Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Explosive growth of Internet technology has spawned a new fraud that plays on the gullibility of people who are helpless and desperate to get relief from health afflictions being suffered by them, with no hope for remedies through the conventional treatment systems. It is a tragedy that there is no control of such fly-by-night operators who make a fast buck by luring unwary customers through unsubstantiated and untenable claims about their products and services. Even under the so called nutrition labeling regime, many organized industry players are getting away by indulging ambiguous claims against which the safety authorities find it difficult to take action. Some voluntary efforts to guide the consumers seem to be helping consumers in a small way who have access to their services. Here is a take on that

"The group, backed by charity Sense About Science, says vulnerable people are being increasingly exploited by the on-line promotion of such treatments. Many untested remedies are expensive and do not work, and are often based on "unreliable" evidence, the experts say. A new guide has been published to help patients recognize bogus treatments. Sense About Science says there are now hundreds of websites offering hope to people who are desperate for a cure. Many on-line adverts and chat-room conversations testify to the "incredible" benefits of new medicines and treatments, often selling the empty promise of curing the incurable, the charity says".

Recently there were warnings from the US government that India is being flooded with spurious products imported through on-line orders and such products with doubtful safety credentials have the potential to harm the consumers in the country. As there is still a "craze" for things that are of foreign origin many consumers can fall easy prey to Internet promoted products, if they are not careful. Already there are reports that even legally imported foods into the country do not conform to Indian specifications strictly, probably because of lax assessment system at the entry points. Internet technology, like any other modern technology, is a double edged sword and harm or benefit depends on the way it is exploited.



Medical tourism or Health Tourism is considered a lucrative business and a country like India has great potential to attract people from other countries to provide excellent service at relatively low cost. Some of the hospitals in the country can compare very well with top ranking counterparts in the west. With medical expenses becoming too exorbitant for most people within the country, the hospital industry has to depend on foreign nationals, especially from rich countries who can afford the prevalent costs for hospitalization and required treatment regime. One of the areas that has not received attention by the hospital industry in India is the food service provided to the patients. In most hospitals food service is provided by contractors because of the reluctance of the management to get into day to day logistics of food procurement, preparation and serving. How ever most frequent complaints about hospitals relate to quality of food served, though patients do not cringe much because of their preoccupation with recovery and discharge from the hospital. A new trend is now emerging in some western countries where hospital managements are upgrading their food service portfolio that enables patients to have a high sense of satisfaction from the culinary department without costing any thing extra. This is an approach worth trying in Indian hospitals also.

"We also want to make it like part of a five star experience for our patients and part of that is quality food service. In the past we did cold, batch cooking, heated only at the point of service. It was prepared the day before. Now when a patient checks in it's much like a nice hotel where you check in, your menu is in the room, you are able to order food when you want it, what you want, and it be prepared by a trained culinary staff," said Beeker. Chef Donnell Johnson says patients can pick from a wide variety of foods. "We have pot roast. We have green beans, turkey, we have so many items that you'll want to eat. We have pizza. And so it's real exciting and the cooks are very excited about it, serving that type food," said Johnson. They can even order from the grill".

It may be a debatable point whether patients suffering from different types of afflictions will really care about the quality or the presentation of foods to them during their sojourn in a hospital. The food service in hospitals are generally tuned to design and prepare special foods under the guidance of diet experts with different patients requiring different nutritional content. Though at present catering is a supplementary line of earning, major hospitals can always make their food service a high end affair open to even the public if necessary to make it viable. Railways through their Food Plaza strategy has shown the way as to how general public can also be attracted by designing their eating establishment with access to the public besides those traveling by trains. Similarly the hospitals can also design their food outlets in such a way that general public can also patronize them. One of the major advantages the hospitals enjoy is that customers will have a better perception about their credentials in ensuring quality, nutrition, safety and health aspects of the food served by them. Hospital restaurants are also better equipped to offer "authentic" health foods for customers with different types of food related problems.

Monday, November 29, 2010


If all the reports emanating from the United Arab Emirates ( UAE) are to be believed, consumers in the Dubai emirate should be the safest ones on earth. Probably the chances that the system of surveillance put in place there can be one of the best are very high considering the enormous resources they have at their command. But all rich countries need not be paragons of virtue when it comes to food safety as evident from food poisoning episodes one hears about around the world. One of the most satisfying aspects of the safety monitoring regime in UAE is the mandatory placement of qualified food inspectors in every licensed eatery vested with the responsibility of overseeing the day to day operations from hygiene and sanitation angles. Strict monitoring of the market for presence of spurious food materials helps the catering industry to obtain good quality raw materials for making preparations that comply with the standards laid down.

"The one aspect of living in the UAE that calls for praise is the ongoing attempt to ensure the highest standards of hygiene in the manufacture, retail and sales of food through public outlets. The latest initiatives issued by the Dubai Municipality to place food inspectors or what are known as food safety managers in every eatery is a major step in taking the controls to 
another level. We actually have to concede that perhaps with such steps being taken on a regular basis and the penalties indicating that there is also zero tolerance for those whose sanitary environment is below par the chances of upsetting the digestive system or swallowing harmful bacteria is drastically reduced. Couple this surveillance with the inspections of markets for any shoddy or dated goods and the odds are lowered even further. In a world where contaminated food or poor drinking water is the cause of infection in millions of people the non-exposure in our lifestyles thanks to such vigilance is a matter of extreme social importance especially in the case of young children".

Policing the food industry is a difficult job and with constraints on resources many countries do not deploy adequate personnel for regular inspection and rectification of inadequacies encountered. On top of it the enforcement personnel in many cases are known to ignore violations for pecuniary considerations. Probably the situation in countries like Dubai, Saudi Arabia etc does not encourage violation of laws of the land under a strict deterrent environment. The relatively low population and the small size of the area to be administered make the task comparatively easier but credit cannot be taken away from the rulers for their determination and commitment to the welfare of their consumers through their zero tolerance policy as far as food safety is concerned.


Sunday, November 28, 2010


Celiac disease is a genetically caused intestinal disorder that interferes with nutrient absorption from ingested foods across the intestine into the blood stream. Those affected by this disorder are highly allergic to gluten protein that sets of autoimmune reaction which tends to destroy the villi, the small finger lining of the intestine. Gluten protein present in wheat based products affects the lives of millions of consumers all over the world. Considering that wheat constitutes one of the most widely used raw materials by the processed food industry, preventing exposure to gluten is indeed a challenge for the gluten allergic consumers. Besides wheat, other grains such as Spelt, Barley, Rye, Triticale etc also contain gluten and products containing such grains are also to be avoided by Celiac patients. Since products like bread, biscuits etc are based on wheat, for the benefit of Celiac patients food industry has been able to evolve gluten-free products using starchy ingredients like rice, corn, potato, millets, chick pea etc. How ever, out of all them rice was found to be an effective substitute that can give products comparable in eating quality to that of normal wheat based products.

"The neutral taste of rice ingredients and the small amounts needed mean that adding them to the formula will not affect the overall taste and appearance of a finished cookie or cracker, except that the texture will be improved. Also, by adding a small amount of the correct rice starch, production losses arising from breakage of cookies or crackers on the production line can be greatly reduced. Under the right technical conditions, gluten-free bread made with rice ingredients, along with other starches, can exhibit appealing characteristics such as improved volume, excellent taste and texture, stable crumb structure and good sliceability. Pasta formulated with rice ingredients can be allergen-free while featuring excellent cooking behavior and perfect elasticity and bite. In addition, rice derivatives can be rich in vitamins (especially vitamins B and E), as well as minerals (especially magnesium and phosphorous) and antioxidants (such as gamma oryzanol, which is found only in rice). This places such products among the best choices of ingredients to enrich the nutritional profiles of foods such as gluten-free bakery products and extruded cereals and pastas. All in all, when you factor in their clean-label characteristics, natural rice ingredients can offer very effective, marketable and delectable solutions to a variety of food formulation challenges, beginning with baby food and certainly including gluten-free foods.

Though accurate statistics are hard to come by, a conservative estimate puts the number affected by this disease at 1% of world population but how far it is realistic is not known. In India it is estimated that 0.3% of the population, numbering about 3 million may have this ailment though many more must be suffering without ever knowing about it due to poor health-check up system and poverty. Use of rice as a substitute is eminently considered desirable from the nutrition angle also because rice protein compares well with that present in human milk in terms of amino acid profile and other quality factors. Being extremely white in color, milled and polished rice containing very low fat level and about 7% protein, when used in bread formulations provides extreme culinary satisfaction. Besides a life savior for Celiac patients, rice based bread can be a general purpose bakery product, especially suited to consumers in rice eating countries. Already rice cakes are very popular in many eastern countries though they are made by steaming and rice based baked products can be expected to be popular.


Saturday, November 27, 2010


Food industry in many affluent countries is blamed, probably with some justification for its relentless pursuit of profit, ignoring the harm caused to the consumer health by developing and promoting unbalanced and unhealthy food products. If the CEO of a multinational company is to be believed, it is not the industry which is responsible for to day's sad situation but the consumer who is behaving like a robot without thinking about the consequences of over eating and under exercising! It may be true that every consumer must have adequate physical activity to "burn" the calories ingested and lesser the activity lower should be the food intake. But tempting the consumers through mega sized serving portions with appetizing taste and flavor, that too at low prices, also plays a role in over eating and over weight amongst the population. Here is a critique on this issue, well received by many discerning observers.

"I have a friend who refers to the Standard American Diet by the acronym SAD. This is an apt description indeed. Think about it. We have more colorfully packaged choices on the shelves of our supermarkets, more new flavors of cereal, crackers, and chips than we know what to do with, more fortified, functional foods than ever. Yet, as a nation, we get sicker every year. Diet related diseases are epidemic, especially among young people. In fact, children today are the first generation expected to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. And it's all related to our SAD. With all of our medical knowledge and wealth, how did this come to pass? According to Marion Nestle, Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU and author of the classic book, Food Politics, the problem is that our heavily subsidized, highly efficient food industry produces too many calories – twice as many as we need. Because of this surplus, food companies must work hard to get us to EAT MORE. Hence the millions of dollars in advertising spent every year to get us to Supersize It. Though Food Politics was published back in 2002, it's just as relevant today. Besides advertising, the Food Industry influences our diets in many ways that most of us are not even aware of.

True America is a bundle of contradictions and incongruities, difficult to understand and the above narration explains to some extent as to why this country with all the wealth it has, cannot manage the health condition of its population. It is the grotesque policy distortions that seems to have contributed to the present sorry state of affairs vis-à-vis the quality of life there. It is easy to criticize the consumers for not exercising moderation in eating but over eating and putting on weight is a long term phenomenon, not experienced, immediately after eating. Though drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes are known to be injurious, why is that these evil practices are still continuing? Unless governments world over invest substantially on education at young age, inculcating right values and principles and discriminating between what is bad and good, it is unlikely that the food related crisis being faced to day will dissolve itself!


Friday, November 26, 2010


Catering industry continuously strives to attract customers through various means, the most important criterion being the taste of food they offer. Once the customer is "captured", further effort is made to see that customers enjoy the experience of eating for ensuring repeat visits. While color schemes and interior decor are known to increase business for many modern eateries, the effect of different types of music is relatively less known. Frequent complaints about foods served in flights or in trains have now been attributed to the background noise generated by the engines which does reach the ears of the passengers, in spite of most modern technology deployed for noise reduction. According to new research findings, even good and tasty foods, if eaten in an environment of high noise are likely to taste bland and appropriately selected music can even enhance the taste perception.

"The research clearly showed that the presence of loud noise dulled the perception of taste, but enjoyable music could enhance the eating experience. Woods said the findings suggested for example, that salad bar serving crunchy salads might benefit from louder music, but a restaurant serving salty food should turn the music down. The findings could help restaurateurs select the best music and ambient sounds to maximize their customers' enjoyment of their meals. Unilever intends to continue the research to try to find the explanation for the effects found. One possibility is that the noise might distort the brain's ability to interpret the sense of taste, or it might simply distract the diner from the flavors of the meal".

The million dollar question is whether adequate scientific data exist to guide high end restaurants regarding the type of music most suitable to the offerings offered to the customers and if not who will unravel the mysterious connection between music and taste perception. It is not understood as to why there should be any music at all in a restaurant where people congregate for eating good food and get maximum culinary satisfaction. Serving food in public functions is secondary to the main activity and therefore the culinary quality may not be critical but in a restaurant eating is the main activity and no distraction is desirable.


Thursday, November 25, 2010


If fancy terminologies can ensure consumer satisfaction, this must be the happiest times for the consumers when one hears about things that do not make much sense. Simple process of preparation of food became food technology, serving food in an eatery became restaurant service, simple daily chores in the house holds became home science, tasting of food came to be known as organoleptic assessment, microbiological work get described as fermentation, biotechnology, bioengineering, biomedical engineering, tissue culture, genetic engineering etc etc. One is often confused by closely related topics like food science, food technology, dietary science, home science, nutrification, nutraceuticals, pharma foods, specialty foods, functional foods etc with overlapping areas of interest. The latest to arrive is Nutricosmetics which was first mentioned in 1980's in Sweden. Ostensibly the term is supposed to encompass nutritional supplements that can support the function and structure of the skin. Here is a commentary on the subject which raises some critical regulatory and development issues.

"Cosmetics and toiletries are taking new forms, with beauty products moving from tubes to foods. Interest in nutricosmetics has begun to grow alongside interest in functional products, leading to the addition of new products that are complementary to the traditional beauty industry. Nutricosmetics have emerged as a segment of nutraceuticals, initially gaining popularity in Japan and Europe and now gaining ground in the U.S. The term derives from the combination of foods, pharma and cosmetics. Nutricosmetic products generally focus on three areas: skin, hair and beauty. In the skin segment, nutricosmetics address a range of problems—including skin repair, pigmentation issues, firmness, whitening, slimming and aging. For hair, nutricosmetic products claim to aid growth, restoration, nourishment and volume, while nail-specific products concentrate on improving strength and the overall appearance of nails. Nutricosmetics are available in pill, tablet, liquid and food formats. Foods and drinks positioned and marketed as beauty-enhancing are a newer concept, with added-value functional foods becoming the next logical step for innovation in the cosmetics and toiletries industry".

"Competitive pressures in the cosmetics and toiletries, OTC health care, and food and drinks industries alike are seeing manufacturers expand their offerings with high added-value products. The introduction of nutricosmetic products in Europe remains problematic due to the lack of a regulatory system. As things currently stand, the regulatory environment for nutricosmetic products is more favorable in Japan, where an established system is in place for the approval of functional and nutricosmetic products. The likelihood of introducing similar legislative procedures in Europe and the U.S. could prove more problematic, thus making the introduction of new product innovations in these regions more difficult. In Europe, nutricosmetics would fall under both food and medicinal law, but the decision as to which applies varies by country".

It is true that some of the micro-nutrients like vitamin C, Omega-3 Acids, Carotene, Flavonoids etc have skin protecting role mainly because of their antioxidant and oxyradical neutralizing ability. But projecting them as a separate area can only be for commercial interest and no wonder this "new" industry is boasting of a business turn over of more than $ one billion in the US itself. One must pity the unenviable situation regulatory authorities world over are in for evolving standards of quality, safety and claim evaluation for these types of new products. It is true every human being wants to be beautiful or handsome in appearance and such obsessions can conflict with health and well being. There are many products targeted at these gullible consumers. Some of the manufacturers use world-wide web network for circumventing restrictions by governments and obviously are succeeding at it. While use of some of the products for external application may not pose much danger, when products are offered on-line for direct consumption with some promised attributes without adequate proof, such a situation cannot be allowed to flourish.



"Food Aid" programs sponsored by many rich countries are intended to prevent starvation amongst the population in the aid receiving countries. While committing the quantum of aid the donors invariably insist on supplying food grains from their granaries through high cost delivery channels and there is a disconnect between the value of food supplied and number of beneficiaries actually covered. Surplus food grains stored as a part of the food security system for long time find their way to poor countries with suspect quality too. In a critical appraisal of the impact of such high "visibility" aid programs, some critics have pointed out the inherent inequality and adverse consequences brought about by such supposedly "humanitarian" services of donor countries.

Once the food finally arrives, it floods agricultural markets, destabilizing fragile local economies. Small farmers are the first to go bankrupt. Most of them are women like Khalida, who work small plots of land hoping to sell enough at market to buy cooking oil, flour, a bar of soap and a pair of shoes so a child can stay in school. These women are more than the backbones of their families: they grow most of Africa's food. Unlike giant grain corporations, these women farm without fossil fuels and harmful chemicals. Their sustainable agriculture practices are critical to meeting the twin challenges of feeding people and protecting the planet. Khalida and millions of other small-scale women farmers are the people we want to support with our food aid programs. Instead, the policy undermines the livelihoods of those who hold the key to long-term food security in Africa. Fortunately, there is a straightforward solution: the U.S. should buy food aid crops directly from local farmers in Africa. When the U.N. World Food Program did this, they were able to obtain 75 percent more corn to feed hungry families than when they purchased grain from factory farms in the U.S. Buying specifically from women farmers has an enormous added benefit. Studies consistently show that when poor women gain access to money, they use it to provide food, healthcare and education for their children. Now is the perfect time to push for this innovative solution and Sudan is the best place to start. Here are three reasons why:

It was not long ago that some senior American policy makers, while making tall declarations about economic aid to Africa, suggested that the poor farmers in this part of the world must use the GM technology for increased production! They further wanted them to procure the required inputs from that country, little realizing the logistical and practical difficulties inherent in such proposals. The bottom line is that more benefits must flow to the donor through such aid programs while they are least concerned about the benefits that can flow to the receiver! Similarly sending grains from the donor country brings about unintended negative consequences as detailed in the critical analysis cited above. The suggestion to transfer the aid money directly to the recipient country is an eminent one deserving consideration.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Recent uproar about antibiotic tainted honey seems to have opened up a Pandora's box and many culprits responsible for this fraud have been apprehended in Europe and the US. While China was blamed for this sorry episode of spreading honey products produced by treating the bees with antibiotic drugs, commonly used in treating human diseases, India was also implicated because of the presence of four types of antibiotics in honey marketed in this country. Whether these products were of Chinese origin or produced within India can at best be a matter of speculation because of the total apathy shown by the safety agencies responsible to prevent such episodes. Here is a take on the response by FSSAI to the reports about tainted honey which is nothing but prevarication and shirking of responsibility.

"The permitted levels of antibiotics for honey in India are almost equivalent to international levels, the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India asserted in a statement issued here Wednesday. 'In the matter of admissibility of antibiotics in honey, safety standards in India are similar to those in the European Union, Codex Alimentarius (collection of internationally recognized food safety standards) and the US - where they are completely prohibited,' the statement said. It said that standards for honey have been prescribed under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules (1955), which mention limits for different categories like sucrose and fructose-glucose ratio. Last month, the Centre for Science and Environment, a voluntary group, revealed that leading Indian and foreign brands of honey have high levels of antibiotics".

While the public would have liked to hear assurance from this bureaucrat dominated body, what they got was quoting of the rules under PFA! No one disputed the fact that Indian standards are on par with those enunciated by Codex Commission but by not taking action through country wide investigation, seizure of tainted honey and punishing the culprits, the Authority seems to have washed of its hands through the above bland press release, not worth a dime. Fortunately honey consumption in India is so low that even if antibiotic containing honey is marketed in the country it is unlikely to have any major impact. Of course this does not absolve neither those indulging in this practice nor the safety agency that appears to be a silent spectator, of the responsibility for this fraud.



Whole world is on the verge of an impending energy crisis because of over dependence on fossil fuels which are expected to exhausted in a few years time from now. Though massive research efforts during the last two decades have brought out the great potential for exploiting a few alternate energy sources, the higher cost of tapping them deter industry from investing heavily while consumers are reluctant to pay the increased cost of generation. Though many governments do support such energy development through different fiscal and policy incentives, due to lack of consistency and frequent changes in policies, the efforts have not succeeded to the extent hoped for. While replacing fossil fuel with sustainable sources of energy is highly desirable, this has to be accompanied with realistic attempts to cut down on energy utilization by avoiding wastage and optimization of various activities requiring energy. That the food industry is not sufficiently sensitized to this reality is borne out by their continued practices of splurging energy with out consideration about possible future energy crisis.

"To reduce greenhouse gas emissions in response to climate change, it is essential to reduce energy use in the U.S. food system. A USDA report this Spring described trends in exactly the wrong direction. USDA economist Patrick Canning and colleagues estimated that energy use in U.S. agricultural and food industries increased by 26% -- from 11.5 to 14.1 quadrillion British thermal units -- from 1997 to 2002, the most recent data available. The increase is so large that it accounted for 80 percent of all increased energy use in the United States. Only one quarter of the increased energy use in the food system is due to population growth. Another quarter of the increase is due to increased food spending per person. Fully half of the increase was due to adopting more energy intensive technologies in the food system. At a time when one might expect that Americans would adopt more energy efficient technologies, we did the opposite. We continued to move from labor intensive to energy intensive methods throughout food production and manufacture. A fascinating accompanying article (.pdf) in the USDA magazine Amber Waves gives the example of adopting high-technology energy-intensive hen houses in the egg industry, increasing energy use per egg by 40%".

"Consumers, similarly, were splurging on energy rather than economizing. We purchased more dishwashers, microwave ovens, self-cleaning ovens, and second refrigerators than ever before, so our own household food systems were also becoming more energy intensive. In some circles, there is a temptation to hope that technological improvement will solve our energy and climate change problems, making it unnecessary to change consumption habits. This research casts some doubt on this hope. Consumption change remains important. A popular way to reduce the energy impact of our food choices is to buy local. The energy used in transportation varies greatly by food group. For example, shipping rice long-distance by ship or grain by train is fairly innocuous, while shipping fresh produce from across the country and overseas may be a more spendthrift use of energy. Packaged food and restaurant food are both more energy intensive than home-prepared food from real ingredients. The USDA article emphasizes food from animals as another important consumer choice: Based on 2002 energy technologies, if households choose to substitute a portion of their at-home meat and egg consumption with expanded fish and fresh vegetable consumption, for example, there could be substantial savings in energy usage".

One of the surest ways of achieving substantial reduction energy use is to price it high as is being done in some Scandinavian countries lately. Economic reality, pinging one's purse, is known to produce result when all other methods fail and this is true with energy also. While in a country like India energy is cheap compared to the rates that exist in developed countries, any drastic price increase will create social unrest and economic turmoil. Unless energy use charges increase perceptibly, alternate energy sources have less chances of success universally.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Cost reduction and reducing human intervention are the two top most priorities for the food industry though ensuring safety of products is an unavoidable prerequisite for survival. Food industries in most developed countries depend on scale of economy for maintaining their margins and this is possible because of efficient and high productivity machinery. In contrast such machines requiring large investments to acquire and operate are just not affordable to small scale processors who dominate the food industry landscape in countries like India. This is compounded by under developed capacity of machine building industry which finds it impossible to invest in new designs and fabrication due to uncertain market demand for large scale handling and processing machinery. Imports may be possible but most of the processing industry players just cannot afford to buy them due to exorbitant cost of such imported machinery. While such situation is prevalent in many developing countries, rich nations are focusing on reducing production cost further through deployment of Robots, replacing the human element as far as possible.

"Wilson said there are specific and historical reasons why robotic technology has been slow to gain significant penetration in the food industry. Robotic and automation systems were not initially developed with food production in mind. Equipment did not routinely include features that are essential in food processing plants – such as washdown capability and clean design to eliminate dirt traps, he added. The nature of the systems is that they work best where there is uniformity of size and shape in the products. Food does not generally have this characteristic which means that more expensive vision and handling need to be included – which has cost implications". "In food this issue has been more of a challenge and this difficulty makes the machines more expensive," he added. "It is no coincidence that palletizing of finished packaged is where take up of robotics has been greatest in the food sector. But the robotics sector is now adapting to the general needs of the food and beverage industries and is developing high speed picking and packing systems for processing lines." "There is universal agreement in the robotics sector that the food and drinks industry is a fertile growth market for their products. The BARA chief believes the potential is so great that take up from food processors may approach that of the automotive sector with a decade. "Change is coming as the technology becomes cheaper," he said. "The food sector has the biggest potential for growth and within ten years it could be reaching levels approaching those of the automotive industry."

Even if affordable, whether automation through Robotics can ever be acceptable to the third world countries remains to be seen because of high rate of unemployment prevalent there. As it is rightly said in order to establish automation the materials to be handled need to be uniform in size and shape which is not possible in these countries because of low scale farm operations in relatively small holdings. Countries like India with large rural population see food processing industry as a Savior to generate vast employment opportunities and talking about Robotics here can be heresy!



Economic fraud is as old as human civilization and only a very few can avoid the temptation for cheating to make a fast buck as long history of mankind has repeatedly demonstrated. If quality is compromised by the manufacturing industry time and again, it is only to safeguard or increase the margins of profit. There is no country on this blessed earth which is an exception to this ground reality. All checks and measures put in place from time to time can only check such practices but cannot eradicate the same. It is the general perception that such economic fraud is more deep rooted in developing countries compared to that, noticed in rich countries. Inadequate enforcement personnel, underdeveloped infrastructure for quality checking and wide scale corruption seem to be the major reasons for economic frauds that take place in many poor countries of the world. Look at a rich country like the US where consumers are defrauded in spite of the stringent enforcement system that seems to be unable to restrain fraudsters perpetuating their designs with impunity.

"In a way, California certified farmers markets are a victim of their own success, since their numbers have roughly doubled over the last decade, to more than 700, while the numbers of authentic farmers to meet this demand — and of agricultural inspectors to enforce market regulations — have not increased proportionally. Farmers market customers are willing to pay top dollar for produce they believe to be local, fresh, organic or not sprayed with pesticides. Industrially grown produce, raised with industrial efficiencies of scale, is comparatively cheap, tempting vendors to buy from neighbors, packinghouses and wholesale sources on the sly. This violates state farmers market rules, but allows them to obtain a profitable, more consistent supply. County and state inspectors (along with managers) are responsible for enforcing market rules against cheating, but they have limited personnel and resources. Some county agricultural authorities view peddling as a victimless violation and rarely fine or suspend from markets local farmers, with whom they may be friendly. But cheating is not a victimless violation. Customers are defrauded, duped into paying high prices for commercial-grade produce. Honest growers often can't compete with cheaters and withdraw from markets. The core attraction of farmers markets — real farmers selling directly to consumers — is in danger of slipping away. To retain public confidence, farmers and managers have proposed many ideas, including these, as the first, most urgent steps to address this concern"

How can one arrest this trend of crass greediness is a worrisome factor that concerns many countries. The above instance of passing on mass produced and industrially processed perishables as locally grown food is well proved but legally it will be difficult to take action due to practical reasons. Such instances are bound to increase in the coming years because of the current obsession for organic foods and locavore movement taking roots in many communities due to fear of unsafe foods from mass produced and centralized manufacturing facilities. Is punishment a severe deterrent against consumer frauds? Obviously the answer seems to be a resounding no if what has been happening in China is any indication. The Melamine adulteration of milk affecting the health of thousands of innocent children adversely, which captured world-wide attention last year, should not have happened considering the harsh retribution system prevalent there under the authoritarian regime that controls the destiny of that country. Even after executing a couple of executives for the crime in response to the scandal, manufacture of sub-quality and adulterated food continues unabated, the most recent incidence being antibiotic tainted honey.


Monday, November 22, 2010


It took more than 60 years for the independent India to realize that food can be big money, thanks largely to the international fast food giants who entered the country some time back. Even to day except for a small minority of restaurants, mostly Delhi- based, most restaurant chains do not think of providing their customers the much admired ambiance though their offerings are highly appreciated by their patrons. Similarly hygiene, sanitation, service quality and presentation are aspects mostly ignored, till the pan-India coffee chain, Cafe Coffee day showed the potential for modern food outlets in India. It is really exciting to see a traditional sweet-meat vendor like Bikanervala breaking into the big league through hiked up investments in creating state of the art catering facilities not only in India but also in some foreign countries. Here is a glimpse of what is "cooking" in the domestic fast food sector.

"Home-grown food chains are setting a scorching pace in terms of expansion plans, giving their MNC counterparts like McDonald's, Pizza Hut and KFC a tough challenge. Having learnt a marketing lesson or two from their MNC counterparts, several Indian food chains have adopted international standards and have spruced up their menus, hygiene levels and premises to evolve as spanking new brands. So, now when you walk into a mall, a Bikano outlet looks as inviting as a McDonald's. In fact, the catalyst for this revival was a McDonald's store. When the first one opened in Delhi, it prompted Bikanervala MD Shyam Sunder Aggarwal to think if right ambience and quality standards, marinated with desi food, could produce similar results. And, so began the journey of Bikanervala, which today has sweet shops-cum-restaurants all over India and even New Zealand, Dubai and London. It will soon be opening its doors in the US, living up to its tagline for overseas outlets, 'Pardes Me Des Ka Swad'. Here are some appetising numbers underlining the expansion story: Street Foods of India (SFI) is targeting a total of 120 outlets in the next five years; renowned chef Jiggs Kalra's Punjab Grill intends to have 30-35 dining restaurants in the same period. Pind Balluchi, with 25 restaurants at present, will open seven more in the next year".

The slogan "Pardes Me Des Ka Swad" must be replaced by a more appropriate one, keeping an eye on attracting not only Indian immigrants but also local population. If Mexico or China can establish a firm foot hold in many countries of the world out side their borders, why not India? The common impression that Indian foods are greasy, spicy, unhygienic, etc must be dispelled and high ambiance and a see-through kitchen that can instill confidence about safety of the foods offered, can go a long way in establishing the supremacy of Indian foods in the world arena. There are many reputed restaurant players in India and they must look beyond the border to popularize Indian foods giving it a universal aura. A restaurant chain like Rajdhani is a role model for others and there is considerable scope for further improvement and diversification of the menu to suit the palates of most customers across the world. The health and nutrition aspects of many Indian foods are the USP features which must be exploited to the hilt to gain acceptance and further promote them in a big way.



The very mention of Salmonella evokes fear amongst consumers in the western world because of the disease potential of this bacterial species that has caused hundreds of incidences of product recall and thousands of consumers falling ill due to contamination of foods like meat, frozen food, spinach, egg, poultry, tomato etc. According to a recent report, world wide about 2 lakh people are infected with Salmonella with less than 0.02% dying out of the episode. Most famous strains are S.typhi responsible for typhoid fever and S.paratyphi causing paratyphoid fever amongst humans. These vectors are especially dangerous to children, old age people and immune compromised consumers. It is inconceivable that Salmonella can be useful to man in any way but if recent research findings are to be believed the bacteria can help overcoming some forms of cancer at early stages. The SipA protein present in the cell of this bacteria can generate caspase-3 enzyme in the human body which can contribute to programmed death of cancerous cells in human body..

"Salmonella uses an enzyme, known as caspase-3, produced by the infected host cell, to deliberately increase inflammation at the site of infection. Normally, caspase-3 plays an important role in the body by removing damaged or malfunctioning cells from the system through a process known as 'programmed cell death' or apoptosis. It is this process of cell death that is often defective in cancerous cells. The researchers, Dónal Wall from the University of Glasgow, and Srikanth Chittur and Beth McCormick from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, demonstrated that the salmonella bacterial protein SipA is responsible for inducing caspase-3 activation within the host cell. "The novelty of the research is in understanding how the bacteria are undermining the host cell, and getting it [host cells] to process the bacterial toxins into smaller functional units," said Wall. The bacteria deliver large toxins into the cell and then use the host enzyme, caspase-3, to divide these proteins. These toxins can then go to different parts of the cell to carry out their individual functions." Caspase-3 only cuts specific sequences within proteins (bacterial toxins) known as caspase-3 cleavage sites. Notably, caspase-3 cleavage sites are found in several salmonella proteins; however, these appear to be restricted to proteins that play a role in bacterial entry, or proteins that are used to overpower the host cell, indicating that this may be a general strategy employed by the bacteria to aid with processing bacterial toxins. "Although this work is important for the field of host-pathogen interactions it also highlights a process that could be exploited in cancer therapeutics to activate programmed cell death in cells in which the early stages of this process are defective."

Though the findings show the potential for the use of Salmonella cells in treating cancer, there are logistical problems in delivering the live cells to the affected site in the patient and its subsequent inactivation to pre-empt any undesirable consequences due to their presence in the body. Further studies are needed to develop delivery techniques that can bring the cancer cells and the live bacteria together for achieving the desired result.


Sunday, November 21, 2010


Any industry oriented research and development effort is supposed to be linked to the needs of that industry and the value of the R & D is directly related to its impact on user industry in terms of either profitability or improved quality. World over R & D institutions, especially those funded with public money come under increasing criticism because of the perceived irrelevance of their work to the needs of the industry as well as the society at large. This is all the more true in India where billions of rupees flow from the exchequer into a few R & D organizations every year with very little benefit to any one except the staff working there. An ideal industrial research set up must have adequate built-in mechanism for accountability and its working must be monitored by responsible persons with experience and knowledge of technology and industry, not by theoreticians and academicians with ivory tower "syndrome". Rutgers University in USA, though an academic set up, has been in the forefront helping food industry through many innovative and industry-relevant projects.

"New Jersey's legacy as the Garden State was celebrated last week along with the second anniversary of one of the most recent innovations designed to retain that legacy. Food entrepreneurs from around the state, including Princeton's own Twin Hens, producers of gourmet pot pies, gathered at the Food Innovation Center at the Rutgers Agricultural Experiment Station in Bridgeton to mark the two-year anniversary of an incubation facility for New Jersey food businesses. Twin Hens, created nearly 10 years ago by Princeton Township residents Kathy Herring and Linda Twining, is one of more than 1,000 businesses to have benefited from the extensive facilities available at the Food Innovation Center.Herring said Twin Hens was among the first businesses recruited to take advantage of the nonprofit incubation facility and the expertise of the staff who help New Jersey food businesses to grow."The staff they have there is amazing," she said. "They set up an assembly line that is super-efficient."Twin Hens' 40-ounce, family-size chicken pot pies were being made in Maine prior to the move to Bridgeton, she said. Returning to New Jersey allowed them to reduce their carbon footprint, purchase more local organic vegetables to put in their pies and provide work for local residents on the production line".

This is what is needed in a country like India where most of the food industry is concentrated in the informal sector with very little access to technical and technological resources and if these micro enterprises are able to make reasonably decent products, it is in spite of these public sector white elephants. Credit must go to the high entrepreneurial talent ingrained in them. If the existing high profile technological institutions, spending billions of rupees from the government, are not able to serve this sector, what is their use? Big private players with deep pockets will invariably see through their technological needs but the fruits of their efforts will be exclusive to them, with no horizontal transfer of the knowledge to others. Incubation centers like the one set up at the Rutgers are required in India through out the country with easy access and at low cost staffed by experienced professionals. Probably to start with GOI must consider setting up one Food Industry Incubation Center in each state, equipped well with state of the art machinery and other facilities, exclusively for use by small scale entrepreneurs, venturing into food processing.



Safe drinking water is a universal problem and most parts of the world suffers due to limited access to safe water. While urban house holds have some sort of public water supply with relatively better quality, it is the rural population which suffers grievously on account of water shortage and indifferent water quality. There appears to be a vested interest in keeping the water unsafe which is being exploited by the water bottling industry to amass massive fortunes in practically all countries and the use of bottled water has become so omnipotent that even in areas where water is safe for consumption, people seem to have developed the habit of consuming only branded water. Availability of water purification gadgets makes it easy for urban families for processing the supplied water into comparatively cleaner water for daily consumption. Here is an innovation reported recently that is just a straw fitted with simple filters for drawing clean water from any water source.

"Now it can be good business as well. If you are a hiker or camper, you may have heard about Vestergaard Frandsen's LifeStraw. It's a hollow stick equipped with a series of filtering membranes. You put the end of the stick in a river or puddle ─ or a toilet, for that matter ─ and suck on it. By the time the water hits your lips, it is clean and safe ─ its filters are fine enough to trap virtually all bacteria, viruses and parasites. The product has a bigger cousin called the LifeStraw Family. You hang it on your wall, pour dirty water in the top, open the tap and clean water comes out the bottom. No power or replacement parts are required. Each unit cleans about 18,000 liters of water ─ enough for a family for three years. The market cost of the unit averages out at a penny per ten liters of water purified.Vestergaard Frandsen will distribute the LifeStraw Family for free. It is helping to sponsor a traveling campaign through the western part of Kenya set for April, 2011, that will reach 4 million families. The campaign bundles various products ─ each family that attends will get insecticide-treated bednets to protect against malaria, AIDS tests and counseling and a free LifeStraw Family".

The efforts by the above company is laudable and serving millions of families in a country like Kenya is a logistical nightmare. Though the contraption is claimed to be efficient in filtering the water to make it free from all bacteria, viruses and parasites, independent verification may be necessary before it can become a commercial success. This is especially critical when one hears about the indifferent performance of almost all brands of water purifiers, now being marketed, in keeping out all disease causing vectors.


Saturday, November 20, 2010


Food security of a nation is a subject that defies any logical solution because of the complex inter-acting factors that influence the outcome of any efforts towards achieving the goal. Basically any food security plan will have to take into consideration three issues which include quantitative, qualitative and accessibility aspects. While quantitatively on a global basis there could be adequate production of staple cereals to meet the needs of every human being, there may be qualitative inequity due to unbalanced diets depending predominantly on cereals. According to nutritional pundits there must be some minimum contents of calories, proteins, fat, minerals and vitamins, besides the mandatory level of dietary fiber and obviously over dependence on cereals can pose severe nutritional challenges to those who cannot afford expenditure on protective foods like pulses, milk, fruits and vegetables. Accessibility is an economics related issue and even if sufficient food is available there is a substantial segment of the population incapable of buying their minimum needs due to low purchasing power. Unless these three facets are integrated into a national policy there can never be real food security.

"Policies that focus on the availability of food, rather than on securing access to food can, and frequently do, create risks for access to food. Consider, for example, using import tariffs to protect domestic food production. This will certainly narrow the gap between production and demand—by increasing domestic production and reducing consumption. But this policy choice can easily put the access of the poor to food at risk. The poorest people spend three quarters of their income on staple food. While such policies are frequently justified as safeguarding the welfare of poor farmers, they may do exactly the opposite—survey data show that the poorest farmers typically produce less food than they consume, and depend on the market for the rest. Similarly, policies that restrict or tax the ability of small farmers to produce cash crops, or force them to grow food when cash crops would provide them a higher income, may actually reduce their food security by lowering their real incomes. By contrast, policies and projects that increase the incomes of poor people—75 percent of whom live in rural areas, and the majority of whom depend substantially on agriculture for their livelihoods—can do a great deal to improve food security".

Take the case of India where more than 60 million tons of food grains are under the custody of the government after procuring them at enormous cost and further investing on handling, transportation and storage but GOI is unable to deliver to the poor and needy people inviting the wrath of the Supreme Court. The much vaunted PDS has holes large enough to siphon off substantial portion of the grains by private vested interests, denying those in genuine need of the food at affordable cost for mere survival. It is time GOI comes up with an integrated national policy that is inclusive in nature, weaving into it all elements of a just and equitable food security guarantee to its citizens. In stead of talking about making India prosperous, the most important objective should be to aim at a healthy India. Capitalistic policies can make a few people prosperous but it has to be combined with socialistic ideals of providing minimum needs of every citizen.