Saturday, July 31, 2010


School feeding program is considered a socially driven necessity with multi-dimensional impact. Billions of dollars are invested in these national programs run in many countries with a fond hope that the health of children, growing to become the responsible citizens of tomorrow, is not adversely affected due to negligence. In a country like India school feeding is more targeted, the major objective being improving attendance. A rich country like the US is very much concerned with school feeding and this has to be understood against the present health crisis facing the country with over weight and obese population approaching the fearsome 40% mark. Probably it may be an indirect reflection of the shirking of parental responsibility because most well to do parents do not inculcate the habit of consuming balanced foods at home. Schools provide an ideal avenue for "guiding" the children regarding good and bad foods. Banning of vending machines and junk foods in schools can help to some extent in reforming the eating habits but to what extent such efforts can replace parental responsibility remains to be seen.

"The bill is a top priority for the Obama Administration and a key component of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign to end the epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation. "There is no better investment--no better stimulus to our economy--than feeding this nation's children healthy and well," said well-known chef and Top Chef host, Tom Colicchio before Congress yesterday. "Let's fund school lunches and breakfasts at a spending level that significantly raises the quality and variety of what schools can afford, and get rid of junk food in vending machines once and for all. "We are on the brink of a national health crisis that is affecting our youngest children," said committee chairman George Miller (D-CA) at the hearing. Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. Nearly one in three children is obese."

"We want to empower schools to help improve meal quality, to change children's lives and take the issue of children's health seriously," said Miller, as he outlined four central tenets of the bill: (1) increase access to healthy food during the school day, (2) improve food safety and recall process in schools, (3) increase the reimbursement rate for school meals for the first time in 30 years, (4) extend nutrition programs to meet needs beyond the traditional school year. On top of targeting both obesity and hunger crises facing millions of Americans eligible for federal nutritional programs, the bill contains specific food safety language. The legislation responds directly to a September Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that found a lack of coordination in communicating food safety problems to schools. The bill calls for improved communication to speed notification of recalled school foods consistent with GAO recommendations and ensuring all food service employees have access to food safety training to prevent and identify food-borne illness such as through Web-based training.

Food safety is assuming serious proportion in the US with massive recalls involving billions of dollars suspected to be contaminated or safety compromised and the credibility of the food security system is increasingly coming under the scanner. The health dimension to the food is probably more difficult to comprehend for evolving a definitive proactive policy but the broad contour of any policy must deal with excessive calories, high fat content and higher levels of salt in every day foods one eats. This is where the new administrative dispensation in the US is attempting to bring about far reaching changes.


After the computer key board, it is the turn of mobile phones now to receive critical attention from the pathologist community and if they are to be believed the ubiquitous mobile phone can be a serious source of microbiological hazard to users. It is understandable that the hand held mobile phone which is more or less a personal item of inventory can have accumulation of microorganisms derived mostly from the owner of the phone. The type of microbes and their density on the phone will depend on the personal hygiene and sanitation of the user and same can vary enormously. As this electronic gadget cannot be cleaned regularly except by wiping to remove dust, over a period of time there can be considerable accumulation of micro organisms on different parts on the surface. Touch phones are marginally better because they do not have the regular number buttons as seen in normal phones which can harbor considerable number of microbes. Therefore the recent report by a survey study in the UK highlighting the microbiological status of mobile phones should not come as a surprise.

"The findings from a sample of dozens of phones by Which? magazine suggest 14.7 million of the 63 million mobiles in use in Britain today could be potential health hazards, reports the Daily Mail. Hygiene expert Jim Francis, who carried out the tests, said: "The levels of potentially harmful bacteria on one mobile were off the scale. That phone needs sterilising." The most unhygienic phone also had 39 times the safe level of enterobacteria, a group of bacteria that live in the lower intestines of humans and animals and include bugs such as salmonella. It boasted 170 times the acceptable level of faecal coliforms, which are associated with human waste. Other bacteria including food poisoning bugs e.coli and staphylococcus aureus were found on the phones but at safe levels. Which? researcher Ceri Stanaway said: "The bugs can end up on your hands which is a breeding ground and be passed back to your phone. They can be transferred back and forth and eventually you could catch something nasty. "What this shows is how easy it is to come into contact with bacteria. People see toilet flushes as being something dirty to touch but they have less bacteria than phones. "People need to be mindful of that by observing good hygiene themselves and among others who they pass the phone to when looking at photos, for example." Which? has previously found that some computer keyboards carry more harmful bacteria than a lavatory seat".

While no one would have any quarrel with the scientific data generated by the study, there does not appear to be any reason for undue alarm because mobile phones are used more or less exclusively as a personal possession, not shared with others. Whatever microorganisms detected on each phone are from the person who owned it and therefore they are unlikely to pose any risk to that person who could be immune to them. Probably thousands of phone booths and cyber kiosks that work in India are more dangerous as more than 100 persons, on an average, with different health conditions use the telephone instruments daily and possibilities of spread of infection are far greater under such environments. Studies like the one cited above will have to be viewed in right perspective without causing alarm to the general public.

Friday, July 30, 2010


Conceptually creation of Food Standards and Safety Authority of India is sound because it radically changes the food quality surveillance system in the country by bringing under one umbrella most of the government departments dealing with different aspects and areas of food quality. This is supposed to achieve an integrated approach to food safety without any overlapping or conflicts amongst the various agencies handling this task earlier. Though there are critics who are not convinced about the effectiveness of a bureaucratic set up like FSSAI, credit must go to this young organization for at least attempting to create the necessary impetus for country-wide implementation of globalized food laws. Here is a critique on the food safety landscape in the country viewed from the eyes of a dispassionate observer which is objective as well as balanced,

"In conclusion, the introduction of FSSA provides the much required "one law-one regulator" platform for raising the food safety standards of India to match global standards. Its speedy and effective implementation is quickly warranted to put India onto the global food map. This would require an enabling implementation environment focused on creation of transparency, developing right infrastructure and extensive R&D capacity so as to match the dynamically changing requirements of food safety and standards. The initiative would also require a wide spread awareness and promotion campaign focused on changing the mindset of food producers so as to encourage adherence to food safety standards".

While mentioning about food contamination incidences taking place more or less regularly even in advanced countries, it has to be admitted that in India there is no data base or reporting system for food poisoning or adverse health incidences which may give one the mistaken impression that foods made in India are absolutely safe. There are thousands of food related incidences taking place every day and only extremely serious cases involving mortality get publicity, that too because of the highly visible media in the country. The miserable infrastructure and lack of in-depth knowledge amongst the implementing personnel will make any national plan for food safety guarantee to the citizens unimplementable. The reported attempts to train food commissioners and food inspectors through casual 2-3 day sessions in Delhi, are totally futile because they have to go back to the basics of food quality and safety through more focused and thorough training programs. India is known for its ability to put out good planning reports but these are rarely backed by commitment and sustained action. Probably FSSAI story may also turn out to be same.


Pasteurization is an age-old process which had given the food processing industry the initial impetus and present day aseptic packing process is the crowning glory for the fraternity of food technologists. Thousands of liquid and semi-liquid food products are prepared to day using this technology with quality comparable to their fresh counter parts and with relatively high degree of safety. While old pasteurization process developed by Louis Pasteur was based on a temperature-time relationship that ensures destruction of pathogenic bacteria, modern day techniques have progressively brought down the time of heating with process time coming down to a few seconds minimizing chemical, physical and flavor changes due to heat. . In contrast solid foods are mostly processed using chemical fumigants which bring about destruction of undesirable infestation causing vectors. A new process developed recently claims pasteurization of even solid foods with low water activity which is now being offered for commercial application.

"A stand-alone dry goods pasturization system from pasturization specialists Buhler Barth and Log5 Corporation won a coveted Innovation Award at this week's Institute of Food Technologist's (IFT) Annual Meeting and Food Expo, staged in Chicago, Illinois. Their Controlled Condensation Process Pasteurization (CCP) Technology pasteurizes low water activity foods such as tree nuts, peanuts, spices, grains and preserves the natural quality of the food, according to the judges. "The technology maintains thermal equilibrium by controlling pressure, temperature, surface condensation and moisture levels," stated the judges' citation. A Buhler Barth spokesperson told at the IFT event:"The CCP system is natural involving no chemcials and can actually pasteurize in shell peanuts. Also the process involves no moisture pick up of the peanuts andtree nuts during pasteurization." In addition, the process is said to preserve the original appearance, flavour and texture of the nuts without the cooked flavour notes (of some processes). Trials have shown that it can deliver a guaranteed 5 log reduction in thesalmonella surrogate species E. faecium. The system can be installed before or after an existing (continuous belt) roaster for the production of roasted and pasteurised peanuts. A four step process, CCP involves: Conditioning or preheating close to the thermal equilibrium, equilibration to the thermal equilibrium, pasteurization and restoration or the removal of excessive surface moisture. Processing capacity can reach 20t an hour (44,000 lbs/hour). Operating costs are said to total 0.5 cents per pound processed".

Increased incidence of microbial contamination of low moisture products like walnuts, peanuts, spices, grains etc being encountered lately has been a cause of worry and probably this technology may be the answer to the need of the industry. While spices have been included in the list of commodities that can be pasteurized by using the above process, it is not clear how far they can be freed from molds which affect spices like pepper, ginger, peanuts and many others. Exports from many developing countries are often affected by reported presence of molds and toxins like Aflatoxin and with high capacity plants being offered it is worth while exploring its suitability for the purpose.


Thursday, July 29, 2010


Milk is a protective food that offers almost all nutrients necessary for growth and development. It is for this reason that Mother's milk is universally recommended for the new born babies as long as possible. While the first 6 months period is critical for the baby to survive, Mother's milk guarantees its health if free from in-born diseases. It is during the later part of its growth when baby is weaned away from Mother's milk that it needs supply of essential nutrients for continued growth and milk from cows and buffaloes is most commonly used, especially by vegetarian population for meeting the requirements Calcium, Proteins and a few other nutrients not available adequately from other food sources. In some parts of the world milk from Goat and Camel is popular either because the most common milk yielding animals do not proliferate there or due to local consumption habits. Camels are part of life in Dessert areas like Middle East used commonly as a transportation mode but its potential as a source of milk is now being recognized. UAE is the pioneer in promoting Camel Milk which is being exported in some quantities out side the region, probably for health conscious consumers because of its unique composition.

"Camel is a vital part of Arabian culture and tradition and its milk is an important component of the diet in the UAE and other Arab countries. Today camel milk is very important for human survival in many different countries. There are 18 million camels in the world which support the survival of millions of people in arid and semi-arid areas," the paper noted. Abdul Rahman said camel milk has a sweet and sharp taste normally, but at times it can taste salty and other times it tastes watery. "The quality of milk is affected by the number of calves, the age of the animal, the stage of lactation, the quality and quantity of feed, as well as the amount of water available. Talking about the benefits of camel milk, she said that camel milk is a rich source of proteins with potential anti-microbial and protective activity. "Some proteins are not found in cow milk, or only in minor concentrations. Camel milk need not be boiled as much as that of cow's or goat's. Strong in flavour, it must be drunk slowly to allow the stomach to digest it," said AbdulRahman. She said several studies have been conducted in connection with camel milk composition. "They point out that the fat content per unit in cow milk is 3.8% whereas it is 1.8% - 3.8% in camel milk. Vitamin C and Niacin are very higher in camel milk. Vitamins and proteins are different than in cow milk. "Camel milk also has a longer shelf life compared with other types of milk due to the presence of some special and strong compounds and this finding carries great importance to the people living in desert areas were cooling facilities were not available. The values of Lactoferrin and immunoglobulin were estimated slightly higher in camel milk than those reported in cow milk," she said.

The fact that Camel milk can be consumed without pasteurization because of the presence of some anti-bacterial substances lends itself to use in desert regions with least safety problem. But the digestibility issue is some thing which needs to be investigated as it could be due to presence of either some enzyme inhibitors or the complex nature of proteins present. Whether Camel milk will ever be a commercial proposition is uncertain because its value to the owners as a me is much more than income derived from milk extracted. Also not known is whether popular products like butter or cheese or yogurt can be made from Camel milk with acceptable characteristics.


Associating religion with food is historical and Christian Missionaries in many countries are in the forefront in this area of human protection. Though critics may be cut up with the religious label flaunted by such relief organizations, many a time assistance from these organizations can make a difference between perennial hunger and decent life. Food bank concept increasingly being promoted by relief organizations floated by charitable Christian missionaries is increasingly asserting its effectiveness through such banks organizing supplies from donors and delivering to identified recipients. Forcible religious conversion to Christianity by such organizations exploiting the poverty of people is a serious accusation raised against them by critics though there is no evidence regarding such incidences on a massive scale in countries like India where a democratically responsible government exists. USAID with its food assistance program had used christian charities to channel its contributions to the beneficiaries with GOI permission and good storage and distribution net work has been established in the country. The idea to utilize this infrastructure for creating a food bank that will depend mostly on donations is indeed welcome.

"One of the most exciting new partnerships with the potential to accelerate action towards operation is working with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) CRS has been running a USAID food distribution program in India for more than 50 years. They have built an infrastructure of 60 warehouses that supply a second tier of smaller warehouses and more than 2,000 feeding programs. This USAID program is coming to an end this year, leaving CRS with the dilemma of what to do with their existing infrastructure and the valuable services it delivers to so many people in the nine Indian states where it operates. The emerging food bank system in India provides a timely answer to that question."

How far CRS will be able to garner support for the proposed food bank depends on its success in convincing that the program is not an extension of the promotion of its religion and support from rich donors from all religions and also from different parts of world only can sustain the activity benefiting the poor and the downtrodden. A transparent program open to audit by any one having reservation about the organization and associating a wide spectrum of respectable citizens irrespective of their religious affiliation can be an effective alternative to the cash guzzling government funded applied nutrition programs, rampant with corruption and mismanagement at every level.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010


The new health "mantra" is "eat whole grains" for preventing many of the life style disorders being faced by the modern consumers in many countries, especially the wealthy ones. There are many industry players already offering whole grain foods, especially bakery products but Kraft Foods Inc is the most recent industry major who is embracing the whole grain food concept by declaring its intention to increase the whole grain content in many of its baked products. As the pressure piles up on the food processing industry to change their approach to developing and marketing new products, some hesitating steps are taken by the manufacturers to make some changes in their product portfolio, some helpful and others just symbolic to buy time. There is a distinct movement that is discernible, to at least give an impression that the industry really cares for the welfare of the consumers and continuing steps by the safety authorities world over is forcing the industry to be more transparent and willing to disclose the nature of foods they offer more meaningfully. It is against this context one has to watch the dynamics of changes that confront the industry and its response. The trillion calorie reduction commitment and 20% sodium reduction target augur well for the health of the consumers.

"Kraft Foods Inc. says it will more than double the amount of whole grain in many of its Nabisco crackers, becoming the latest food maker to respond to consumer and health advocates' demands for improved nutrition from packaged foods. Kraft will increase the whole grain in more than 100 products over the next three years, the company announced Monday. As a result, its Ritz and Premium crackers will contain whole grains for the first time. Whole grain will more than double and quadruple in the company's Wheat Thins crackers in its Honey Maid graham crackers. Whole grains are considered a part of a healthy diet, adding necessary fiber and nutrients. They help reduce the risk of heart disease, improve digestion, provide essential nutrients and may help control weight, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.While most Americans consume enough grains, few are whole grains. Whole grains use the entire grain kernel, but many packaged foods are made with refined grains that have been milled to remove the bran and germ. This process give the grains a finer texture and helps improve shelf life. But it removes dietary fiber, iron and many B vitamins, the USDA says".

Though these efforts are praise worthy viewed from a consumer angle, how such changes will affect the sensory quality of the original products is a matter of concern. Of course manufacturers like Kraft Foods, with lot of technological resources at their disposal, can improve the process to make the whole grain based products resemble the original ones and it is only the small scale players who are expected to face technical difficulties in making acceptable products containing high proportion of whole grains. But in actual experience the small scale processors are the ones who pioneered the health food revolution by using natural raw materials like whole grains in many products which compelled the big players also to jump into the bandwagon. Unless this trend continues to cover the entire industry unwary and uninformed consumers may still opt for foods made from refined ingredients because of their superior eating qualities. Ideally such an option should not be available though it will be difficult to enforce any industry-wide restrictions on recipes for processed foods.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010


The practice of lobbying is as old as the man himself and working through the power corridor to get what is desired by individuals and groups is not considered a crime under ant national or international law. But bribing those in power directly to influence legislation and derive unfair advantage is a crime that cannot be condoned. Unfortunately, the democratic system of government is easily susceptible to such distortions, detrimental to the interests of the honest tax paying denizens. More powerful the lobbying groups become, greater will be the damage to the society. In wealthy countries where industries are predominant playing an important role in the day to day life of the denizens, many government policies are shaped by the varying interests of the organized industries with undesirable consequences. Here is a scenario drawn from the US, a country being literally run by the lobbyists, as portrayed by a knowledgeable critic which has a lesson for other countries aspiring to be wealthy through industrialization.

"I agree with Rogers' assessment, with a caveat. Even if Obama were serious about transforming the food system (which I don't think he is), he would have to contend with a set of highly profitable incumbent industries, from agrichemical makers to cheeseburger purveyors, that will defend their interests by fang and claw on Capitol Hill. And their immense lobbying power leaves any would-be reformer in the White House with little room to impose change. Of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Rogers writes "he commands a $134 billion annual budget that includes agriculture subsidies, the National Organic Program, and food-stamp and nutrition programs." True, but Vilsack has very little discretion over how that cash hoard is spent. The USDA chief mostly executes farm policy made in the House and Senate ag committees, and those entities are notoriously captured by the Big Ag and Big Food lobbies. Just as health care reform could not move through Congress without making stark concessions to the insurance industry, just as even highly compromised climate legislation has been throttled by dirty-energy interests; and just as efforts to impose financial reform languish under the boot of Wall Street and its kept politicians, any serious presidential effort to reform the food system will crash into a brick wall constructed by the likes of Monsanto and Tyson Food. Which brings us back to the role of consumers. Voting with your fork, it turns out, is not enough. We can't just "be the change we want to see" in the food system; we also have to get out there and organize for policy reform: to become, in short, a countervailing force that challenges the power of the food lobby".

Probably the wailing by a few concerned persons like the above critic may not have any impact, especially when one is up against economic giants like Monsanto or Dow Chemicals or Cargill but still such voices will inject a sense of urgency amongst consumers to counter act the wheeling and dealing amongst the lobbying groups representing various economic interests and the unscrupulous politicians. The GM Foods controversy is a typical case where the industry view is overwhelmingly being accepted by the government ignoring scientific evidence and underplaying the risks to the consumers. Developing countries like India must learn a lesson from this experience and must not permit such international "profit at any cost" players to enter and manipulate the policies in their favor. The proxy war fought recently in India on Bt Brinjal should open the eyes of the citizens regarding the lurking dangers posed by the marauding industrial interests in getting a toe-hold in the country and make GM foods all pervasive, with unknown future consequences.


Sunday, July 25, 2010


Using antibiotics for purposes other than treating the animals affected by diseases due to infection is fraught with far reaching adverse implications. It is not to be forgotten that antibiotics were discovered, starting with Penicillin, to treat human beings, that too as a last resort after exhausting other means to cure them. It is also known that many pathogens have the capability to build resistance to drugs if exposed regularly or continuously. Therefore the tendency on the part of many processors in the meat sector to use antibiotics for weight gain or any other purpose deserves to be condemned forthright. The current move to discourage such dangerous practices must be pursued relentlessly through persuasion or if necessary through mandatory steps.

"Giving animals antibiotics in order to increase food production is a threat to public health and should be stopped, the FDA said today. The federal agency says it has the power to ban the practice, but it's starting by issuing "draft guidance" in hopes the food industry will make voluntary changes. After a 60-day public comment period, the guidance will become FDA policy. The guidance is based on two principles: Antibiotics should be given to food animals only to protect their health. All animal use of antibiotics should be overseen by veterinarians.

"We are seeing the emergence of multidrug-resistant pathogens," FDA Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein, MD, said at a news conference. "FDA believes overall weight of evidence supports the conclusion that using medically important antimicrobial drugs for production purposes is not appropriate." Sharfstein said it's a public health issue when antibiotics important for human health are given to animals on a massive scale. Such use encourages the growth of drug-resistant bacteria that can cause hard-to-treat human disease. Like humans, animals sometimes need antibiotics to fight or prevent specific infections. The FDA says it has no problem with this. But producers regularly give antibiotics to food animals because it makes them gain weight faster or makes them gain more weight from the food they eat. This is the practice the FDA wants to end. Sharfstein hopes that by offering the carrot of voluntary guidelines, industry will avoid the stick of new regulations".

How far the FDA will go to prevent such unhealthy practices by the industry remains to be seen because of the disappointing experience of the past vis a vis FDA's proactive consumer protection record, invariably buckling under the lobbying and muscle power of the large industry conglomerates. While meat eating habit of human beings as a whole and the inhuman attitude of the meat industry towards the animals slaughtered by them are increasingly coming under criticism, the industry can do without another controversy regarding indiscriminate use of antibiotics.



The catering in Indian trains has been an issue that was being debated since time immemorial and if some of the officials of Railway Board are to be believed, the foods offered in some of the important trains are of world quality! The responsibility of railway catering was passed on the IRCTC, a specialized arm of the Indian Railways (IR) with the fond hope that there would be marked improvements in service because of the professional background of the catering personnel deployed by this agency. Unfortunately for various reasons IR was not able to satisfy the traveling public with complaints piling up day after day from the dissatisfied customers. Considering that not even 10% of the affected customers choose to file an official complaint the grouse against food quality must be almost universal which needs to be addressed by IR. It is against this context that IR decided to divest IRCTC of the catering responsibility recently.

"The Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) was squarely blamed by the Ministry of Railways for all the muddle created in the catering services at the railway stations and the trains pushing the railways to go in for a fresh catering policy. The move was initiated as the criticism on the food quality provided in the trains becoming huge and the lobbying for acquiring the catering. The Chairman of the Railway Board, Vivek Sahai, said that the railways would ensure availability of good food with lesser rates and better quality for its travellers with the profitability not being the criteria as per the new policy. IRCTC was formed under the leadership of Mamta Banerjee when she became the minister for railways for the first time and the board member of the railways as the chairman making him cautious to defend the new policy. He further said that the IRCTC did not take any suitable actions for the ever increasing complaints about the food quality. Though the responsibility for the food quality served by the railways lied with the IRCTC, the railways were being held responsible which led to the board itself taking in charge of the catering services. He also added that the failure of the present policy makes the introduction of a fresh policy for catering services all the more necessary. Mr Sahai said that the IRCTC supplied sub standard food at the stations and on the trains as it could not supervise the work efficiently. Under the new policy, the Zonal railways would be made responsible for the food quality and supervision. Due to this move, IRCTC would be left with only i-ticket and e-ticket business and also the internal mineral water operations, Rail-Neer and had to forego the catering business valued at Rs 400 crore".

It is not clear as to how the bureaucratic zonal railway officials would be able to a better job than the experienced IRCTC. The typical knee-jerk response of the present railway regime is fraught with great risks and the food "fiasco" is going to be more serious in the coming days. It is not clear whether various zonal railways are going to create specialized teams in each zone and how coordination is going to be achieved. At least now there is whipping boy to take the responsibility for mishaps and inferior quality of service and the traveling public going to be much worse than to day under the new dispensation. IR must not yield to such "political" skulduggery to buy temporary peace with its millions of clientele spanning the country.


Friday, July 23, 2010


The turbulence and violence that forced the Tata Motors to make a hasty retreat from West Bengal and set up its Nano car project in Gujarat is still fresh in the memory of those familiar with the conflict that is becoming more and more frequent between the farmers and the industry. A new dimension has been added to this issue by the agriculture minister of the country who made an assertion recently that good farming land should not be acquired for industry since that would affect the food production in a serious way. His contention that majority of land holdings have no assured water supply, however, provides some justification that such lands being low in productivity can be used for industrial development. An agriculture minister of a country should strive to make the land more productive by providing irrigation and other inputs for increasing over all production instead of lamenting helplessly in public!

Addressing the media on the sidelines of a workshop on 'Bringing the Green Revolution to the Eastern Region,' Pawar pointed out that as much as 82% of the farmers own less than an acre and 60% of such land have no assured water supply. "Therefore, the land which gives a good crop and the land which has good water supply will have to be preserved. Therefore, we are not encouraging acquisition of such land," Pawar said, adding however, he is not against setting up of industries. Pointing out that land identified for agriculture is shrinking, he said a committee under his ministry had recommended four years ago that the states should not acquire land where "one or two crops is possible and irrigation is also possible."

While productive land is an asset for any farmer, what is posing a dilemma is the small size of land holdings where most farmers are able to just survive, the viability of the operation always uncertain. Why these farmers are resisting land acquisition, in spite of being a marginal segment of the population is an issue not exercising the minds of the policy makers. If adequate compensation and assured livelihood through employment assurance are forthcoming, there is no reason why these farmer-owners would not surrender their land. National agriculture policy of any counry must lay down norms for crop selection, extent of areas with high production potential, fallow land and its utilization, use of land for non-agricultural activity, etc in stead of dealing with these issues piece meal.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Why is that product recall is becoming endemic in a country like the US where policies, infrastructure facilities and experienced technical personnel are considered one of the best in the world? Could it be due to the skewed legal system that punishes even minor defaults with high financial damages to the industry? Or are the US consumers so fragile and have so low an immunity, any small contamination can tell on their "fragile" health? Other wise how else one can explain the huge recall episodes involving 3491 products since september last year? One can only the unenviable condition of the food industry there and food processing is becoming one of the most hazardous businesses in that country.

"Kellogg said on Friday it noticed "an uncharacteristic off-flavor and smell" from the box liners of its popular Apple Jacks, Corn Pops, Froot Loops and Honey Smacks product. The company said the chance of serious illness from the smell was low, but the products could cause nausea and diarrhea among sensitive consumers. Only U.S. products marked with the letters "KN" following the "better if used before" date notice were affected, the company said. No other products are a part of this recall, Kellogg added. U.S. regulators are under fire this year following high-profile recalls involving products for children. Johnson & Johnson recalled 40 widely used nonprescription products for children and infants, such as Tylenol and Motrin, earlier this year after Food and Drug Administration inspectors found filthy equipment and contaminated ingredients at a Pennsylvania factory. "When foods that are popular among kids are being recalled in large volumes, it is clear that our food safety system is not working," U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro said in an email. DeLauro, a Democrat, chairs a House of Representatives subcommittee that funds the FDA and frequently has criticized its response to dangerous food and medicines. The lawmaker said 28 million boxes of Kellogg cereal were being recalled after about 20 people, including five who reported nausea and vomiting, complained about the "waxy" smell and flavor coming from the box liners".

The waxy smell has since been attributed to the hydrocarbon methylnaphthalene, emanating from the lining used inside the carton. Consequences of this chemical on the health of children are currently not known. That it can happen to the world's largest cereal maker is a testimony to the deteriorating safety control regime presently endowed with the responsibility. The food safety problem has become so serious that even the industry is asking for a more focused, separate agency that could shoulder the safety overseeing program because the existing FDA is too much involved in drug related activities with very little time to devote for food industry. Facilities inspection which ought to be an area of priority is grossly neglected under the present regime and this often lulls many industry players to neglect this area.



Bio-ethanol is turning out to be a big business as it is considered one of the top alternatives to fossil fuel by many governments. But diversion of food sources to ethanol is a controversial issue as such an approach deprives humans of valuable food materials that can make a difference between destitution and decent life. Lately some efforts are being made to use other bio resources rich in cellulose for conversion to ethanol through mediation of cellulase enzyme system. What ever be the carbon source for alcohol fermentation, use of yeast under anaerobic condition generates large quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) which are let out causing avoidable atmospheric pollution. CO2 is a valuable by-product, if properly harnessed, can be of considerable benefit to food industry. A country like the US continues to ignore the global plea for not diverting food crops and more than 40% of its corn production is expected to be used for the ethanol fuel program. Recent news that world's biggest Barley based industrial ethanol plant is about to be set up is a disturbing trend though the CO2 capture program, as a part of the project is welcome.

"Ethanol producer Osage Bio Products is to sell carbon dioxide by-products from its ethanol plant in Hopewell, Virginia, for use in the food industry. The firm has signed a 15-year deal to supply the otherwise wasted emissions to industrial gas supplier Praxair, Inc., from the fourth quarter of 2011. Praxair, which has its head office in Danbury, Connecticut, is planning to build a "world class facility" at the Hopewell site in order to capture and liquefy 450 tons of carbon dioxide a day. The firm is one of the largest industrial gas providers in the world, with $9 billion annual sales. Osage, which is backed by a $300 million investment from equity group First Reserve Corporation, is due to start up its Hopewell ethanol plant this August. Called Appomattox Bio Energy, the plant will be one of the first commercial-scale barley-to-ethanol processing plants in the US, producing 65 million gallons of ethanol each year. The agreement with Praxair will see carbon dioxide from the fermentation process provided for use in food freezing and processing applications, and also to beverage manufacturers".

CO2 is a vital ingredient of modified gas mixes that are used for preservation of perishable as well as durable foods, besides being an inert and bactericidal packaging aid in hermetically sealed food packs. Besides being amenable to liquefaction, it can also be compressed into "dry ice" for easy transportation and application. Dry ice has the property to sublime into gaseous phase without going through the liquid phase and this makes its use more practical, especially for small food processors. Many ethanol and breweries choose to let out the gas because of sustainable demand for the gas but if a deal like the above can be worked out there is no reason why alcohol plants will not invest on CO2 capture facilities and save this precious processing aid.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Technological self reliance is a desired goal, pursued by all nations and towards this large investments are made in infrastructure and scientific personnel. There are R & D institutions exclusively devoted to evolving appropriate technologies of priority, identified at the national level and also academic institutions like Universities engaged in scientific research, funded from the public exchequer. With intellectual property rights recognized world wide, patenting has become a lucrative business especially in the private sector. While many technologies are developed in the laboratories, the route to industrial exploitation is strewn with countless failures as technology transfer is often hampered by inadequate linkage to and appreciation by the users, the manufacturing industry. There are many ideas floating around like industry sponsored research, setting up proving plants, limited production trials for viability assessment and setting up of venture capital assisted enterprises. Incubation center is another concept where an entrepreneur is able to get acquainted with various facets of technology application and hands on experience regarding market conditions before setting up regular manufacturing entities. The new concept of encouraging business incubator type of centers with financial assistance from out side is meant to encourage academics to convert their ideas into commercial operations.

"By providing academics like Professor Hart a bridge to the business world, M.I.T. is in the vanguard of a movement involving a handful of universities nationwide that work closely with investors to ensure that promising ideas are nurtured and turned into successful start-ups. At first glance, the centers look like academic versions of business incubators. But universities are getting involved now at a much earlier stage than incubators typically do. Rather than offering seed money to businesses that already have a product and a staff, as incubators usually do, the universities are harvesting great ideas and then trying to find investors and businesspeople interested in developing them further and exploring their commercial viability. In the jargon of academia, the locations of such matchmaking are known as "proof-of-concept centers," and they're among a number of new approaches to commercializing university research in more efficient and purposeful ways — and to preventing good ideas from dying quietly. The first proof-of-concept center, the William J. von Liebig Center, was established in 2001 at the University of California, San Diego. So far, the von Liebig Center has helped start 26 companies that have created more than 180 jobs and attracted more than $87 million in financing. Among those companies are Mushroom Networks, a developer of online video technology, and, more recently, Biological Dynamics, a maker of early cancer diagnostic technology. "Many of the great ideas get stuck in labs because scientists don't have access to the kind of ecosystem" that Deshpande and other proof-of-concept centers offer, says Amy Salzhauer, a founder of Ignition Ventures, an investment firm based in Boston and New York that works with scientists to set up companies. "This is a way to better harvest those ideas." WHILE the von Liebig and the Deshpande centers are the highest-profile successes in this realm, similar entrepreneurial surges are occurring at other schools, like the University of Utah, Georgia Tech, the University of Kansas and the University of Southern California".

In a country like India there are many hindrances in converting a lab idea into a commercially viable venture and these include the total isolation of researchers from the potential users, industry's apathy towards scientific establishments, lack of funding for proving plants, inadequate risk coverage against failure, predominance of multi national food companies with strong foreign roots and global competence and many other factors. The fact user linked research has better chance of success is proved beyond doubt by the accomplishments of atomic energy establishment, defense oriented R&D and outer space exploration efforts.



China's economic growth has given its citizens enormous buying power which is reflected by the newly acquired taste for luxury foods like tree nuts. Dry fruits and tree nuts are considered most expensive amongst agricultural commodities and with increased attention on these foods for their nutrition and health values international trade is looking up during the last few years. The insatiable appetite for high value and value added products in China is reflected by the enormous surge in demand for products like tree nuts which are produced in large quantities in the country, necessitating large scale imports.

"This year, China will emerge as the top foreign buyer of American almonds, more than doubling its purchases from two years ago, according to data from the Almond Board of California. Last year, China was the top foreign buyer of American walnuts, and in 2007, it became the leading export market for pecans. Altogether, China bought $737 million in tree nuts from the United States last year, up from just $89 million five years earlier, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. "They've basically gone from nothing to No. 1 in a relatively short period of time," said Keith Rigg, of the Minturn Nut Company, an almond grower and exporter in Le Grand, Calif. "It's really taken off like a rocket." The boom follows earlier increases in other American agricultural exports to China, including dairy and meat products, which rose as Chinese consumers became more affluent. But the increase in China's nut consumption has also depended in part on marketers' efforts to change eating habits and tastes. China is the world's leading grower of walnuts, and walnuts have long had a place in the Chinese diet, as in the moon cakes popular during the yearly midautumn festival. So it was easy for Chinese consumers to embrace American walnuts, which are often perceived as being of higher quality than the domestic version. But almonds and pecans were not widely available in China until recently. Complicating matters, the Mandarin word for almonds, "xing ren," is the same as the one for the small, often bitter apricot kernels that are also eaten by the Chinese".

Of course the Americans are happy that their products are finding market in a country with which it has enormous trade deficit. Though the value of the nuts imported by China is only a small fraction of the annual bilateral trade, it reflects the fact that better quality products can have a market in modern China, price not being a constraining factor. What can happen to the trade when Yuan is anticipated to appreciate again dollar remains to be seen.


Friday, July 16, 2010


The Chinese Melamine tainting episode seemed to have spurred the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAD) into taking action to preempt such incidences in future at its recent meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. It is expected that many far reaching decisions approved unanimously will further facilitate smooth international trade in foods from agricultural , live stock and fish. What is puzzling is that Melamine use for adulteration of milk and some pet products was detected only in China and why the world body has to come up with restriction limits for this toxic substance is some what odd. If different adulterants are used to defraud the consumers in different countries, is it the responsibility of Codex Commission to evolve standards for all of them? Probably Indian adulterators can provide hundreds of examples of food adulteration and CAC may have to spend years to evolve limits for all of them after generating the necessary scientific data.

"Melamine is a toxic chemical and because it is a hard synthetic substance with flame retardant properties, is commonly used in making countertops, dry erase boards, and other house wares including utensils. This toxic substance is sometimes illegally added to food products in order to increase their obvious protein content. When mixed with diluted milk it thickens the milk and make it appear rich in protein. More importantly, it would seem that normal testing of the product cannot detect the substance but shows it as protein. If consumed it causes renal and urinary problems in humans and animals when it reacts with the cyanuric acid present in the human body and sometimes in drinking water and animal feed. Due to this harmfeful nature its use in food production is universally banned. India needs no worry as melamine is not produced, consumed or exported from here, said Sanjay Shah, former Chairman of Indian Oilseeds and Produce Export Promotion Council (IOPEPC), a trade body set up by the Ministry of Commerce".

"As far as aflatoxin goes, it seems UN has relaxed the norm, said Shah. Maximum levels of 10 micrograms/kg were set for aflatoxins in Brazil nuts (shelled, ready-to-eat) and 15 micrograms/kg for shelled Brazil nuts (intended for further processing), while the Commission also adopted a code of practice to prevent this contamination. Aflatoxins are carcinogenic fungal toxins that can contaminate corn, peanuts and other food crops such as tree nuts under certain conditions. The new Codex measures provide specific guidance for production, harvesting, packing, processing, storage, distribution, marketing and consumer education to reduce food safety risks associated with these products. Guidance covers such aspects as the control of irrigation waters, cooling and storage and correct washing of hands by consumers".

"The methods used for analysis and sampling are the necessary basis for food inspection and control. The new Guidelines adopted by the Commission will make it possible to run tests to determine if foods are derived from modern biotechnology, to authenticate food varieties such as fish species and to establish the presence of allergens," the WHO said. "The WHO welcomed the agreement on the food safety guidelines as an "important international consensus" in the area of biotechnology where the Commission has already developed a number of guidelines related to food safety assessments for foods derived from modern biotechnology. The Codex Alimentarius Commission sets international food standards to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in the food trade. It is the longest-standing example of inter-agency cooperation in the UN system, and has 182 member-states and one member organization, the 27-nation European Union".

Though the protocols and standards are based on consensus, it does not prevent member countries from importing products not conforming to the CAC parameters. A country like India probably may integrate most of the standards with its own national bench scale marks for ensuring food safety within and avoid trade disputes with other countries.



Retail business in India is dominated by millions of small grocery shops, mostly owned by families, trying to earn a livelihood and many of them are inherited business entities with vast experience in material sourcing and friendly consumer oriented approach. Not being exposed to modern management technology, they are often blamed for "not keeping with time", opening up opportunities for large investors to set up retail chains with regional and national foot prints. During the last two decades since the opening up of the economy several national retail chains had sprung up co-existing with the small bit players. GOI policy so far has restricted foreign investments in retailing for multi brands, supposed to be for protecting the unorganized sector from annihilation. There is a rethink on this score is reflected by the recent consultation meetings on the subject at Delhi.

"Apart from representatives from Icrier, Ficci and CII and Confederation of All India Traders, among others, the meeting was attended by an under secretary-level from the Department Of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) that released a discussion paper on opening up multi-brand retail to foreign investors. A person present at the meeting said a major issue on the agenda was discussion on ways to reduce the difference between farm-gate and consumer prices. The ministry has the industry's views on this. Economists believe opening foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail is likely to help lower the prices of food products by reducing wastage and direct sourcing from farmers. The consumer affairs ministry sought industry and DIPP views on what are the issues in traditional retail and what can be done to address these issues. It said the govt would have a nationwide discussion on this soon. Covertly, the discussion relates to FDI in multi-brand retail. The govt is keen to allow foreign players in food grain retail also, as the leakage in PDS has become a pain in its neck. The ministry asked attendees' views on how to modernise the existing (traditional) retailers and bring them under the organised bracket so that leakages in PDS can be reduced. The industry said the suggested retail promotional board should be formed, which can train small retailers and make them understand the benefits of modern retail and also make them technology-friendly and thus transparent. "It is very positive that the government has started discussion of opening up FDI in multi-brand retail".

It is true that very little has been done to upgrade the skills and capabilities of small traders besides raising awareness amongst them about their social responsibility. The National Small Traders' Association is supposed to have a training program for these traders precisely to train them to face the competition from the retail giants expected to be a standard fixture in Indian retail landscape sooner or later. How far the program is effective, practical or successful is not known. Probably GOI must direct its attention to small traders for enabling them to modernize their operations and make them more viable and stable.



Magnetic levitation is well known for its application in mass transport and Maglev trains are known to attain speeds of more than 500 kmph while under vacuum speeds attainable has been calculated at 6400 kmph. As air transport mode can attain speeds as high as 900 kmph, the terrestrial fast trains are not very popular besides being more expensive. Magnetic levitation also known as Maglev or Magnetic Suspension refers to suspending an object with no support other than the magnetic fields and the gravitational pull downwards is counteracted by the magnetic force created using magnets. According to Einstein's theorem static ferromagnets cannot stably levitate against gravity but diamagnetic materials or eddy currents can achieve this. Application of Maglev in food processing is a new dimension and if it can be useful in fast analytical tasks, same is to be welcomed.

"When one thinks of magnetic levitation, or maglev, one generally thinks of insanely fast floating trains or possibly even levitating cans and bottles. Well, scientists are reporting the development of a new use for the technology as an inexpensive sensor for analyzing food, water and other beverages. Measurements of a substance's density are important in the food industry, health care and other settings because they provide key information about chemical composition. Density measurements, for instance, can determine the sugar content of soft drinks, the amount of alcohol in wine, or whether irrigation water contains too much salt to use on a farmer's field. Harvard University's George Whitesides, Ph. D. and colleagues have developed a special sensor that they say is simpler, less expensive and easier to use than devices currently used for making those measurements. The sensor uses maglev to suspend solid or liquid samples and measure their density. About the size of an ice cube, the sensor consists of a fluid-filled container with magnets at each end positioned with like poles facing each other. Samples of different materials can be placed inside, and measuring the vertical position of the suspended object provides a measure of its density. The scientists showed that the device could quickly estimate the salt content of different water samples and the relative fat content in different kinds of milk, cheese, and peanut butter".

The claim that Maglev based analytical tool is easier to use and more cost effective can ensure its fast acceptance by the quality control personnel in food industry and research institutions. The fact that it does not require any complicated electric or electronic gadgets lends itself to wide spread use if validated by independent confirmation studies. Probably proper standardization may be required for different materials to evolve reference data for comparison and reproducible results can be achieved only when easy to handle universal instruments are designed and manufactured for use by the food industry for a wide spectrum of products.


Thursday, July 15, 2010


Amidst the controversial debate centering around banning plastics for use as grocery shop bags and other type of carry bags, no country seems to have been able to take a firm decision though there are many regional bodies in some countries enforcing such a ban. In India states like Kerala have already made it illegal to use plastic bags with thickness 20 microns or less for shopping but finds it difficult to enforce the ban due to logistical reasons. Though the basis for such affirmative action is sound in that plastic bags do pose an environmental hazard as it takes more than 800 years for them to be degraded when discarded, "policing" of the law is fraught with many practical difficulties. Catching the defaulters may be easy but to prosecute them in the already cluttered judicial system is next to impossible. Probably only an incentive system may work as being attempted in many countries and it may take a long time to sufficiently sensitize the public regarding the dangers posed by plastic bags. The recent action in California in banning use of plastics is also a move unlikely to work as the government there is hardly in a position to force the citizens to abide by the new law.

"Paper or plastic? Soon the answer may be neither. California would become the first state to ban grocery, liquor and drug stores from providing free paper or plastic bags under legislation pushed by Democrats and supported by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The goal is to fight litter and lighten the load on landfills by getting shoppers to use reusable fabric bags. Those who don't could buy paper bags for a nickel or more. "I think the proliferation of plastic bags is unnecessary, and it's a pollutant, an urban tumbleweed," Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, said of the lightweight bags that can litter yards and clog waterways. Californians use about 19 billion plastic bags per year, about 552 bags apiece, according to a legislative committee analysis of Brownley's proposal, Assembly Bill 1998. Tim Shestek of the American Chemistry Council said the plastic bag industry would rather pay to bolster recycling programs than ban plastic bags. He said that with California's economy struggling, it makes no sense to jeopardize about 500 plastic-bag manufacturing jobs and to promote paper bags that produce more greenhouse gas during their life cycle than plastic bags do. "We frankly think this is a dangerous precedent for the state to be setting," Shestek said. The crackdown on disposable bags would cost an estimated $1.5 million the first year and $1 million annually to launch, administer and enforce, payable from fees on makers of reusable bags".

California is estimated to be using annually 19 billion bags, about 552 bags per capita and a provision in the law also makes it mandatory for the shops to provide paper bags made from recycled paper to those not bringing along multi use bags. Also the law gives adequate time to implemet the measures as it will take effect only in January 2012 for retailers and 2015 for small shops, pharmacies and others. Similar laws are being enacted in many states in the country, more or less on similar lines.