Monday, January 31, 2011


Winds of change are blowing across some parts of North Eastern Region as evidenced by the new thinking on the part of Mizoram administrators to tackle the age old problem of jhum cultivation considered unscientific and environmentally unacceptable. That it took more than 6 decades of independence to even think of modernizing what is obviously a tribal practice speaks volume about the social and other problems that confront any efforts in changing the habit of people. But the new determination to change the past for a new future bodes well for the state of Mizoram and people there. The ambitious project with a time frame of 5 years is hopeful of covering more than 50% of the 2 lakh and odd families who indulge in jhum cultivation through economic incentives. It is good to realize that visible and tangible development only can eradicate citizens' dissatisfaction and no effort is too high to keep them happy and contended.

"The tribals in the hilly terrains of Mizoram have for generations been carrying out the traditional slash-and-burn method of cultivation, locally called 'jhum,' which has resulted in degradation of forest land and deterioration of the soil condition. About 80 percent of farmers in Mizoram still depend on jhum cultivation that involves clearing forests and burning trees, weeds and bamboos. Every year many people die in jhum fires. Last year, at least nine people died. Of the Rs.2,873 crore earmarked for the project, Rs.2,527 crore will come from centrally sponsored schemes".

Shifting cultivation probably helps the farmers to reduce cost of inputs like fertilizers but is fraught with many other problems like fire hazards, nomadic style of living, logistical problem of education, environmental degradation etc. Though the financial outgo may look astronomical, the returns can be invaluable if the lives of people there are stabilized and economic conditions improve significantly. Jhum rice is valued very much for its eating quality, liked by the local population and whether changing the cultivation style can affect this adversely needs to be checked. Here comes the role of agricultural scientists who will have to provide technical assistance to the farming families in generating adequate confidence.



Soybean if often trumpeted as the ultimate health food at least by the US Soybean industry during the last few years. There was a time when Peanuts were damned because of the lower quality of protein contained in them due to less than optimum levels of Lysine amino acid and since Soy is rich in Lysine its proteins always enjoyed a higher PER status. It is a fact of history that the powerful Soy lobby tried its best to "kill" de-oiled peanut meal taking the name of Afflatoxin though the latter survived this assault, still providing support to the feed industry in India and in some other countries. Same is true regarding Soy oil, an inferior cooking oil which tried to outsell others like Palm oil, Coconut oil, Peanut oil and Rapeseed oil through negative tactics which of course did not succeed. If American consumers were carried away by the high pitch promotion of Soybean in their country, they are going to pay for it, if the recent report regarding the safety of this legume crop is to be believed.

"Within the last 30 years, soy products have gained ultimate health food status. Promoted as being heart healthy, and a good source of protein, tofu, soy milk, and all varieties of soy-based meat and dairy replacements became the mainstays of most vegetarian and vegan diets, as well as being accepted among many omnivores. In Asian cultures, where soy is a traditional part of the diet, it is only consumed in small quantities, but for some reason, that didn't translate to the American consumer. We began eating soy without the knowledge that soy was never meant to be consumed in such great quantities, and even less in its unfermented state. For a while now, studies have shown that soy contains lots of phytoestrogens, making heavy soy consumption potentially very harmful for both men and women. Beyond the high levels of estrogen, the famous proteins in unfermented soy products, like tofu, soy milk, and most others, are actually quite difficult for our bodies to digest. Not only that, but unfermented soy contains phtyic acids that block our bodies' absorbption of lots of minerals, like calcium. Fermented soy, like tempeh and miso, are much easier for the body to take in and contain less phytic acid".

What lessons one must learn from this episode is very clear and that is, one should not be carried away by any super claims by the industry unless they are scientifically validated. It is a truth that best food is always a blend of diverse natural products and depending on one particular food is invariably fraught with danger and health risks. The principle of mutual supplementation through a blend of foods is the rock foundation of good nutrition and sound health, free from diseases and metabolic deficiencies. Just because a particular food is rich in one or two nutrients, it does not mean that it can be consumed ad libitum. A blend of peanut and soybean is more balanced because the contents of Lysine and Methionine, both essential amino acids, in the blend are more beneficial than either of them.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


Hunger abatment amongst poor people, where ever they live, is a major pre-requisite if world peace is to be ensured. This realization is slowly dawning on many of the rich nations and substantial aid money is being promised to strengthen the food production systems in many impoverished countries in Africa and Asia. It is true that supplying food to the needy ones from the surplus available in some of the rich countries does help to bring solace to millions starved of foods qualitatively and quantitatively but this cannot be a long term solution. New seed technologies ans sustainable food production only can enable the poor countries to attain self-sufficiency to any meaningful extent. There is a devious attempt to hook aid receiving countries on to the GM crop technology which can never be a sustaining proposition. Recent announcement by the UK to fund research in biotechnology area for solving world's food problem with financial support by an American private foundation has roped in India also to lend some respectability to their project labeled as a "cooperative" endeavor. It is not clear as to the institutions involved as the promoters claim it as a capacity building exercise as if such capacities do not exist in India. As the emphasis is on biotechnlogy, it will not be wrong to assume that focus will be on GM technology and how far this will be acceptable to the consumers is another matter.

"The new initiative will place particular emphasis on improving the sustainable production of staple food crops across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. These include cassava, maize, rice, sorghum and wheat. By placing significant emphasis on these crops the initiative partners expect to be able to improve food security and quality of life for the largest possible number of people. The initiative also aims to maximise the impact of the research funded by supporting a more comprehensive approach to improving productivity and yield, for example by tackling crop resistance to drought or flood. By funding international researchers tackling problems across different countries and regions promising research from one country can easily be shared and tested more widely in different regions and conditions to provide the widest possible benefit. Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: "Global society faces huge challenges in the coming years and securing safe, affordable and nutritious food for everyone is one of the biggest. Scientists and organisations across the world have the capabilities and expertise to make a real difference in meeting the global food security challenge but no single organisation or country can do this on its own. By working together and by coordinating our activity we can maximise the impact of our investment and of international science. The joint programme that we are announcing today is a groundbreaking example of how we can do so." Each project funded under the initiative will include partners from the UK and a developing nation. This approach, used by BBSRC and DFID in previous programmes, aims to build scientific capacity in developing countries, with the aim of developing research teams and projects that tackle other local scientific challenges".

As far as India is concerned capability already exists in the country as proven by the Green Revolution achieved decades ago making the country self-sufficient and if the aim is to 'train' personnel from poorer countries in technologies that will increase the yield of staple crops, the project may be relevant. On th other hand if it is intended to help India achieve any break-through in grain production, sufficient expertise as well as funds are already available in India.


Saturday, January 29, 2011


If there is a country where industry voice gets precedence over consumer interest it is the United States of America. No wonder this country can boast of biggest food industry in the world. Though this eminent position is not achieved through lagesses from the government coffers, the policy support wrangled out from to time from the two food safety agencies viz USDA and FDA has enabled the industry to roughshod many consumer concerns including the widespread prevalence of GM food ingredients in almost all foods consumed by the citizens there. Latest instance of ignoring consumer safety is the decision by the FDA to defer a program for assessing the implications of presence of antibiotics in milk processed and distributed by the Dairy industry in that country. This has been done because of "protests" by the industry citing "inconvenience" to them!

"Each year, federal inspectors find illegal levels of antibiotics in hundreds of older dairy cows bound for the slaughterhouse. Concerned that those antibiotics might also be contaminating the milk Americans drink, the Food and Drug Administration intended to begin tests this month on the milk from farms that had repeatedly sold cows tainted by drug residue. But the testing plan met with fierce protest from the dairy industry, which said that it could force farmers to needlessly dump millions of gallons of milk while they waited for test results. Industry officials and state regulators said the testing program was poorly conceived and could lead to costly recalls that could be avoided with a better plan for testing. In response, the F.D.A. postponed the testing, and now the two sides are sparring over how much danger the antibiotics pose and the best way to ensure that the drugs do not end up in the milk supply. "What has been served up, up to this point, by Food and Drug has been potentially very damaging to innocent dairy farmers," said John J. Wilson, a senior vice president for Dairy Farmers of America, the nation's largest dairy cooperative. He said that that the nation's milk was safe and that there was little reason to think that the slaughterhouse findings would be replicated in tests of the milk supply. But food safety advocates said that the F.D.A.'s preliminary findings raised issues about the possible overuse of antibiotics in livestock, which many fear could undermine the effectiveness of drugs to combat human illnesses".

How ridiculous the situation is can be gauged by the fact that to day the advances in diagnostic technology have made it easy to determine within no time the microbial contamination or antibiotic traces and the argument regarding wasting milk because of delays in analyses does not cut much ice. Probably the same industry lobby will come out with their view that presence of antibiotics would be harmless!



Salt is a much dreaded food adjunct because of its association with high blood pressure and CVD conditions in humans but it is also an essential nutrient mineral without which human body cannot carry out many metabolic and physiological functions. Realizing the role played by Sodium in diseases of modern day, many countries as well as international agencies are undertaking preventive policy measures that can have an impact on salt consumption amongst the population. While it is conceded that a major part of salt intake comes from processed foods, especially in developed countries where substantial consumption of manufactured foods takes place, daily diets in many parts of the world do contain salt significantly. Developing salt substitutes that can result in reduction of sodium consumption is a major objective of research efforts but success is far and few. One such attempt focusing on some sea based plant sources has been recently reported which appears to be interesting.

"To develop the salt substitute with low sodium content, 13 plants were extracted and their sensory perception was analyzed. After the sensory evaluation, three plant aqueous extracts, representing salty and umami tastes, were selected and powdered using a spray dryer. The three extracts, selected for their high salty taste were Saliornia herbacea L(saltwort), followed by Laminaria japonica (sea tangle), and then Lemtinus sedodes (mushroom).These three extracts were subsequently mixed to make a plant salt substitute (PSS), which was then tested against sodium chloride for salt intensity and sodium levels. The relative saltiness of the plant salt substitute to sodium chloride was found to be 0.65 – meaning that one per cent sodium chloride was equivalent in saltiness flavour intensity to 1.55 per cent of the plant salt substitute. But, the sodium levels of PSS were observed to be almost one-third to that of sodium chloride, "As a result, the sodium level of PSS in similar saltiness is 57 per cent of that of sodium chloride." Prof Lee concluded that the spray-dried powders, collectively termed as plant salt substitute, may be used in processed foods to reduce sodium levels without reducing salty tastes that may influence consumer preferences".

Though the development team that discovered the suitability of plant extracts from 3 sources for use in culinary preparations in place of common salt are upbeat about the promise of these substitutes, how far they are acceptable to the industry in manufacturing commercial foods remains to be seen. Generally plants originating in sea have a distinct taste, not often liked by vegetarian consumers and the extracts obtained from these sources also may have traces of the typical flavor due to which the food industry is unlikely to patronize these extracts in a big way. Probably specialty health foods may be the right candidates for use of plant extracts in place of salt partially or completely.


Friday, January 28, 2011


Industry-University partnership is more often talked about with very little progress at the ground level. There is a basic mistrust of the industry by the scientific community and the reason is the divergent view about the value of research. While scientists work for pushing the frontiers of knowledge further and further, industry's perception is invariably is about its bottom line, expanding the profit margin further and further! Is there a meeting ground between these two diametrically opposite views? It looks like there is a convergence as evidenced by the visionary R & D projects being sponsored in Denmark for undertaking industry oriented research work as a collaborative venture between universities and industry players. This consortium approach if adopted in other countries too, the food industry can scale new heights by gaining consumer confidence in a big way.

'2011 will bring with it a series of new research activities in the Department of Food Science at the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, Aarhus University. The new projects are part of the research platform inSPIRe (Danish Industry-Science Partnership for Innovation and Research in Food Science), which is established with support from the Danish Council for Strategic Research and the Danish Council for Technology and Innovation and will be led by the Technical University of Denmark. In the new projects, the scientists from the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences will, in particular, focus on research in milk quality, spreadable products, and improved quality of partially processed fruit and vegetable products. The projects include a number of companies and industry-related organisations, i.e. Arla Foods, Foss, AarhusKarlshamn, Agrotech, Danish Cattle, Danish Dairy Research Foundation, and the Research Union for Fruit, Vegetables and Potatoes. Other projects in the InSPIRe platform involve a range of other Danish food companies, ingredient suppliers and suppliers of equipment for the food industry. It is outstanding to see such a massive effort in food technology and to have established such a strong consortium in the area. We really look forward to getting started, says head of research unit Grith Mortensen from the Department of Food Science".

Though on paper such a strategy looks very impressive, in practical terms how the differing perceptions of scientists and industry players can be reconciled remains to be seen. Innovations in private sector are invariably patented so that the investment on research can be recovered over a period of time. What will happen to the outcome of these research projects and what benefits the researchers will have for their efforts are grey areas. Nonetheless the very fact that they have joined together for the national cause proves a point that given the motivation people are capable of putting in superlative efforts to attain the goal.



Transformation of mainframe computers into PCs, Laptops and Tablets and further to multi-functional mobile phones is history by now. Same trend is evident in the area of DNA sequencing which used to take long time using bulky instruments till recently. Now comes the news that analogous to PCs and Laptops, gene mapping machines have been developed which can complete the work in less than two hours, the machine costing hardly one tenth that of the conventional systems. Though the new development is awe inspiring, the possibility of misuse of the machine for undesirable purpose cannot be ruled out.

"Audaciously named the Personal Genome Machine (PGM), the silicon-based device is the smallest and cheapest DNA decoder ever to hit the market. It can read 10 million letters of genetic code, with a high degree of accuracy, in just two hours. Unlike existing DNA scanners the size of mainframes and servers, it fits on a tabletop and sells for only $50,000, one-tenth the price of machines already out there. For the first time every scientist, local hospital and college will be able to afford one. If the PGM takes off and regulators let him, your family doctor could buy one--and so could you, if, say, you wanted to see how fast that thing growing in your fridge is mutating. Invented by engineer and entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg, such desktop gene machines could transform medicine, agriculture, nanotechnology and the search for alternative fuels. Using DNA sequencing, Rothberg says, doctors in the not-too-distant future will finger genetic weak spots in tumors and treat cancer patients with customized drugs. (This is already happening at some cancer centers.) Kids born with rare diseases will get large portions of their genome decoded to pinpoint the cause, eliminating guesswork and misdiagnoses".

"Outside the lab, rescue workers in the Third World might use portable gene machines to trace bacteria or viruses causing waterborne epidemics. Airport officials could take genetic samples from travelers to track infectious bacteria and viruses before they become outbreaks. Engineers can use DNA readers to concoct designer microbes to grow future fuels. DNA sequencing will help farmers breed supercrops that grow faster, resist pests and drought and need less fertilizer. Synthetic biologists might harness bacteria to make laundry detergent, clothes, furniture, even concrete that self-heals cracks."Sequencing is going to affect everything," says Rothberg, 47. "This is biology's century--just [as] physics was the foundation of the last century." Citing the $100 billion medical imaging industry, he boasts, "I believe sequencing will be that big."

It is some what premature to forecast the business potential for this new contraption and the rosy picture drawn regarding its range of use may not be realistic. True, that the genome decoder will give a fillip to R & D in genetic research, especially in the area of crop production and dire prediction regarding future starvation due to stagnant technology and a growing population may not materialize, if the genetic research is properly directed towards this objective. The machine may probably be more relevant to medical sciences in fighting many dreaded diseases through molecular approach.


Thursday, January 27, 2011


America is a country where enterprising people can always find opportunities to make money if willing to work hard. If there is a country which has established the advantages of private enterprises in boosting national wealth it is the US where government rarely gets into business activities. In contrast the situation in a country like India is that most people look towards government for helping them out through incentives, concessions, subsidies etc. Here is an example of some innovating entrepreneurs who, after being left to fend for themselves because of the recent economic downturn, were able to set up a "rotating kitchen" for making specialty food preparations for selling locally to keep themselves occupied and make a decent living.

"On a block in Long Island City, Queens, shared by car washes, plumbing parts manufacturers and livery-car garages, the three, as well as other cooks, pay by the shift to use a commercial kitchen equipped with 80-quart mixers, deep-frying caldrons and walk-in ovens, churning out food they sell on the Web and at farmers' markets and coffee shops. The kitchen's 5,500-square-foot work space is both a refuge for dreamers and a life preserver for the unemployed. "There are a lot of career-changers here, a lot of casual gourmets who channeled their energies into cooking as a way to make money," said Meg LaBarbara, a former travel consultant who makes dips and spreads at the kitchen, called the Entrepreneur's Space, on 37th Street near Northern Boulevard. Working at a hedge fund, Ms. Angebranndt, 35, had organized meetings and retreats for high-level executives. After the fund shut down in 2008, she invested her severance pay and savings in whoopie pies, adapting her grandmother's cookie recipe and her own fillings — no marshmallow, but a dozen flavors of butter cream. "I started out making cakes for my friends, then I asked them to spread the word, and next thing I knew, I was cooking at home until 2 in the morning," Ms. Angebranndt said. "I figured, there's less money, but also less stress and more fun." Ms. Patel, 32, worked as a civil engineer for Bermello Ajamil & Partners, which is based in Miami, and was involved in the development of artificial islands off the coast of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates until she was laid off last year. The idea to make sweets to sell first occurred to her while she was still in Dubai, where she said chocolates are packaged and consumed as if they are luxury goods. Once she lost her job, she put the idea into action, cooking in her mother's kitchen in Passaic, N.J., before moving to the commercial kitchen in Queens. It is too early to know if whoopie pies or Indian treats will be lucrative, but neither Ms. Angebranndt nor Ms. Patel is worried about that".

The idea of a common kitchen with high class facilities for various operations like cooking, frying, baking etc offers immense possibilities for entrepreneurs with inherent food preparation talent to try out different recipes and combinations to evolve novel foods with exciting features. Such facilities will also be a boon to the urban dwellers in providing diverse tastes and flavors different from routine preparations offered by regular restaurants. Similar kitchens in major cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and other urban areas can provide relief to versatile graduates coming out of the catering colleges who may not find a job as Chef in regular hotels challenging but can exploit their talent in creating new foods to the fullest extent possible..


Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Can a country with large population and high unemployment rate accept a technology that makes humans redundant? Obviously China seems to be taking a conscious decision that in some areas of service Robots are preferable to humans as reflected by the recent opening of a restaurant in that country where food service is managed entirely by these mechanical contraptions. What is amazing is that the customers have accepted this mode of service without any reservation, at least for the time being. According to catering experts Robots enjoy several advantages over their human counterparts like uniformity of service, tirelessness, non-moody approach, no tipping, "personal" hygiene, disease free nature etc. As a Robot hardly costs about $6000 and does not need too much of a recurring expenditure, the profitability margin can go up dramatically.

"The restaurant opened just a month ago, but is already creating a buzz across the globe as it provides droids to deliver food and service to customers without taking a tip. But the biggest advantage, Li Xiaomei, a customer at the restaurant, told the Associated Press' Ken Teh, it's the robots' attitude. "They have a better service attitude than humans," said Li. "Humans can be temperamental or impatient, but they don't feel tired, they just keep working and moving round and round the restaurant all night." The technology is relatively simple: the robots move around the tables on a rotating conveyor belt placed in the middle of the eatery, using motion-sensor technology to identify humans. The robots sit on wheels, giving the appearance of riding a bicycle around the room with a basket in front carrying the food. When a customer reaches out to grab something, the robot stops The droids also double as greeters and entertainers, giving dance routines and welcoming new customers".

What is not sure is whether these Robots can sustain the interest of the consumers, especially when they revisit the place because of the "monotony" factor. Attractive servers with amiable temperament often attract customers and if the attitude and behavior are impeccable no Robot will ever be able to compete with them. In an age when recorded voices are substituting live human voice in many parts of the world, making eating also a mechanical experience may be a little too far-fetched. But with human cost mounting astronomically during the last few years, it may be inevitable that the industry as a whole opt for Robots to cut down on cost. It is a paradox that the unemployment rate in many countries is attaining unbearable levels while development of Robotic technology in many fields will make human intervention infructuous! It is understandable that operations considered dangerous to health are best left to the Robots, but restaurants opting for Robots for food service purely from commercial considerations can have adverse social consequences.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011


India seems to have company when it comes to food adulteration and paradoxically the competition comes from China! If reports coming from South China are true, wide scale manufacture of sub-standard foods by the processing industry and use of additives with doubtful safety are putting the lives of people, especially the industrial workers who depend on factory canteens for their food while on duty. Rice noodles one of the most favorite staple foods are being manufactured from "rotten", "infested" and "infected" rice grains, unfit for human consumption and usually reserved for animals by the main milling industry. More detestable is that in order to compound the felony, the defects are sought to be camouflaged using non-permitted chemicals. Though the material undergoes steaming and extrusion during the manufacturing stage and is fried at the users end taking the temperature to beyond 165C, use of sub-standard raw material can never give a good quality end product.

"Large amounts of rice noodles made with rotten grain and potentially carcinogenic additives are being sold in south China, state press said Friday, in the country's latest food safety scare. Up to 50 factories in south China's Dongguan city near Hong Kong are producing about 500,000 kilogrammes (1.1 million pounds) of tainted rice noodles a day using stale and mouldy grain, the Beijing Youth Daily said. The cost-conscious producers were bleaching the rotting rice and using additives including sulphur dioxide and other substances that could cause cancer to stretch one pound (half a kilogramme) of grain into three pounds of noodles, it said. The poor-quality rice had often been reserved for animal feed before food prices began rising dramatically in China in the latter half of 2010, the paper said, citing wholesalers. Rice noodles, often fried and served with bits of meat and vegetables, are a favorite in south China. In recent weeks, a series of tainted food incidents have been reported in the state media as China gears up for New Year and Lunar New Year celebrations -- a time when food and alcohol purchases traditionally increase. Tainted red wine, bleached mushrooms, fake tofu and dyed oranges have all surfaced on store shelves -- spooking consumers still wary about food quality after a deadly scandal erupted two years ago over contaminated milk powder. In Dongguan, a random inspection of 35 rice noodle factories in early December revealed that only five of them were making products that were up to standard, the report said".

It is scary to hear about products like wine, mushroom, soy products, fruits like orange being "processed" to mask the defects and sell them as standard products. One would imagine that Chinese system, authoritarian in nature, could have more clout in disciplining its food industry through stringent deterrent measures but there appears to be no effective monitoring of the industry. The melamine tainted milk powder episode which claimed several young lives a couple of years ago is still fresh in the memory of people and the present image of Chinese food industry as an irresponsible player in that country gains more credibility because of the present rice noodle "scam".


Monday, January 24, 2011


Is it not a crime against humanity that man, in his greed to make a fast buck, tries to harm himself by hawking foods with spurious claims of health improvement while actually these products do more harm than good. Why is that every one is helpless to stop this unbridled commercialism in spite of knowing fully well the consequences? Lack of will and legal restraints, probably can be cited as reasons for such inertia in fighting this evil. Is it not a paradox that the very agency that is supposed to protect the consumer throws up its hands expressing a sense of helplessness? While market products are tested routinely and found dangerous by the monitoring agency, except for expressing its concern, nothing worthwhile seems to be happening to arrest this trend. The story of health supplements in the US is indeed interesting to read and here is a take on that.

"Since 2007, the FDA said, it has found nearly 300 products marketed as supplements that contain potentially dangerous or illegal ingredients, most of them sold as diet, weightlifting or sexual enhancement aids. "These tainted products can cause serious adverse effects, including strokes, organ failure and death," FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said in a statement. "The manufacturers selling these tainted products are operating outside the law." FDA officials did not immediately offer specifics on the number of people thought to have been harmed by tainted supplements. Unlike drugs, dietary supplements don't have to be proven safe before being sold, and manufacturers have wide latitude to make health claims. The FDA's letter notes that manufacturers and distributors are responsible for ensuring that their products comply with the law and provided an e-mail address,, to collect tips on suspect activity. Five major trade associations – the Council for Responsible Nutrition, Natural Products Assn., United Natural Products Alliance, Consumer Healthcare Products Assn. and American Herbal Products Assn. – joined the FDA on a press call to publicize the crackdown. The FDA letter described a laundry list of prohibited ingredients: "FDA laboratory tests have revealed an alarming variety of undeclared active ingredients in products marketed as dietary supplements, including anticoagulants (e.g., warfarin), anticonvulsants (e.g., phenytoin), HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors (e.g., lovastatin), phosphodiesterase type 5 inhibitors (e.g., sildenafil), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (e.g., indomethacin), and beta blockers (e.g., propranolol)."

What is amusing is that trade associations whose members are indulging in such activities have taken correct position, at least in the public that they would "fight" the menace jointly with the government! How realistic is such posturing and what can be expected to come out of such "declarations". Of course to a large extent, the consumers are to be blamed for walking into the trap with their eyes wide open, though human weakness for succumbing to "seduction" is the root cause for this cascading epidemic. One can only hope that the threat of severe action against manufacturers as well as the traders who indulge in promoting unsafe products would have salutary effect. If this is the fate of a country with most powerful safety agency in the world, how about countries like India where breach of safety protocols is more a rule than an exception!


Sunday, January 23, 2011


A giant is likely to proceed more cautiously than others because of the logistics of limb and body movement and India fits into the description of a giant at least from the population angle. There for politicians of ruling group always justify slow progress and huge time over-run in almost all developmental activities citing the "giant" size of the country! Of course they forget that China is a bigger giant than India but it still manages to move at a frenetic pace aspiring to become the most powerful economic power in the world. After seven decades of independent existence those who control the destiny of the country at present has "discovered" that water scarcity is here to stay and there is need to conserve water! Here is a take on that.

"Concerned over the depleting groundwater table in Punjab and Haryana, the Centre is planning to increase the procurement of oilseeds and pulses, both less water consuming, from the two states. The aim is to make farmers prefer these crops over paddy, in what may be seen as a shift in the Union government's food policy. And instead of Punjab and Haryana, the government would promote paddy cultivation in the eastern states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal, said Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. Pawar, however, said that a formal decision in this regard would only be taken after taking into confidence the state governments of Punjab and Haryana and farmers. "The government proposes to procure horticulture produce, pulses and oil seeds from the two states, and farmers will get higher price (MSP) for these crops than what they get for paddy. We will, however, continue to procure wheat from here," he said.

One never knows whether the statement by the most "dysfunctional" minister in the Union cabinet was expressing his personal opinion or it is going to be a policy that will be implemented soon. It is a mystery as to what prevented the government so far from procuring crops raised with less water that could have conserved precious water. One may recall that it was just about 2 decades ago that GOI launched with much fanfare its much touted Mission on oil seeds and pulses investing lot of money obviously to tide over the never ending shortage of these critical commodities but nothing came out of it due to callousness and disorganized, uncoordinated efforts of multiple agencies. Production of both these crops remained stagnant with GOI resorting to imports on an ad hoc basis, as a fire fighting operation. Is it not a shame that the same government is talking about oil seeds and pulses now as if it is a new problem? Probably democracies like that in India can thrive only when people have short memories and politicians are able to recycle the same "trash" over and over again with none being able to call their bluff!



If there is ever a clean food preservation technology available to mankind, irradiation process eminently qualifies for that spot. Though many countries have approved irradiation as a safe process to kill bacteria and other pathogenic microorganisms that spoil food, its wide scale use at the industry level is constrained by many practical problems. As many a consumer identifies irradiation as related to the destructive and deadly "Hiroshima" bombs which killed and maimed thousands of people, there is an understandable reluctance to "accept" foods undergoing irradiation process. All governments are moving cautiously in this area and irradiation is slowly being used in some selected cases with large benefits flowing from it. It is against this background that new approaches are being tried out to reduce radiation doses as much as possible to allay the misplaced fears of some consumers. The recently reported use of modified atmosphere packing (MAP) in combination with irradiation seems to be achieving this purpose.

"A new research has developed a method, which could significantly reduce the amount of irradiation needed to kill 99.99 percent of Salmonella, E.coli and other pathogens on fresh produce. A team of Texas AgriLife Research engineers found that by packing produce in a Mylar bag filled with pure oxygen and her colleagues found they could almost half the amount of radiation needed to kill those pathogens. Reducing the amount of radiation is not so much a safety measure as it is a way to preserve quality of the produce, said Carmen Gomes, AgriLife research food safety engineer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the use of irradiation at dosages of up to 4,000 Gray on leafy greens such as spinach, Gomes said. A Gray is a measure of ionizing radiation dose and it is equal to the absorption of 1 Joule of ionizing radiation by 1 kilogram of matter. "That dosage was determined as what was necessary to achieve an 100,000-fold reduction of such pathogens as E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella. However, we know based on previous research conducted by our group that above 1 kilo Gray (1,000 Gray) the quality of leafy vegetables starts to decay and they lose their freshness," noted Gomes. A 100,000-fold reduction corresponds to a 99.999 percent kill rate, according to Dr. Rosana Moreira, another member of the team".

Though the scientists claim that reducing the dosage serves a more useful purpose, viz. preserving the textural quality of crops like fresh greens, it is note worthy that a 50% lower dosage is able to achieve the same result when MAP is used before subjecting to irradiation process. Probably it is time for organizations like FAO, WHO and others to promote irradiation technology as the most important technique to prevent or reduce the massive food losses on a significant scale in the coming years. The logistics involved in making available low cost irradiation equipment must be addressed on priority so that majority of the industry can afford to establish the required facilities at minimum investment.


Saturday, January 22, 2011


World over renewed attention is being focused on Algae for use in food formulations, extracting food ingredients, deriving nutraceutical substances, producing edible fat and as a source of bio-fuel. Preparations based on some strains of Algae like Spirulina have already found their way to the market as health boosting products and considerable investments are being made for developing commercial models of Algae production to augment the bio-fuel supply in future. Use of Algae as a source of poly phenolic chemicals has not received much attention and the recent findings that extracts rich in poly phenolic materials with very high potential for protecting health probably may pitchfork this humble unicellular microorganism as a major nutraceutical in the coming years.

Edible marine macroalgae, such as seaweeds form an important part of the diet in many far Eastern countries, whilst they are less used as foods in Western countries, their use is well documented. Apart from food uses, including their main industrial use as thickeners and gelling agents, seaweeds are widely used as ingredients in cosmetics and as fertilizers. However, edible seaweeds contain a range of components which have been suggested to have potential health benefits. They are good sources of dietary fibre, especially soluble fibre such as alginates, which can influence satiety and glucose uptake from foods – These soluble polysaccharides may also act as prebiotics, stimulating growth of beneficial bacteria in the colon. The authors stated that as well as being sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids, minerals and certain vitamins, "edible seaweeds can contain appreciable amounts of polyphenols, which are effective antioxidants and may have particular biological activities." "For example, polyphenol-rich extracts and isolated phlorotannin components have been shown to inhibit proliferation of cancer cells and to influence anti-inflammatory responses," wrote the researchers. Nwosu and colleagues reported that recent, but limited, information suggests that polyphenol rich extracts from edible seaweeds have potential anti-diabetic effects through the modulation of glucose-induced oxidative stress, and inhibition of starch-digestive enzymes such as alpha-amylase and alpha-glucosidase. In the new study, phenolic-rich extracts from four edible marine macroalgae commonly found in U.K. waters (Ulva, Ascophyllum, Alaria, and Palmaria) were tested for their potential biological effects towards cultured colon cancer cells and for their ability to inhibit digestive enzymes to achieve potential anti-diabetic effects.

Seaweeds are an integral part of oriental food preparations while the Alginate derived from them is one of the best thickeners available to the processed food industry all over the world. If the findings by the UK scientists can be confirmed by further studies with large size of subjects with regard to the health claims, algal poly phenolic extracts may become a universal health ingredient in thousands of food formulations in future. If the specific poly phenol responsible for the versatile health benefits can be identified, work of the food scientists is made easier to develop products with least flavor taint contributed by the isolated poly phenol. Biggest beneficiaries of this development will be diabetic people and obese consumers who can improve the quality of life very significantly.


Friday, January 21, 2011


The announcement from the First Lady of the United States that the food industry there has agreed to cut down 1.5 trillion calories in the food products they market within the next ten years really made big headlines all over the world. Of course whether this will materialize or the industry would dilly dally on their promise once the administration in the US changes, is another matter. The fact still remains that over-sweetened foods, targeted especially at kids are flooding the market and no effort is spared to promote them investing heavily by the food industry. It is understandable that industry does not work for charity and ensuring decent return on investments is a genuine aspiration. Where it hurts the mankind is, when such relentless profit-chasing endeavors are blind to the harm caused to the consumers. This becomes doubly dubious when it is done deliberately with very little sympathy for the sufferings caused to the people through unfairly promoted unhealthy processed foods.

"Research shows more than 20,000 new food and beverage products are introduced into the market each year. This is in addition to the products we already have in the grocery store, many of which are highly processed high-sugar, high-salt, high-fat items. A 2003 report by the International Association of Consumer Food Organizations suggests that for every $1 spent by the World Health Organization on trying to improve the nutrition of the world's population, $500 is spent by the food industry on promoting processed foods. I recently did a Google search to see what would come up when I requested "food marketing articles" and there were more than 58 million links. The field of food marketing is a huge area of study with an intense goal to sell more and compete for brand recognition. Marketing to kids has proven to be big business for the food industry, since children and teens spend billions of their own dollars annually, influence how billions more are spent through household food purchases, and are future adult consumers. Tactics used by the food industry to entice kids in particular include offering collectible toys, games and contests. They are also technologically savvy in their use of memorable messages and games on websites and in-school marketing. Food industry marketers are brilliant at creating cartoon characters, collectible toys, games, music, contests, and food shapes and colours to entice kids to want their products".

It is often a dilemma for the governments whether such tendencies are to be curbed through strict policy orchestration or it is more desirable to cajole the industry to mend its way through appropriate steps. The role of consumer also is important as a well informed and disciplined consumer can always resist the "advances" or "seduction" by the industry through "thoughtful" buying but such consumers are far and few to make any impact on the situation. What about banning advertisements of processed foods with high sugar, salt or fat or energy content in the electronic media? Or heavy taxation of such products to make them exorbitantly costly? Unless some thing is done to prevent the present trend, to day's kids are likely to become future bloated citizens with grotesque figures and shapes straddling every country in this planet!


Thursday, January 20, 2011


Freedom of speech is enshrined invariably in all Constitutions of democratic countries, the express purpose being the inalienable right of citizens to raise matters of concern to them as well as the environment they live in. It is only through such expression any meaningful government can get a feed back from their subjects and take up remedial measures that can provide relief and comfort. But a bigger question now being raised is whether such rights can be misused to harm others in the Society. An example is the "front of the packet" label claims being made by many manufacturers of processed foods which lure the unsuspecting customers to buy the same. When unsubstantiated and unsupported health claims are printed on the food label, the consumer has no means to verify such claims and in pursuit of maintaining good health, these products are bought with full belief on the processor. As most of these claims were found to be at best dubious because of lack of scientific proof to support them, they could be termed as "lies" attracting severe punishment, let alone allowing them under "freedom of speech" principle.

"Food companies insist that they can make health claims for their products, whether backed by science or not, because commercial speech is protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment, in case you have forgotten, says:Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. In a commentary in JAMA (PDF) earlier this year about front-of-package labeling, David Ludwig and I argued that it was time to take another look at current interpretations of the First Amendment suggesting that free commercial speech is equivalent to free political or religious speech. Surely, we said, consumers would be better off without front-of-package labels and health claims on food products. Last month, the British journal Public Health Nutrition published an article by law professor Timothy Lytton. His article, "Banning front-of-package food labels: First Amendment constraints on public health policy," takes issue with our JAMA argument: In recent months, the FDA has begun a crackdown on misleading nutrition and health claims on the front of food packages by issuing warning letters to manufacturers and promising to develop stricter regulatory standards. Leading nutrition policy experts Marion Nestle and David Ludwig have called for an even tougher approach: a ban on all nutrition and health claims on the front of food packages. Nestle and Ludwig argue that most of these claims are scientifically unsound and misleading to consumers and that eliminating them would 'aid educational efforts to encourage the public to eat whole or minimally processed foods and to read the ingredients list on processed foods'. Nestle and Ludwig are right to raise concerns about consumer protection and public health when it comes to front-of-package food labels, but an outright ban on front-of-package nutrition and health claims would violate the First Amendment. As nutrition policy experts develop efforts to regulate front-of-package nutrition and health claims, they should be mindful of First Amendment constraints on government regulation of commercial speech".

It is a strange logic that food industry can print their claim irrespective of the scientific truth, literally saying that they have the right to kill people, albeit slowly through their foods! Though voluntary constraints by the industry is the best way to tackle this controversial issue, such an approach rarely works with a few dissenting players getting away with practicing such duplicity. As this is a vital "life or death" issue, countries not willing to compromise on the "freedom of speech" principle, must go back to people for a referendum to take majority view. It is unlikely that people will vote for their own destruction through long term consumption of foods with dubious claims put out by the industry..


Monday, January 17, 2011


Food quality and safety in Delhi always receive attention. Probably this is where the country's ruling elite live. Besides the much heralded FSAAI is also situated in Delhi to give a helping hand to policies and programs for ensuring safe foods are provided at the restaurants when ministers and bureaucrats visit these places. The pitch for tightening implementation of food laws was very high during the just concluded Common Wealth Games (or Shames?), the justification being not to allow any "foreign" visitors become sick during this period. Interestingly one of the private players seems to have jumped into the "safety" fray and made a grand announcement that they would be launching a mobile lab for food testing so that Delhi citizens can sleep peacefully!

"As part of the Safe Food Destination (SFD) being run by the agency during the Commonwealth Games, a mobile testing van will go to eating places in areas like Khan Market, Dilli Haat, Chandni Chowk and Karol Bagh to check quality of food being served. "The mobile laboratory is a unique concept wherein various tests evaluating the quality of food and the attributes affecting food safety are conducted in an effective and time efficient manner," an official of TQS Global Management System said. N.L.B. Pantulu, vice president (Operations) of TQS Global said: "The lab will conduct tests to check adulteration in dairy products. It is also equipped to conduct antibiotic residue tests, pesticide residue test, alergen monitoring tests, water tests and a few microbiological tests."

It is not clear as to who have given them this "task" and even if they have official "blessings", why should any hotelier agree for testing his food samples; even if the sample does not confirm to standards, what next? While the attempt by this private agency is laudable, this is a typical case of putting "the cart before the horse" because no proper planning has gone into this venture before announcing its launch. If this facility is only for guidance of the owners of the eateries, it is understandable but whether they will be able to pay for the service is another question. If it is for consumer guidance, could it be a charitable activity? If there is a compulsion or fear of retribution, the hoteliers may find the need for such a service. But with no such compulsions, why should they spend their resources for quality checking? As nothing much is heard about the program since the announcement, it is presumed that the organizers were not able to get sufficient response to their much publicized novel service.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Food processing sector in India is more or less monopolized by many multinational companies (MNCs) either directly or through their local subsidiaries. There has always been a big question mark regarding the "sun rise" tag attributed to Indian food industry because of relatively low proportion of processing the raw food materials undergo. With a very low value addition achieved by most of the native industrial units, it is but natural that MNCs found it a fertile situation to invest money and modern technology to reap rich benefits. With highly effective marketing strategy there has never been a challenge to the dominance of MNCs in the food sector. Many observers often wondered in the past as to why the Tatas or Ambani's or Birlas or any highly successful entrepreneurial giants of Indian origin were not interested in investment in the food sector. Exceptions are there like the alcoholic beverage industry (Mallya group) and Tea industry (Tatas) which dominate the world landscape in their respective areas. The recent take over of a UK food processing firm by a dynamic Indian group must warm the hearts of every Indian with pride.

"Maharashtra-based Jain Irrigation Systemstoday said it has entered into an agreement to acquire an 80 per cent stake in UK-based Sleaford Quality Foods Ltd (SQFL), an industrial food ingredients supplier. It, however, did not mention the price of the acquisition. The acquisition will help Jain Irrigation's food division to have a direct access to a large market with value-added products, a press release issued here stated. Sleaford Quality Foods, a supplier of food ingredients to the food industry, has been in the business for more than 40 years and its product range covers a large spectrum of food ingredients including dehydrated vegetables, spices, herbs, dehydrated fruits, soup mixes, pulses and canned vegetables, among others. Sleaford Quality Foods has a nation-wide distribution and strong sales force and sells its products to multinationals and other food companies under its own brand name or private labels. The acquisition brings the domestic major one step closer to market, with an opportunity to enter into the large ethnic food market in the UK and possibility of addition of new products in Jain's food division product range, the release said".

Though the horticulture products processing is relatively a small segment of the Indian food industry, it earns valuable foreign exchange through exports to many countries. It is a different matter, however, that the country's foreign trade in processed foods is still a minuscule part of the global food food business but there is hope that with new acquisitions like the one reported above, it is a question of time before India becomes a significant global player in this area. The spices oleoresin industry in India, which has cornered a major portion of global market in a relatively short time of two decades, starting almost from the scratch. is a role model for the fruit and vegetable industry to emulate.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Reliable data can only be the basis for any future planning and this is the Achille's Heel with most developing countries. Take for instance the situation in India where critical data and information are neither available nor accessible easily even if they exist. Such an environment is ideally suited for many consultants to proliferate and spin money in the name of "Reports". It is doubtful if these reports are worth the paper on which they are written. While there are a few multinational consultants who thrive in the country mainly on government grants for making such reports, there are also agencies, often managed by retired bureaucrats and others making money at the expense of the tax payer of this country. Contrast this with the fantastic range of statistics available freely on different facets of trade and industry, society, environment, economic status etc at both macro and micro levels in many developed countries. Here is a sample from the US.

"Among the relevant data in the report:

• "Individuals age 15 and over in the United States spent, on average, 1.22 hours per day engaged in eating and drinking activities."

• "Also in 2009, the average household in the United States spent $6,372 on food – which includes money spent on food at home and money spent on food away from home."

• 41 percent of that total was spent on food away from home.

• More than 2 million workers – 1.5 percent of civilian workers in the United States – are employed as cooks.

• 75 percent of those cooks are employed in eating and drinking establishments; 25 percent work in places including hospitals, schools and nursing homes.

• Fast food cooks earn the least nationwide, at an average hourly wage of $8.97; institutional cooks earn the most, at $12.44.

• Cooks in Honolulu earn the most, on average, at $14.72 per hour; cooks in the Morganton, N.C., area earn the least, at $7.49 per hour.

• Cooks in the Puget Sound area earn an average of $11.05 per hour, while bartenders earn $9.27 and wait staff earn $8.59".

Most despicable reality is that even on crucial area of food adulteration and food poisoning there is no worth while information in India conveying the impression that Indian consumers are "happy" with the safety of foods provided to them by the manufacturers, traders, retailers and caterers! Many activist organizations have brought out the fact that India is a major haven for food adulterators and fraudsters with a benign food safety "Authority" unable to do any thing due to the bureaucratic nature of the agency and grossly understaffed technical facilities and infrastructure. The country also does not have a clue regarding the need for trained food technologists and technicians, required by the industry as well as the service sector. It was amusing to read about a recent report from Kerala where there appears to be a dearth of skilled artisans in preparing Latcha Parotha, a favorite wheat preparation of the population there and the restaurants trying to woo experienced "cooks" by offering Rs 10000 per month! Indians have no idea about the diversity of eating habits amongst them selves because there are no reliable data generated based on field level surveys. Unless reliable and extensive macro and micro data are generated the country's planning will always be faulty and behind the time.