impacts on the health of dairy cows. Human consumption of dairy products produced using the hormone also may increase the risk of certain types of cancer. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and all 27 members of the European Union have disallowed the use of rBGH. Codex Alimentarius, the United Nations' main food safety body, twice determined that there was no consensus on the safety of rBGH for human health. It is widely acknowledged that the use of hormones in beef production leaves hormone residues in meat, putting consumers at risk for prolonged exposure. While European Union authorities have never approved the use of hormones in beef production, the U.S. government has relied on very limited and now out-of-date research to back its claim that it is safe for producers to use growth hormones on their animals"

People in rest of the world are always puzzled by the obsession the US has towards genetically engineered foods and with half hearted attempts to carry out necessary safety studies on GM foods. The consumers seem to be at the mercy of those giant private companies working under benign policies of the government there which are in the fore front in pushing GM technologies with scant regard to the long term consequences of consuming GM foods to the helpless citizens of that country.