Friday, October 29, 2010


Consumer surveys, if carried out scientifically provide valuable information to the industry regarding the trend of thinking amongst consumers and plan new product development activities to evolve products with maximum acceptability. Food labeling provisions have been evolved on the basis that consumers are literate and can understand the implications of the information provided on the label. This may be true of industrially front line countries where as such assumptions may not be valid in many countries where a substantial segment of the consumer population cannot comprehend the significance of label declarations. An interesting survey in the UK has brought out the fact that most consumers buy products in the market based mostly on taste factors giving secondary importance to nutrition data.

"A new survey of UK consumers' understanding of nutrition information on food labels found most had a good grasp of predominant front-of-pack schemes – but only 27 per cent used that info to inform their food choices. Deciding on the best nutrition labelling scheme has been a contentious issue in Europe, as an all-EU system is anticipated in the new food information legislation. While the European food industry largely likes its guidance daily amounts scheme, others – such as traffic lights, Choices, and the Swedish keyhole – also have staunch supporters. The new study, published in the journal Appetite, was conducted by the Danish Aarhus University and the European Food Information Council with the cooperation of some major retailers. The conclusion that the majority of consumers can decipher nutrition info from nutrition labels but base their purchasing decisions on taste considerations instead, reinforces the need to ensure that sensory properties of healthier food options are not overlooked. But more than that, at a policy level the authors said there has been too much emphasis on choosing the right labelling scheme – and not enough on the motivating people to eat healthily. They say there is a need for a broader nutrition policy where labelling is just one of multiple instruments. In order to prevent over-reporting of nutrition label use seen in previous research, the study was conducted in two parts: interviews and questionnaires, and in-store observations. From 2000 interviews the researchers, led by Prof Klaus Grunert, found that 88 per cent of consumers were correctly able to identify the healthiest ready meal of a selection using GDAs, 84 per cent using hybrid GDA-traffic lights, and 84 using traffic lights alone. On a scale of 1-10 subjective understanding of the health info on labels was seen to be 7 for GDAs and 6.9 per traffic lights, leading Prof Grunert and co to conclude that the high level of understanding was independent of format".

The survey findings send an unmistakable message to the food industry that products having high nutrition credentials need not succeed in the market unless they are good from taste and flavor angles. No matter how hard the nutrition facts are stressed, it may be difficult to convince the consumers to change their perception of food. It is unfortunate that nutrition information becomes important only when the consumers are afflicted with one or the other health problem or over-conscious about being healthy. The survey findings raise the inevitable question whether government intervention is necessary to keep out unhealthy foods from the market through executive action. Probably before such a situation develops, industry may be well advised to combine nutrition with sensory quality in their product portfolio for a win-win situation.


Thursday, October 28, 2010


Late realization that trans fats that may be present in foods can pose serious health problems led to mandatory declaration of its concentration in the nutritional labels of packed foods in many countries including India. How ever no upper limits were evolved though voluntary reduction targets were proposed. One of the major culprits that is responsible for elevated levels of trans fats in processed foods is hydrogenated fats used by the frying and bakery industries to obtain longer shelf life for the end products. Why there is no ban on the manufacture of hydrogenated fats, known in India as Vanaspati is not known. Probably production of solid fats through technologies other than hydrogenation may be responsible for not banning Vanaspati. Fractionation and inter-esterification processes can yield solid fats acceptable to the food industry, not containing any trans fats. Canadian health authorities seem to be impatient with the food industry there because a significant segment of the industry has not complied with the voluntary reduction targets agreed earlier and are contemplating imposing mandatory limits for trans fats in foods.

"Trans fats occur naturally in some foods but are also manufactured and added to many baked and fried foods to maintain the smell and taste characteristics of the product, and prolong its shelf life. High amounts of trans fats are known to cause certain health risks including an increased chance of cardiovascular disease and in 2006, L'Abbe's group issued a report setting trans fat reduction targets. The federal government accepted the recommendations and in 2007 asked the food industry to limit the trans fat content of vegetable oils and soft margarines to two per cent of the total fat content and in other foods, limit the trans fat content to five per cent of the total fat content. The federal government said the food industry would have two years to phase in the targets and after that, Health Canada would make the reduction targets mandatory. Those two years were up in June 2009, yet there are still no mandatory regulations. Health Canada has monitored the food industry's progress in reducing trans fats and in its final report, in December 2009, it said many food manufacturers and restaurants have successfully met the targets, but there are still some sectors that have failed to achieve them, as L'Abbe noted. According to the report, some bakery products, desserts and cookies remain high in trans fat. Previously the food industry could have argued that trans fats were required to maintain the "functional properties" of their product, but the report said now there are plenty of alternative ingredients available".

It is not realized that government regulations are always unpalatable, fraught with logistical difficulties and inconveniences for the industry and if the voluntary reduction targets were met government would not have to step in to enforce the limits. Now that mandatory limits are going to be imposed, those not complying with them will have very little time to develop alternative fats suitable for maintaining their product characteristics and quality. Already bakery products are loaded with saturated fats, sugar and high calories and there is every justification for the safety agencies to intervene in the interests of the consumer, viz making the products less obesogenic and unhealthy.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Uncontrolled consumption of fat is often blamed for increasing body weight and the consequent debilitating effect it has on many metabolic functions in human beings. Persistent efforts by the food scientists and the food processing industry to reduce fat in the food have led to formulation of many foods with low fat or no fat but without significantly affecting their eating quality. How ever these products do not satisfy the consumers unless they are forced to take them due to health considerations. These low fat products serve all those who want to control their weight either to bring down their BMI figures or to meet medical contingency. How ever the most ideal situation as far as a normally healthy consumer is concerned is not to compromise the unique taste and flavor of foods made with optimum quantity of fat, if it can be helped. There appears to be some promise to achieve such a possibility if nano technology becomes acceptable as a safe way of food processing. According to a group of scientists nano encapsulation of fat before incorporation into food products can achieve slower digestion rate of the fat component preventing their complete absorption and creating a feeling of satiety with lesser intake of such foods.

"We need to go further into understanding how matter works, and then bring that knowledge into how we prepare food for our products,'' he told Reuters. "We're at the very beginning.'' One thing they might look into is work by scientists at Britain's Institute of Food Research (IFR), who said last month they had found an unexpected synergy that helped break down fat and might lead to new ways of slowing digestion, and ultimately to creating foods that made consumers feel fuller. "Much of the fat in processed foods is eaten in the form of emulsions such as soups, yoghurt, ice cream and mayonnaise,'' said the IFR's Peter Wilde. "We are unpicking the mechanisms of digestion used to break them down so we can design fats in a rational way that are digested more slowly.'' The idea is that if digestion is slower, the final section of the intestine called the ileum will be put on its "ileal brake", sending a signal to the consumer that means they feel full even though they have eaten less fat.

Nano technology is an emerging area of interest to the food industry which sees enormous possibilities of its deployment to radically revolutionize food processing but questions about its safety to human beings, especially its long term effect is coming in the way of fuller exploitation of its potential. Use of conventional wisdom in designing fats which cannot be digested in the GI tract did not deliver the promised effect and these products failed in the market because of their incompatibility with many consumers. The new concept in slowing down fat digestion and causing "ileal brake" appears to be promising and limited clearance can be given for using this new technology for producing foods for extremely obese people and special consumer groups needing "low calorie therapy".


Tuesday, October 26, 2010


63 years of independence has not led to any degree of water security in practically any part of India. On the contrary the water safety has deteriorated to an extent no citizen can trust that civic bodies across the country in providing relief to him from the scourges of health afflictions caused by the so called "protected" water supply systems by drinking unboiled water. An off shoot of the failure of the government to improve quality and safety of water provided, thousands of private players have emerged manufacturing "safe" water in plastic bottles and carboys making a kill out of the fear of the citizens about "government" water!. The water processing industry also offers domestic treatment systems varying in price from Rs 2000 to Rs 20000 for "purifying" water from public supply. Now comes the report that all these treatment systems do not offer complete protection, especially from virus related infection.

"Despite loud promises that these gadgets suck out disease-causing bugs from drinking water, most purifiers sold across India do not completely eliminate water-borne viruses like Hepatitis E, says Pune-based National Institute of Virology. A study by the government-funded body that conducts research on communicable diseases and viruses evaluated eight domestic water purifier brands. It found only two - one equipped with a hollow fibre membrane and the other with a gravity-fed filter - could completely remove the viruses. The study also found no standards existed for virological evaluation of water purification devices in India and called for well-defined parameters. The NIV relied on the United States Environment Protection Agency's (USEPA) guide, standard and protocol benchmark for testing microbial purifiers".

As the above report has not emanated from any consumer activist organization and has the government authenticity there is no quarter for suspecting its bona fides. The findings assume significance in the light of emergence of virus as a major disease vector responsible for many diseases. Though the study cannot be considered complete, there are sufficient indications that the prevalent certification system for water purifiers needs urgent revisit for including their efficacy in making water virus free. Probably BIS will come out with new certification yardsticks factoring the virus removal need into the existing standards.


Monday, October 25, 2010


Post Offices run y the Government of India as a part of its commitment to provide cheap service to the people for keeping communication channels open, have been relegated to the background during the last two decades because of stiff competition offered by private courier service providers. But in a country where more than one third of the population is supposed to be below poverty line of income, private couriers cannot compete with GOI in offering low cost services affordable to them. Where else in the world one can send a card across the country at a cost of about a penny or 50 paise? Though the country's postal system is incurring operational losses, GOI is continuing with the system as a part of its social commitment. Many ideas are being tried out to make the postal department break even which include private courier type service, banking service, investment service etc but they are constrained by the working culture of the personnel with low insensitivity to the customer interest. Here is an example of another innovative approach being tried out to lure customers into the post office by the US Mail Service System.

"This office will help to increase convenience and access to postal services for customers unable to travel to the other Cary postal facilities," said Mike Westbrook, Cary Postmaster, who will oversee the Maynard Crossing CPU. "A full line of postal products and services are available at the new CPU including postage stamps, Express Mail® service, Priority Mail® service, special services, packaging products, and much more. We are very excited for the residents of Cary and the community at large."

The North Carolina experiment may succeed in increasing the revenue flow for the regular activities of the Post Office though to what extent remains to be seen. It may be time for the Postal Department in India to think of such radical strategy to keep the system afloat without much financial hemorrhage to the government. Imagine a post office which works between 6 in the morning and 10 in the night offering besides regular postal service also facilities for a quick bite of snacks or a cup of coffee or house hold food articles at bargain prices! What could be the effect on the rural population if thousands of post offices working in these areas become a mini shopping center? Of course there will be logistical difficulties and attitudinal problems which will have to be overcome.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Probiotic microorganisms are promoted in a big way by the food industry with wide ranging claims regarding the benefits flowing out of consuming foods containing these bacteria regularly. It is true that the GI tract in human beings houses more than 500 strains of microbes, some considered good while a few can be pathogenic to varying extent. Delivering probiotic bugs to the intestinal area through food poses some logistical problems because of high acidic content of the stomach juice that can kill them. Probably the resident organisms that colonize the gut can multiply their number if substrates like milk and derived products are consumed abundantly and frequently. Freeze dried culture encapsulated for protection against stomach acidity is often resorted to under rehabilitation regime, especially after consumption of antibiotic medicines. The present trend in designing non-dairy products with high bacterial density capitalizes on the ability of the fiber to protect the live cells while traversing through the hostile environment in the stomach

"The growing interest in healthy food has widened the scope for probiotics. However, the viability of probiotic products in the food matrix depends both on the strain used and the characteristics of the food itself. The introduction of probiotic cultures into non-dairy products therefore remains a challenge for the functional food industry. The use of prebiotics, which selectively stimulate the growth of one or more bacteria in the colon, may facilitate the incorporation of probiotics into such foods. Food fibres consist of non-starch polysaccharides and are widely found in fruit, vegetables, cereals and legumes. Fibres can help reduce blood pressure, improve serum cholesterol levels and intestinal functions, and control weight. Some fibres also have prebiotic effects. Synbiotic products, which contain both probiotic and prebiotic ingredients, may increase the survival of probiotic bacteria under gastrointestinal conditions and help protect the probiotic during freeze drying".

Dietary fiber has other roles also as mentioned above and thousands of foods are now being formulated containing fiber from a variety of sources like fruits, vegetables, food grains and others. There are some species of bacteria that converts part of the dietary fiber into nutrients like vitamins, amino acids and essential fatty acids making them truly prebiotic substances of immense value to maintain good health. Where the industry is going wrong is making tall claims about the effect of probiotics forcing food safety authorities in the EU to come down heavily on such practices and health claims if and when made must be substantiated by scientific evidence. Consumers can heave a sigh of relief if products with dubious claims are weeded out of the market.


Saturday, October 23, 2010


It was only a couple of years ago there were exciting developments in some of the most congested cities like New York where the terrace gardening was practiced with official encouragement from city fathers, basically for generating local produce for local consumption. Many corporate industrial bodies provided support to this phenomenon both as a social experiment as well as for the well being of their employees. The urge to involve in agriculture spread to suburban settlements with the residents taking part in week end gardening in vacant places nearby. While the experience of hands on involvement in the logistics of cultivation can be very stimulating, the sustainability of the zeal for such extra-routine activities was always doubtful. These days one does not hear too much about such gardening activities though it may till be taking place in some areas with dedicated people committed to self-reliance. Now comes the news regarding further development of the concept of urban gardening based on vacant sites near regular dwelling houses taken up as a community program in several cities across the US. If such trend continues, city authorities may have to re-think about the present zoning systems to accommodate farming urge of their citizens. .

"It's an unusual place for a farm — an industrial stretch in the 1700 block of Powerline Road also home to construction material retailers and wholesalers, auto repair businesses, and even an exotic dance club. Appropriately named The Urban Farmer, Jessica Padron will participate in a community agriculture program, offer workshops for children and adults and have a farm stand for the extras. "If I won't feed it to my daughter, I won't sell it to you," Padron said. Padron's is one of dozens of farms sprouting in urban settings and inner cities across South Florida. There's Earth N' Us and Roots in the City in Miami; Marando Farms in Fort Lauderdale; and the Girls U-Pick Strawberry Farm in Delray Beach. There are also smaller community gardens taking root behind backyard fences, church gardens and abandoned lots. As cabbage and chickens move closer to office buildings and neighborhoods, municipalities across the country are trying to figure out how and where to fit the urban farm. "It is true that city politicians are not used to dealing with this sort of thing," said Alfonso Morales, assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Wisconsin. "[But] in some places they're not [only] used to it but they seek it aggressively. They all have different models for trying to establish community agriculture." The trend is slowly catching on here. In West Palm Beach, a group of residents is working with the city to create an urban farm ordinance. In Delray Beach and Fort Lauderdale, residents are asking city officials to allow backyard chickens".

It is unthinkable as to how costly land in urban areas can be used for agriculture unless one is dealing with inner city areas where there is a drastic drop in land prices. As long as there is unwanted vacant land available in cities, such novel projects can be considered and the returns in terms of social awareness and enhanced appreciation of farmer activities can be appreciable. Of course in a country like the US, where agricultural practices are highly standardized and cultivation packages re readily available such outlandish ideas have a better chance to succeed whereas in India it is impractical to think about them.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Though there are vociferous opposition to wide scale use of nano technology by the food industry, new developments point to a more practical role for this frontier technology in many food processing operations. There is no unequivocal answer still to the question of safety of nano particles in human body and unless scientifically proved safe, its use may be restricted. There are allegations that big scale players have invested heavily in development and use of nano technology but their activities appear to be shrouded in secrecy. The latest finding that emulsions made using nano technology are much superior to conventionally prepared emulsions appears to be stirring interest amongst many food processors manufacturing products based on fat and aqueous components.

"Nano-emulsions being increasing used in the food and beverage industries because of their valuable properties, including high encapsulation efficiency, increased bio-availability, and a high physical stability. The authors noted that one major potential advantage of nano-emulsions over conventional emulsions "is that they can be made to be optically transparent, by preparing droplets with dimensions much smaller than the wavelength of light… so that [light] scattering is relatively weak. "Consequently, they can be used to incorporate non-polar functional components into transparent … food and beverage products," they added".

It may be recalled that clear and transparent products were a craze a few years ago and use of enzymes like pectinase to obtain clarified/sparkling juice is still being practiced. The emerging role of dietary fiber reversed this trend with consumers yearning for cloudy juice with suspended solids to get the benefit of fruit fibers. Probably one can think of a full fruit juice with out appearing to be cloudy using nano technology. How far consumers would accept such changes is not certain. Can one think of a clear looking salad dressings or transparent chocolate syrup or a clear milk? One of the most critical concerns is the behavior of nano particles in the GI track and the effect of absorption dynamics. Probably those ingredients which are normally not absorbed may find entry into the blood stream because of the extremely small particle size and the consequences there from cannot be predicted.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Cloning (Somatic Cell Nucleus Transfer Technique) is one of the most advanced biotechnological tools for creating elite animals that are used for producing high quality food sources. This is true whether it is meat or milk which form an important component of diet in many parts of the world. How ever there has been serious controversies regarding the ethical ans safety aspects of this procedure ever since the first successful cloning of sheep in Scotland in 1996.. Though there is no clinching evidence that can cast any doubt about the safety of the products derived from such cloned animals, consumers world over do not favor cloning as a means of food production resulting in set backs for the biotech industry in commercializing this unique technology. Recent uproar regarding detection of meat and milk from cloned cows in the UK market sends an unequivocal message that it may take years to convince the consumer regarding the acceptability of cloning for food production what ever are its merits. If the EU eventually approves cloning of animals for food products, as being reported, the consequences are difficult to comprehend t this point of time.

"A 2008 EU study found consumers across Europe are unhappy at this new era of 'Frankenstein Food' farming. Some 87per cent of Britons said we don't know enough about the long-term health and safety effects of eating food from these animals. A separate study or Britain's FSA by Creative Research, found that the more consumers learned about cloning, the greater were the objections. Director of the research company, Dr Steve Griggs, said: 'There was a strong sense from the public that this represents a quantum leap ...They characterized animal cloning as very much interfering with nature.' Attempts to create animal clones requires invasive techniques to remove eggs and embryos. There is a high number of still-births and malformed young, many have short lifespans. Dr Griggs said: 'There were concerns about the ethical side of animal cloning, indeed whether we have the moral right to go down this road.' On food, he said: 'Most people were concerned that cloning could result in food that was unsafe for human consumption,' he said. 'The fact there are miscarriages and deformed offspring gives people lots of concerns about the implications for the food derived from those animals.' Importantly, the vast majority said food derived from these animals should be labelled".

There is a logic in the stand taken by the industry that it is the ignorance of the consumer that is causing a set back for large scale utilization of cloning technology. But is is difficult to ignore consumer preferences and there is no way the governments and the industry can steamroll their views in commercial exploitation of this technology. One has to remember that in spite of massive data on irradiated foods over the last 5 decades, this technology has not been able to emerge as a mainstream technology for the food processing industry because of widespread consumer resistance. Of course safety agencies in many countries are in a dilemma regarding the necessity of labeling which will provide the consumer an option not to buy the product if not satisfied. How ever consumer has a right to know whether a product has been made by a technology of doubtful safety or under unacceptable conditions. This right must be respected whether it is irradiation process or GM technology or Cloning of animals.


Monday, October 18, 2010


There is a perception prevalent amongst academicians that the standards of learning and teaching are declining significantly due to many social and other factors. Though the knowledge content in to day's text books is much higher than what it was a generation ago, the personality development amongst the present generation youngsters is not holistic with specialization becoming increasingly narrower. Added to this the examination and evaluation system depends more on mugging up text book knowledge for reproduction in the answer books for scoring high marks. The quality of the teaching community also contributes to this continuing decline. The recent revelation that one of the Universities in the country indulged in mass promotion or passing in the public examination is a shameful incidence. Here is a take on this news report.

"In a gross violation of the Medical Council of India (MCI) Act, the Tamil Nadu Dr MGR Medical University has admitted that it granted as much as 45 marks as grace for students who appeared for a supplementary examination in February 2009. A university committee granted all students, who failed the first year exam, 35 grace marks for anatomy and biochemistry and 10 grace marks for physiology. Number of students who passed the exams after this shower of largesse rose from 81 to 161. The MCI rules state that grace marks up to a maximum of five marks may be awarded at the discretion of the university to a student who has failed only in one subject (Percentage required for passing is 50). The rule is intended to make education rigorous and uphold quality in medical training, say senior doctors. But the university, in a reply to questions under the Right to Information Act, has now admitted that in each of the exams it conducted for different batches of MBBS students between February 2007 and August 2009, it granted between ten and 45 marks. As a result, number of MBBS students who passed the exam per batch after such revision in marks was between 20 to 540. In the same period, the university also granted between 8 and 25 marks to students who appeared for BDS exams (Dental Council of India also does not permit universities to grant more than five grace marks), which helped upto 458 students per batch to pass with high grace marks".

While it is understandable for "run of the mill" private institutions run for profits indulging in such unjustifiable practices for boosting their reputation, though it cannot be condoned, why should a medical university do such an abominable thing is beyond any boy's comprehension. Already eligibility levels for admission to medical courses are diluted for considerations other than merit, adding grace marks "whole sale" is an unconscionable action deserving condemnation. Imagine the luck of a candidate who scored 50 marks for passing after getting 45 marks as grace! How can the university add 45 marks to that student who must have scored only 5 marks in the subject? What kind of physicians are being produced in the country who are supposed to bring solace and relief to millions of patients suffering from a variety of ailments?. Can this country afford to ignore such distortions in medical education? What happens if such practices are resorted to by IIMs and IITs in future to turn out "super" brilliant graduates by adding high grace marks? It is time this country wakes up to the deteriorating "climate" of education and corrects them before it becomes too late.


Saturday, October 16, 2010


Use of plastics in the day to day life of human beings has become so omnipotent that one cannot imagine the effect of a future ban on these ubiquitous material on the quality of life. While the chemicals used in manufacturing plastics pose safety problems of different dimensions, especially in food contact applications, the near intractability of plastics present an entirely different problem to the environment. Increasing safety concerns are making the manufacturers more and more cautious in reducing likely toxic effects of migrant chemicals from plastics, the eventual drying up of fossil fuel wells will force the industry to look for more sustainable sources for making acceptable substitutes. One of the widely occurring leached chemicals from plastics in the environment, Phthalates are biologically immune to degradation and can accumulate in future to intolerable levels with grave health debilitating effect. The Ozone treatment which is becoming a standard disinfection technique was expected to destroy Phthalates. But recent findings that the oxidative artifacts from these contaminants may pose some hazard is some what disturbing.

"Phthalate esters or phthalates are widely used to improve the flexibility and softness of PVC resins, cellulose and other polymers. However, because of their high levels of production and utilisation, leached phthalates have become persistent organic pollutants in aquatic environments. Several of these chemicals have been classified as endocrine disrupters by the World Health Organisation. Some of the most frequently identified phthalates in environmental samples are short-chained esters such as diethyl phthalate (DEP), which originates from discharged waste water and leaching from plastic products. Studies have also shown that DEP is difficult to degrade biologically and photochemically. The release of DEP into water environments is therefore an emerging issue for public health. Advanced oxidation technologies such as the ozone process are widely used in drinking water and waste water treatment because of their strong oxidation and disinfection capabilities. The ozone process could have potential for the elimination of DEP in water. However, some highly persistent unknown by-product peaks of DEP formed during oxidation have been detected and some by-products are thought to remain in solution. There is therefore a need to examine the DEPozonation degradation pathway".

Though the above report does not still cause any panic because of the inconclusive nature of the studies, it is necessary to get to the bottom of this issue through more studies. Phthalate contamination is a man-made problem and in the long run it is better if the use of these chemicals in plastics are progressively shunned and the industry is bound to work in this direction once the full ramifications of the impact of Phthalates become apparent. With the pace of research and development on biodegradable plastics picking up rapidly, synthetic materials made from fossil fuels can be expected to decline significantly in the coming years.


Friday, October 15, 2010


It speaks well of the visionary quality of the dairy sector planners in India if one listens to the bold declaration by the apex body National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) regarding its plans to strive for raising the country's milk production to a record 180 million tons by the year 2021-2022. NDDB has the necessary credentials to speak on the subject having taken the country to the top of the list of milk producing nations through its earlier Operation Flood programs. That the Board is not talking about the GM route or consumer unfriendly artificial bio-based hormone regime to achieve the goal is all the more praise worthy when many other countries are using them to achieve unheard levels of productivity amongst milch animals. Here is a take on the strategy enunciated by NDDB as orchestrated by its CEO recently.

Dr Amrita Patel, chairman, National Dairy Development Board, addressed the National Seminar on "Indian Dairy and Food Industry – Future Roadmap for Sustainable Growth" on September 24 at the National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal, with some introspection on the dairy industry. Even though milk production had been increasing steadily, the demand for milk appeared to be increasing at a much faster rate. The increase in incomes and improved redistribution of such income in both urban and rural areas was fuelling this growth in demand, which did not seem to be significantly affected by increases in consumer price thereby confirming the growing purchasing power of urban households. "For low and middle income households, there should be an increasing concern over the rise in consumer price of milk, " said Dr Patel. The projected demand for milk by 2021-22 estimated at 180 million tonnes implied that milk production would have to be doubled and this would require India to increase its milk production (which has been growing annually at about 3.2 million tonnes over the last 15 years) to 6 million tonnes annually, without compromising on competitive advantage. The National Dairy Plan (NDP) had projected the organised dairy sector growing to handle about 65% of the marketable surplus by 2021-22 from the current level of about 30%.

Indian dairy industry is poised to develop dramatically in the coming years shifting the emphasis from pasteurized fluid milk to value added items like Cheese, Yogurt and milk powder based consumer products. The enormous opportunity afforded by the indigenous milk based products like khoa, chakka, paneer and down stream products based on them is yet to be tapped and organized R & D in this area needs further boost from organizations like NDDB and AMUL. Milk is by far the most balanced food, especially for a population starved of other animal based foods like egg, poultry, meat and fish mainly because of economic constraints and insufficient purchasing power. The innovative marketing strategy with fluid milk has enabled even for poorer populations to buy milk at Rs 5 in small sachets. Recent introduction of spiced Butter Milk in Tetra Pack units at comparatively low price is further proof that dairy sector can play a useful and constructive role as a health provider to millions of people in the country.

Friday, October 8, 2010


Globalization of trade requires harmonized standards and protocols and in agriculture and food, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UNO has done yeomen service during the last 3-4 decades. These standards also help in settling trade disputes between member countries under the WTO regime. Latest instance of global cooperation is exemplified by the consensus evolved on guidelines for aquaculture production without affecting the ecological balance. Since almost all major players in the field have agreed to the consensus, these guidelines and certification system are likely become universal.

"The guidelines, finalised after four years of consultation and debate among governments, producers, traders and processors, have been adopted by the sub-committee of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on aquaculture. Over 50 countries attended the meeting of sub-committee, which is the only global inter-governmental forum discussing aquaculture development, an FAO statement said. The guidelines, which are non-binding, will now go to the committee on fisheries when it meets in Rome in January 2011 for approval, it added. If the guidelines are followed in full by countries, certification will enable consumers standing at the fish counter to know whether the shrimp they are considering buying were raised without damaging a coastal mangrove swamp, whether the fish farm worker was paid a fair wage, and whether the shell fish is free of contamination. Although aquatic animal health and food safety issues have been subjected to certification and international compliance for many years, the new guidelines mark the first time animal welfare, environmental issues and socio-economic aspects have been subjected to compliance or certification. "These guidelines have been developed to bring some harmony to what is the fastest growing food sector in the world," said FAO aquaculture expert Rohana Subasinghe. World fish production was 143.6 million tonnes in 2006. India produces about 6.57 million tonne fish every year".

It is not that international guidelines were not existing earlier because country to country trade in fish was always according to safety standards monitored by internationally
accepted consultants based on pre-agreed product specifications. What the present effort has achieved is to weave into the product specifications other factors like environmental impact, social and economic factors concerning the aquaculture workers and status of contamination of the products. A discerning consumer will now be able to choose a fish product that has done no damage to the mangroves, is free from contamination and was produced with workers earning fair wages.


Thursday, October 7, 2010


Labeling regulations are increasingly being viewed by many consumers as a tool to have a peep into the contents of a processed food pack and help the safety enforcement agencies to keep a tag on the market products to detect unsafe and sub-standard products from the industry. There are three main parts to a label viz, the ingredients list in descending order, best before use date and the information pertaining to some nutrients and components of critical importance. While there are conventional guidelines for such declarations, more or less common in all countries, there are some contentious areas where there is conflict of interest. The three stake holders in the food processing area are consumers, government and the industry. Consumers expect safe products that will not cause any short term or long term injury to his health and adequate quality for the price he pays while the industry invariably strives to maximize profits as a part of corporate philosophy. It is the government which has to make sure that the interests of these two players are balanced.

Enforcing labeling rules is fraught with tremendous logistical difficulties and it is an arduous task for any government to please both the groups with diverging interests. It is true that most regulatory rules are implemented after wide consultations amongst the stake holders but the strong lobbying clout of large global corporates working in many countries stifle meaningful reforms in this area. Even a simple issue like expiry date is a bone of contention with different countries following different policies. Thus "best before date", "use before date", "sell before date,"etc are routinely used on the label with consumers having no clue regarding the precise meaning of these guidelines. Similarly the provision for printing claims for a particular product is grossly misused and lately many countries are waking up to this hoax perpetrated by some manufacturers without any scientific evidence.

A classical example of labeling dilemma is provided by irradiated products. While the consumers want clear labeling regarding the fact that a product is irradiated, industry opposes the same because of fear of consumer backlash. Similarly GM foods are to day sold routinely in some countries without making any mention on the label, but in many other countries powerful consumer activists are fighting for suitable label declaration to enable buyer to make an informed choice. There are hundreds of health claims printed on food packet labels based on flimsy literature information or traditional usage history. It is now being realized that unless adequate scientific evidence exists, no health claims should be allowed to be made.

One of the latest contentious issues relate to labeling of packed fluid milk in the US which has been a subject matter of litigation there which offers some insight into the food safety environment in that country. Most milk producers in the US use the recombinant bovine hormone in milch animals to increase the yield of milk and boost farm profitability, ignoring the safety implications of such practices. Many believe that artificial hormone used cannot be safe and the buyers must have the necessary freedom to choose between naturally produced and hormone treated products. Unless appropriate labeling is insisted upon, the consumer will not be in a position to exercise this right. While those using the hormone do not want to declare the same on the label, others marketing naturally produced milk distinguished their products declaring that their products come from untreated cows. While some courts have ruled against the natural milk producers' right to declare their products hormone free, other courts support the producers of hormone treated milk in opposing the practice of labeling as "hormone free".

Probably one has not seen the end of this controversy as the case is likely to end up in the Supreme Court because the aggrieved parties are sure to approach the apex court for over ruling the Federal Court decision. Is it not an irony that a citizen in the most powerful country in the world is "powerless" to stop the bullying power of the dairy industry from forcing him to consume milk that is suspect from the safety angle? The Judiciary in that country is supposed to be pro-conservative and pro-industry and it is unlikely that the consumer will ever get justice. Probably the food safety authorities may have to step in to allow producers of natural milk to include on the label the fact that they have not used the hormone or must force the users of the hormone to declare the same unambiguously for the benefit of the consumer.



Hygiene and sanitation aspects have an important bearing on the safety of foods prepared and marketed whether they come from eateries or organized processing industry. Almost all food contamination episodes and frequent market recalls are traced to lack of oversight on the part of the manufacturers regarding the safety practices required to be in place. The much vaunted HACCP system was evolved to make the workers aware of the risks involved at different stages of food preparation and to be more vigilant in avoiding wrong steps in the process chain. In a country like the EU or the US prevalence of frequent inspection of preparation facilities by inspection teams is able to minimize safety violations as far as possible though food poisoning incidences do occur some time. The hygiene rating system being practiced in Wales recommends itself to many developing countries and this can be expected to keep the processors on their toes when it comes to adopting safe practices.

"From this month council inspections of firms serving, selling or preparing food will be used to calculate a rating of between zero and five. Zero will indicate that "urgent improvement" is necessary while the top rating of five will mean that a business had "very good" standards. But it will not be compulsory for firms to display their ratings. The public will be able to access ratings through a searchable database, which will be overseen by the Food Standards Agency".

The on going debate whether the system should be made compulsory is interesting because the success of the system is determined by how sincerely it is practiced. It is doubtful whether left to themselves eateries would adopt voluntarily any guidelines that calls for extra vigilance and expenditure. The fact that only 25% of the industry has adopted the new rating system speaks for itself. Strict compliance and exemplary deterrent punishment can only guarantee success for such hygiene rating system.



It looks as if the new found popularity of local food movement is pinching the fortunes of organized retailers, if recent reports regarding attempts by a few of them to start some thing like a farmers' market within their premises to attract more customers or to recapture some of their lost clientèle. Foods offered at the farmers' markets are supposed to be with low carbon foot prints because they come from nearby farms where cultivation is managed with minimum use of energy, fertilizers and pesticides. How supermarkets depending on large scale production systems and economy of scale can co-exist with the small scale operations that characterizes farmers' markets is some thing one has to wait and see. If it is based on philanthropy with an intention to give protection to the local growers, such practices need to be encouraged. But the economics and logistics do not favor such an interpretation of the move by large retailers to open up local food section in their premises. If it is a part of a slow process of integrating local producers into the location specific retail stores, one can only appreciate such changes.

"It's not hard to see why supermarkets are nervously intrigued by farmer's markets. In the past five years, the number of markets in the US has ballooned, up from 1,755 in 1994 to 5,274 in 2009, according to the USDA. But the problem for Big Food is that farmers' markets exist as an alternative to the centralized, mass-produced, industrialized system that delivers most of our food. The items at farmer's markets come from small farms or bakeries located within 100 miles from where they live. They're also ultra-fresh, seasonal and mostly unprocessed, and the direct-to-consumer system lets farmers earn a healthy profit for their food. Supermarkets, in contrast, sell food from all over the globe and pay the sorts of prices only large producers can afford to accept. Mike Siemienas, a spokesperson for Supervalu (SVU), which owns Albertsons, defended the use of farmers' markets signs in 200 of its stores in Washington, Oregon and Idaho over the Labor Day weekend because the produce advertised came from local farms. It's certainly a better approach than Safeway's interpretation of a farmer's market, but the price those local farms are getting for their produce is probably much less than what they'd get at an actual farmers' market. By comparison, organic, which is also a reaction to mainstream food production, has been a much easier trend for big food companies to monopolize. Large manufacturers like Kellogg (K) and General Mills (GIS) operate major organic brands and many large, conventional fruit and vegetable producers have organic side businesses. Local may actually be the sort of party food companies can't get into, at least not without looking like they're trying way too hard.Frito-Lay (PEP) and McDonald's (MCD) have already mounted ridiculous attempts to establish local cred. Frito-Lay wheeled a traveling greenhouse into the middle of Times Square and brought along potato farmers to explain how Lay's potato chips are made with actual potatoes. In July, McDonald's put up billboards in Washington state announcing things like "Served in Seattle, Grown in Pasco," accompanied by the disclaimer "participation and duration may vary."

The issue of returns to the farmers who join league with super market chains is still a ticklish issue because of the compulsion to share the sale proceeds between the established retailer and the local producer. In contrast in a genuine farmers' market there is no middle man to gobble up a part of the sale proceeds resulting in a higher net return to the grower. It is not clear as to what other services the retailer is offering to the growers besides the premises and the brand value. Ideally the super markets must lend their expertise to the local grower community in producing high quality products and train them in proper handling and packing before channeling them through their store facilities. Only such a symbiotic relationship can promote locavore movement to any significant extent without affecting the fortunes of existing super markets. Under no circumstances large players should be allowed to misuse the "goodwill" generated by the "local food" concept for increasing their cash flow.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Consumption of cold foods is invariably fraught with food safety risks, especially in many developing countries where traceability of raw material sources is very difficult. Whether it is meat, egg or salad vegetables all of them pose potential health risks due to contamination with bacterial pathogens. Though the conditions in countries like India are favorable for such contamination, paradoxically most cases of illness caused by these foods come from developed countries like the US. Besides Spinach, Tomato, Meat and others, most recent incidence of contamination pertained to egg in the US where half a million Salmonella infected eggs were recalled due to several instances of illness amongst the population there. Now comes the news that India also has to face such problems considering the agricultural practices followed by the farmers, as per a recent report.

It was traditionally believed that neurocysticercosis only spreads through consumption of pork. Now, strict vegetarians are also falling prey to the disease. Water and green leafy vegetables, especially those grown in fields where human faeces is found, are also favoured routes for the tapeworm. "Be careful about what vegetables you eat. Do not eat salads at roadside eateries or wedding functions. Fruits and burgers sprinkled with cabbage are also best given the miss outside the home. At home, vegetables like carrot, turnip, spinach, radish, coriander and cucumber should be washed thoroughly, preferably five or six times. Kebabs made with minced meat often have pork added to them to cut cost. Raw or insufficiently-cooked pork should be avoided at all costs. Poor personal hygiene of persons who handle the food - cooks or waiters is another matter of concern," is Sethi's advice. Padma adds, "Water is another common vehicle. Drink only bottled or boiled water or carbonated drinks in cans or bottles. Avoid drinks from vending machines or with ice-cubes. Even simple negligence like failure to wash your hands might cause problems." Verma believes that betel leaves, which might be kept in infected water, chutneys and jaljeera are also best avoided.

Though salad preparations are restricted to a few items like Onion, Cucumber, Green Chilli and Tomato, especially in the northern part of the country during summer, there can be worry about contamination from raw and sliced Tomato and the water used to wash the vegetables. Most other foods are cooked adequately to destroy microbes present on the surface giving very little chance for any food borne illnesses. As for eggs and meat products, they are also consumed only after cooking preempting any possibility of causing harm to the consumer. The increased incidence of Tapeworm infestation, especially amongst vegetarian population is a matter of concern and recent reports of brain afflictions due to cysts from this source is indeed alarming. Good handling practices reported above make sense and need to be widely disseminated.