Thursday, March 31, 2011


Some times it is very difficult to discern what is true in floods of statements eulogizing a person or a development for some visible short term gain. The Green Revolution (GR) in Asia, supposed to be engineered by Dr Norman Borlaug has been acclaimed as the most significant achievement of man in the last century and India was also supposed to have been benefited by the break-through in agriculture technology that ensured increased supply of Rice and Wheat. How ever GR could not succeed in making any impact on the production of pulses and oil seeds in which the country is still stagnating. That aside, recent attempts by some world bodies to encourage replicating the GR in North Easter Region (NER) is attracting genuine criticism which must be addressed before GOI invests its resources, obviously to please the local people from political angle. The most severe criticism of GR is about the chemical intensive nature of the cultivation practice and predominant shifting from multi-culture to mono culture cultivation, causing severe damage to millions of acres of fertile land in the country and no amount of "repair" can restore the soil to its original health. Who is going to answer to this serious apprehension? Those, who glorify themselves year after year for past "achievements", setting up tax sheltered foundations, for research in their name, acquiring national and international grants, accept innumerable "awards" showered on them, serve in umpteen number of Babu-dominated committees at Delhi to give politically convenient recommendations, must be held accountable and responsible for thousands of farmer suicides during last two decades.

Economic Survey 2011 too suggests strengthening Green Revolution in eastern India as the probable route to increase food production. The other day I heard Ashok Gulati of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) saying on the TV that extending Green Revolution to eastern India would provide a sustained supply of surplus food for the next 30 years or so. Well, if you followed the work of IFPRI, this shouldn't come as a surprise. IFPRI is essentially a PR agency for agribusiness industry masquerading as a research institute. Green Revolution has already played havoc with the intensively farmed regions in India. The use and abuse of chemical inputs have already taken a heavy toll. Soils are poisoned, environment is contaminated, aquifers have gone dry, and the resulting the food chain has become unhealthy. The devastation wrought by the NPK model of agriculture, and the unwanted application of chemical pesticides, have in many ways caused a kind of a Holocaust that remains hidden from public glare. The destruction that Green Revolution has inflicted has been deliberately kept under wraps. In fact, the large number of farmer suicides that we witness in India -- more than 250,000 in the past 15 years -- are actually the outcome of the failure of Green Revolution. We are now hell bent on extending the great tragedy of Green Revolution to the hitherto verdant lands and people of eastern India.

The critics are right in pleading that NER, one of the most fertile land areas remaining untouched by GR must be spared the agony of long term adverse consequences which can drive more farmers to suicide. Recent banning of Jhum cultivation in some parts of NER, with government encouragement and financial support may push the farmers to GR practices which will also be heavily subsidized by the government and one can imagine the consequences to future generation in that region. Why are the politicians, "scientific politicians", bureaucrats sitting at Delhi ignoring the writing on the wall and spare the poor farmers from the agony of future depredations? Will sanity prevail before it is too late? One can only hope so!

Monday, March 28, 2011


Fast foods in many western countries are at the receiving end because of their suspected role in contributing over weight, obesity and many life style health disorders. But this industry has shown remarkable resilience in overcoming such adversities and continue to thrive. They have become all the more visible these days when the economic melt down has reduced the buying capacity of many middle class families who can afford these foods easily as they are priced low due to the large business volume generated. Besides industry continuously strives to be sensitive to consumer concerns in modifying their products removing promptly any ingredient that has safety uncertainties as per consumer perception. The industry serves a useful purpose by providing highly standardized and tasty preparations within a matter of few minutes using most modern processing technologies. Recent revelation that this industry is increasing the convenient content further shows that it is not easy to demolish them from the mind of the consumer.

"Mos Burger branches across school campuses and Taipei City (around 20 in total) have already tested out the on-line meal order service. By mid-March, the new service will be available for the fast food establishment nationwide. According to Mos Burger representatives, the new service was created to shorten the waiting period for its customers. Although the company has a call-in service for orders, customers have complained that their calls often fail to go through. The prevalence of Internet-based services caused Mos Burger to roll out their on-line ordering process, testing it in January across Taipei City branches and those located on school campuses. The results were positive, and the company predicts that by mid-March, all 180 or so Mos Burger branches will take on-line requests. The Mos Burger website has two options for on-line orders: systematic and time-based. If the customer doesn't specify a time, his food will be made within ten minutes of his order, which will be ready to be enjoyed in the restaurant or for pick up. However, if the Mos Burger restaurant is at capacity, the customer may still have to wait".

Those who patronize joints like Taco Bell, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Burger King, KFC or any other fast food serving place cannot fail to notice the quality of service and the premium on time accorded to their service. For many professional and busy people time is definitely a factor that determines their choice of eateries and these outlets fit admirably with the consumer expectation. Though the new innovation cannot be considered very novel, putting into practice the IT technology for providing faster service is some thing that does not exist till recently. Ordering of food through telephone can reduce the waiting time significantly but in a country like the US it is next to impossible to get a live human voice to listen to consumer needs. Therefore Internet is a possible practical medium that can allow the consumer to send across the order very fast and little time is lost between ordering and taking delivery of the menu items ordered. What is noteworthy is that this development is happening not in Europe nor in the US but in Taiwan in Asia! Three cheers.


Sunday, March 20, 2011


Mango, the King of Fruits, is intimately associated with Indian history, culture and ethos and this country enjoyed practically a monopoly in the global market till recently. It is no more true with many other countries in South America, Asia and Africa taking up mango cultivation and shipping their produce to European and American markets. There are hundreds of variants of Mango fruit with widely varying aroma, sweetness, color, texture and sweetness. Still the gold standard is still the Alphonso variety grown in India almost exclusively. The strong aroma associated with many mango varieties is not liked very much by Westerners and the high ruling price has allowed other milder versions to get entry in the market. It is against this background one has to see the recent attempt by Ghana to entice agri-business entities from India to invest on raising orchards in that country on government allocated land that will produce prime quality fruits, probably export to Europe. As Mango is a fruit highly susceptible to physiological and microbiological spoilage within a short time of harvest, the effort must be considered as strategic since it takes much less time for travel from Africa to Europe.

"Ghana has acquired 20,000 hectares of land for mango cultivation and has now asked a group of top Indian businessmen to see how it could fit in their investment plans. A 35-member delegation of the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) arrived here to hold a two-day business meeting with their Ghanaian counterparts, the Association of Ghana Industries (AGI), to further strengthen the growing trade between the two countries. The FICCI team is led by group chairman of DCS Limited, Harpinder Singh Narula, and it is made up of chief executives of some major Indian companies representing agriculture and food processing, information and communication technology and mining. They would also explore ways of investing in the
Ghanaian economy. Speaking at the opening of the two-day meeting, Narula said that the west African nation had become a promising business destination because of the country's natural resources and high literacy rate. The country has a dynamic private sector with a business friendly environment and above all a progressive policy regime to boost trade. 'Ghana occupies an important place in India's trade promotion programme,' Narula said. Appiah Donyina, director of exports at the ministry trade and industry in Accra, said that the Ghanaian government has acquired 20,000 hectares of land for mango cultivation in the three northern regions of the country as part of the national mango plantation projects that is aimed at developing mango orchards over the next five years".

While the news report may tickle the minds of many an Indian, transforming such ideas into reality is fraught with many risks. Absolutely no information exists regarding the suitability of Indian varieties Mango to be grown under Ghanaian conditions and even if successfully produced how far it will compare with genuine Indian grown fruits is a point that poses scientific and logistical challenges. As is true with any agricultural project the lag period between conceptualization and actual production may be at least 8-10 years for which investors should have sufficient patience. If this approach succeeds, Mango can be expected to be cheaper to the Indian consumer, export business being managed from off shore cultivation. India consumer cannot forget easily the unjustified and illogical rise in prices during the last season and can only hope that their dear fruit will once again be affordable.


Saturday, March 19, 2011


What to do with date expired packed foods is an issue that has been debated for long ever since the present front of the pack labeling provision became mandatory in many countries. While manufacturers have the moral and legal responsibility to with draw such products and replace with fresh packs in the retail market shelves, some highly popular brands, in great demand, do not extend this service to its retailers. Probably retailers who depend on these products heavily to sustain their business have no choice but to allow them being wasted or adopt the dubious practice of repacking them to hoodwink the consumer. Therefore the problem becomes more of the retailer than that of the manufacturer. It was no long ago a Minister in the British Cabinet exhorted the consumers there not to waste the date-expired foods by throwing them away. It is rarely understood that expiry date often refers to the eating quality of the contents rather than their safety. Still consumers have a tendency to prefer food products with long expiry date, imagining rightly or wrongly, that they are much safer and of course they cannot be faulted. If the manufacturers are able to give same date information with respect to safety, lot of foods could be saved from going waste which is an inexcusable act considering the fate of millions of people who go hungry every day for want of access to affordable food. The Food Bank movement which has taken roots in many developed country are doing a yeoman service by redeeming date expired foods and distributing the same to poor people, after ascertaining they are safe. Those who work in this movement are "Angels" in this, other wise despicable, planet!

"According to Kate Mudge, the director of Food Rescue, almost every retailer in the Twin Cities participates. "It doesn't cost anything to participate, if anything it saves money from trash collection," she said. Companies also have tax incentives for participating. Major retailers include Cub Foods, Sam's Club, Wal-Mart and Byerly's, along with many other food sellers. The program has existed since 1984, but has taken off in the last five years. Similar programs exist across the country, but according to Mudge, this is one of the more formalized organizations. Food Rescue has eight refrigerator trucks in the metro collecting food from stores daily, and it is one of the largest programs of its kind in the country. Though the eight trucks run in the Twin Cities area, they also set up connections between stores and food shelves in rural areas. Food Rescue is completely safe and protected by federal law under the Good Samaritan Act. The program also offers a way for retailers to be green and increase sustainability efforts. Working with 224 donors across Minnesota and Wisconsin, they collected and saved around 12 million pounds in 2010. Second Harvest Heartland collects a total of 60 million pounds of food and year, with nearly 25 percent coming from Food Rescue. With the program still growing, they hope to collect 15 million pounds this year. The largest of their kind in the Upper Midwest, Second Harvest Heartland says on their website that they wish to relieve hunger through leadership and innovation. They are also a member of "Feeding America," a network of more than 200 food banks across the country. Collecting, storing, and distributing millions of pounds of food to those in need are the main goals of the organization. This innovative process of distributing food has a way to take what would end up being unnecessary landfill contents and feeding those who need it. Manufacturers refuse to let this food go to waste, and Food Rescue helps to make sure that doesn't happen".

A recent news item in print media in India claimed that GOI is "considering" the waste of foods in the country though the bland statement by a junior minister in the Parliament does not say where food is wasted and how they are going to be prevented. It took 64 long years after Independence for the "ruling elite" to realize "food is wasted" in large quantities in the country! This is while no less an agency like the Supreme Court indicted the very same government regarding its propensity to allow food grains to rot out side their storage Goddowns under their very nose! Do these political chicaneers have any more credibility left amongst the honest citizens in Indian republic, after the series of scams surfaced recently, involving siphoning of billions of rupees from the common man, obviously to line their own pockets and slash it away in Tax Havens?


Thursday, March 17, 2011


Rising food prices in almost all countries have focused on the nutrition and health of people who are most vulnerable because of poor economic conditions. According to the FAO there are at least 30 poor countries in the world where food riots can happen if global food inflation surges further. It appears many knowledgeable people believe that there is a link between climate change and food security, especially in some of the developing countries. Probably agriculture and land productivity are key factors that can influence nutrition and health and adequate attention has not been bestowed on these issues. it is not often realized that agriculture is the mainstay of a very large number of people and in a country like India more than half the labor population depend heavily on agriculture for the bulk of their incomes. Some studies in India do point out that some correlation exists between agricultural performance of a state and the nutritional status of its people. Those having high agricultural productivity invariably have lower malnutrition rates for both adults and children. Malnutrition and under nutrition are also influenced by ingrained eating habits and feeding practices involving new born babies, maternal and child health care and to some extent the safety of water available to some communities. Against this background Prime Minister of India recently opened his mind to place on record what perspectives he has regarding these issues..

The prime minister said malnutrition remained a serious problem in India and many developing countries. Globally, nearly 1 billion people still went hungry. Nearly one in four children under age of five was underweight. The problem of hidden hunger—deficiencies of essential vitamins and minerals, such as iron, Vitamin A and iodine — was also severe. Nutrition was therefore a serious challenge that had not received the attention it truly deserved. In India, rapid growth in agriculture with particular emphasis on the sub sectors growing food and on the poorer regions would help address issues of availability and access. But, experience had also shown that rapid growth in the GDP in general and, even agriculture in particular, though necessary, was not sufficient to produce desirable nutritional and health outcomes among the socially and economically disadvantaged groups of the community. There were other causes that needed to be addressed. "We need to address the issues of absorption of nutrition, health and hygiene, which in turn depend on many other factors such as the availability of clean drinking water, sanitation and also on the education and status of women in society. We do not see agricultural development as the only element in our strategy but it is nonetheless a key part of any viable strategy."

Of course no one should have any quarrel with him regarding the problems as illustrated by him but what is missing is the palliative he has in mind to overcome this complex problem. Having headed the government at the center for more than 7 years one expects clear cut answers for dealing with these issues of food, nutrition and health, in stead of long sermons. The record of GOI does not inspire confidence that any thing tangible will happen during the next 3 years when another election is on the people. Providing huge subsidies to the farming sector did not prevent them from committing suicide. The much mismanaged PDS and the grandiose scheme of providing food grains at throw away prices did not improve the conditions of the poor a wee bit. A honest citizen, paying his taxes and living by the rule book has become a silent spectator to financial scams, occurring under the very nose of the Prime Minister and the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor. How can this country hope to become a super economic power with almost half its population languishing in poverty and hunger? Development seems to be only for the privileged ones while the majority is slipping more and more into perpetual misery! Probably with deep faith in God they may be willing to wait for a savior who can redeem them from the abysmal depth of desperation.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Alcohol consumption is always embroiled in controversy with both the protagonists and antagonists having their own views regarding the virtues or dangers from many alcoholic beverage products being offered by the industry. Many believe that moderate consumption of alcohol can be beneficial in the case of many persons and the danger posed by these stimulant products lies in uncontrolled consumption with potential of causing grave injury to the liver. Amongst the alcoholic beverages wine, especially the red variety is considered healthy because of the reported presence of resveratrol and procyanidins in these products. which are both cardio-protective and chemo-protective in human beings. If WHO statistics are any indication Indians seem to be loving their alcohol drinks and there is a dramatic increase in alcohol consumption during the last few years probably due to higher per capita income resulting from economic liberalization. Unfortunately wine products, considered most healthy, are not patronized in India, its share being just 2% of total alcohol consumption.

"Indians love their whisky, vodka and rum but are yet to develop a taste for wine. Spirits make up for 88% of what Indians regularly drink while beer boasts of a 10% share. Wine is only 2% of what Indians love to drink. An average Indian adult (15 years and over) drank 2.6 litres of "pure alcohol" between 2003-05. This was higher than the per capita consumption in the south-east Asia region which stood at 2.2 litres. These are the findings of the World Health Organisation's Global status report on alcohol and health which has analysed alcohol consumption in over 100 countries. In a pattern of drinking score (the higher the score, the greater the alcohol attributable burden of disease for the country), WHO gives India 3 out of 5. It says that India saw a robust increase in recorded adult per capita consumption of alcohol. When it came to only drinkers, the average per capita consumption of pure alcohol of a 15-year-old and above in India between 2003-05 was 22.25 litres (23.93 litres among men and 10.35 litres among women). "The harmful use of alcohol is a worldwide problem resulting in millions of deaths, including hundreds of thousands of young lives lost. It is not only a causal factor in many diseases, but also a precursor to injury and violence," Dr Ala Alwan, assistant DG of WHO, said. The WHO report says that alcohol use results in the death of 2.5 million people annually. Nearly 4% of all deaths are related to alcohol. Most alcohol-related deaths are caused by injuries, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and liver cirrhosis. Globally, 6.2% of all male deaths are related to alcohol, compared to 1.1% of female deaths. Worldwide, 3.2 lakh young people aged 15-29 years die annually from alcohol-related causes, resulting in 9% of all deaths in that age group. Alcohol raises the risk of as many as 60 different diseases, according to a recent study in the medical journal `Lancet'.

Countries like Italy, France, Spain, USA, Argentina and others are in the forefront as far as production and consumption of alcoholic beverages are concerned. Compared to Indians, whose per capita annual consumption is just 2.6 liters, in many industrialized countries the corresponding figure is in the range of 15-18 liters. As for wine consumption, in many countries the per capita consumption figure is around 50 liters but in India it is less than a few milliliters! The apprehension regarding potential health hazard from alcohol consumption in India may be due to limited number of people who have the habit of drinking and per capita figure can be misleading. The reported figures of 22.5 liters amongst regular drinkers in India and 23.93 liters in China may sound an alarm which calls for more efforts to wean hard core drinkers away from this deadly potion!



The meat industry in some of the developed countries can go to any extent to increase the farm productivity as well as the meat quality as perceived by the consumer. It is well known that more than 60% of the antibiotics manufactured in the US goes for use in meat animals for preventing some of the common diseases which can make the meat unsafe. In some cases these antibiotics also help to accelerate the growth cycle enabling the industry to recoup their investment faster. Chinese are more "enterprising" in that they use antibiotics even for protecting the honey bees against some of the diseases resulting in antibiotic tainted honey! Here comes another anecdote from the developed world which describes how some of the unscrupulous animal farms are using a muscle building chemical for raising the muscle content in their animals so that leaner meat cuts are offered as premium products in the market.

"Legally used in certain countries outside the United States as a prescription medical treatment for asthma in humans and airway obstruction in horses, clenbuterol, classified as a beta2-adrenergic agonist, is perhaps more commonly known for its illegal use by athletes and bodybuilders to increase lean muscle mass and reduce body fat. It also has gained widespread popularity among livestock producers who use it illicitly to enhance the muscle growth of their meat. Although the drug is currently not controlled under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act (CSA), it is listed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the International Olympic Committee as a non-steroidal anabolic performance enhancing drug. Accordingly, athletes are barred from using it. In past years, many professional athletes have tested positive for clenbuterol and were subsequently banned from their respective sporting events".

The problem regarding the extent of such undesirable and dangerous practice must be addressed squarely and there must be a global consensus on this issue. It is time that dependable protocols are established for fast detection of the presence of clenbuterol and similar non-steroidal drugs in meat products so that the meat industry cannot get away by resorting to such unethical and dangerous practices. It is true that a lean meat is always healthier than normal meat products but that does not mean that unsafe methods are deployed for the purpose. Profit at any cost should not be the motto of the industry and in the long run a happy consumer is always an asset for maintaining a steady market.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Some times food industry can be wrongly indicted for doing things which some consider as undesirable. No doubt many practices being indulged by the industry deserve to be condemned in no uncertain terms and deterrent action taken with no leniency shown against proven culprits. But the latest issue which is being raised to insinuate the processing industry cannot be justified if a scientific assessment is made dispassionately. Use of cellulose which is not digested in human GI tract, often included in food formulations is considered harmless and is permitted by law. To castigate the industry that it is making people eat "wood pulp" is outright childish and preposterous.

"Chief among those concerns is the use of cellulose (read: wood pulp), an extender whose use in a roster of food products, from crackers and ice creams to puddings and baked goods, is now being exposed. What you're actually paying for -- and consuming -- may be surprising. Cellulose is virgin wood pulp that has been processed and manufactured to different lengths for functionality, though use of it and its variant forms (cellulose gum, powdered cellulose, micro-crystalline cellulose, etc.) is deemed safe for human consumption, according to the FDA, which regulates most food industry products. The government agency sets no limit on the amount of cellulose that can be used in food products meant for human consumption. The USDA, which regulates meats, has set a limit of 3.5% on the use of cellulose, since fiber in meat products cannot be recognized nutritionally".

Cellulose, if it is of food grade is a dietary fiber required for good health and according to expert recommendations an average adult must consume 25-30 gm of fiber daily to prevent development of a number of diseases. There are many natural sources of fiber with varying molecular structure and properties. While naturally occurring substances like beta glucan and pectin come under the soluble fiber category, cellulose and a host of non-starch carbohydrates serve as insoluble fiber. Both soluble and insoluble fiber are considered essential for good intestinal health in humans. Production of short chain fatty acids including butyrate in the human bowel by "friendly" microbes helps to strengthen tissues besides providing protection against some form of cancer. As long as the cellulose ingredients used is derived from edible plant sources, one should have no objection regarding their presence in processed foods. The levels of use are self-limited by the changes that will be evident if too much of this ingredient is incorporated in the food and besides its role in nutrition, cellulose also serves the technological necessity in creating desirable mouth feel in many products.


Saturday, March 12, 2011


Saffron is considered the costliest amongst spices commanding as much as Rs 50000 a kilogram in the international market and highest quality saffron is supposed to be produced in Spain. One can imagine the extent of money that can be made even if there is a 1% adulteration of this spice with extraneous matters! But it is nothing but scandalous to hear about 50-90% adulteration of saffron that is reported to be taking place, the fraud estimated at millions of dollars globally. Poor consumers have no way to know how bad the saffron being bought from the market in good faith as there are no quick tests to determine purity. Here is a take on saffron fraud reported from Europe.

"Food officials have begun an investigation into claims that "red gold" is routinely adulterated with other, worthless parts of the crocus flower in a scam that is defrauding thousands of gourmands. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has asked its counterparts in Spain to test the saffron being exported from that country after being tipped off that supposedly "pure and genuine" saffron on sale in the UK is of poor quality, and fails to supply the usual colour and aroma. An amateur cook in Britain prompted the investigation by using his own money to buy large quantities of saffron to be tested at labs owned by the Ministry of Industry, Tourism and Commerce in Spain, one of the largest exporters. His findings prompted the FSA to intervene. Saffron should be painstakingly harvested from the stigma of crocus sativus linnaeus, some 85,000 of which are needed to produce a single kilogram. Under international standards, the finest saffron – which sells for £6 a gram, £6,000 a kilo – should have only 0.5 per cent of "floral waste" and 0.1 per cent "extraneous matter". But the results on 10 brands purchased and sent for analysis, passed on by the amateur cook to The Independent, suggest that the use of other parts of the crocus range from between 40 per cent and 90 per cent. In other words, some "top-quality" saffron allegedly contains as little as 10 per cent of actual saffron".

One may recall the big saffron fraud that was going on in the sacred temple of Tirupati some years ago when it was discovered that even government approved samples were grossly adulterated with materials of non-saffron origin and saffron is an integral ingredient in the famous laddus sold as prasad to the unsuspecting devotees. One does not know whether such practices are still continuing though there is practical difficulty in getting 100% pure saffron, especially in a country like India which a "paradise" for food adulterators. It may not be any consolation for Indian consumers to know that saffron adulteration is a "universal" phenomenon! Probably the standards and prices of saffron should be linked based on purity, similar to milk which is priced depending on the fat and solids contents.



Escalating prices of food commodities are known to cause upheavals in many countries which are not self-sufficient in terms of production and too poor to afford high global prices. Most recent food-driven revolution devoured the Egyptian dictator and the "infection" seems to be spreading to other countries like Libya, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait etc. According to discerning observers at least 30 countries are vulnerable to food based unrest some of them likely to end up with regime change, if there is no action to control the run-away food inflation. While a debate on the reason (s) for food inflation may not find any one factor responsible for the food insecurity, it is more or less agreed that changes in food production pattern in some of the leading producing countries, probably due to weather uncertainties and consequent export policies play a critical role. The problem surfaced dramatically in 2008 when food riots took place in several countries, prompting international community to put their heads together for pre-empting such episodes in future through massive financial aid for helping out poor countries to strengthen their production base. How ever in spite of many promises, many rich countries from the G20 group shamelessly dithered while making actual contribution to the World Bank fund intended for the purpose. The result is that another food crisis is looming in the horizon for which world may not be fully prepared.

"After the last sharp price spike in 2008, the G-20 promised to invest $22 billion over three years to help vulnerable countries boost food production. To date, the World Bank fund that is supposed to administer this money has received less than $400 million. Food prices are now higher than their 2008 peak, driven by rising demand in developing countries and volatile weather, including drought in Russia and Ukraine and a dry spell in North China that threatens the crop of the world's largest wheat producer. The World Bank says the spike has pushed 44 million people into extreme poverty just since June. In 2008, 30 countries had food riots. That has not happened, at least not yet. Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, has benefited from improved agricultural productivity. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warns that Mozambique, Uganda, Mali, Niger and Somalia are extremely vulnerable to instability because of rising prices, along with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Asia, and Haiti, Guatemala, Bolivia and Honduras in Latin America. Misguided government policies could make matters worse. Some countries are stockpiling food. When India did that last year, food ended up rotting in storages. Others are imposing agricultural export bans, which discourages investment in production. The world's wealthier nations must press them to rethink these polices and back that up with real help. The Obama administration has proposed worthy initiatives, but even when Democrats controlled Congress it had a hard time getting the money. The administration pledged $3.5 billion to the G-20 effort. So far, it has delivered only $66.6 million to the World Bank fund. It is now asking for $408 million for the fund — part of a $1.64 billion request for its Feed the Future initiative, which aims to bolster poor countries' food production capabilities. Congressional Republicans are determined to hack as much as they can out of foreign aid. The continuing resolution passed by the House cuts $800 million out of the food aid budget — bringing it down to about $1 billion, roughly where it was in 2001".

Sociologists will have find an answer to this disturbing phenomenon which makes the rich less and less sensitive about the miseries of fellow human beings who lead a pitiable existence, not because of their own fault but due to the freaks of history. Look at the cruel psyche of the Americans who do not want to spare the much needed corn crops as food for African population but rather divert their surplus for bio-fuel production that would ensure that their automobiles run with lesser cost and with least disruption! While some of the wealthy countries are touting their food donations as their contribution to ameliorate world hunger problem, they are forgetting that it is not the "alms" that will bring long term succor to these unfortunate countries but a strong technological foundation only can ensure self-reliance and wealth generation. A day may not be too far away, if the prevailing apathy continues, when peace and serenity on Mother planet will be shattered and world will no more be a safe place to live.


Thursday, March 10, 2011


Packaging of foods serves a major purpose viz to protect the contents from damage due to many factors. It also fulfills the needs of the manufacturer to communicate with the consumer regarding a multitude of information about the food being sold and the legal frame work put in place in different countries for the labels must be adhered to so that consumer is not misled into buying through unsubstantiated claims. Generally a good packaging system must help to retain the integrity of the pack till it reaches the consumer, enhance product attributes, communicate effectively with the consumer, lend it to easy opening, assure product authenticity and if possible counter act possible undesirable changes in the food packed. Though there are a number of alternatives available to the industry for packing various foods, advent of synthetic plastic materials has revolutionized the packaging scenario dramatically. Now comes the claim that plastic packing materials can be engineered to tell the consumer whether the contents are still safe for consumption.

"Plastic manufacturers could soon be seeing a new smart food packaging produced on their industrial conveyors, which could be set to revolutionise the food industry. Scientists at the University of Strathclyde have developed a new intelligent plastic that researchers are hopeful will be able to indicate when food is no longer suitable for consumption. The plastic has been developed to change colour when food deteriorates past a certain level. Lead researcher professor Andrew Mills explained that the current costs associated with producing and labelling modified atmosphere packaging are substantial. He added: "We are aiming to eliminate this cost with new plastics for the packaging industry. "We hope that this will reduce the risk of people eating food which is no longer fit for consumption and help prevent unnecessary waste of food." Recent research published by Pira International suggested that a newly developed bioplastics will be a major driver for the packaging market over the next five years".

Though the developers of this packaging material are confident about the reliability of the technology in foretelling the quality of foods without opening, whether it will work with all foods or is restricted to modified atmosphere packaged products is not clear. Regarding the claim that it would reduce the cost of packaging it needs a recheck as any innovation is likely to enhance the value and therefore could be more expensive. Nevertheless the concept of a non-destructive method for quality check in packed foods is worthy of receiving attention by the food industry and the innovators deserve full credit for their efforts. Probably much more will be heard about this development in the coming years and if and when fully developed, this technology may revolutionize the way food is packed and marketed.


Sunday, March 6, 2011


When an elephant sneezes it cannot go unnoticed. Similarly developments is China have some bearings on the global scene. The dire prediction of an impending drought in that country seems to be sending alarms amongst other countries fearing of an impending disaster in the food front. Already food prices have soared beyond the 2008 levels and there are predictions that if food inflation is not checked it may lead to violence and even regime changes in at least 2 dozen countries. The fear that Chinese with their high buying power would sweep the world food grain market for getting hold of the food at any cost, leaving resource starved countries in the lurch. If FAO's estimates prove to be correct, there is no escape from a food crunch during the current year for which many countries are ill prepared to face.

"The state-run media in China warned this week that the country's major agricultural regions were facing their worst drought in 60 years. On Tuesday, the state news agency Xinhua said that Shandong province, a cornerstone of Chinese grain production, was bracing for its worst drought in 200 years unless substantial precipitation came by the end of this month. World wheat prices are already surging and have been widely cited as one reason for protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. A separate UN report last week said global food export prices had reached record levels in January. The impact of China's drought on global food prices and supplies could create serious problems for less-affluent countries that rely on imported food. With $2.85 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, China has ample buying power to prevent any serious food shortages. ''They can buy whatever they need to buy, and they can outbid anyone,'' Mr Zeigler said. China's self-sufficiency in grain prevented world food prices from moving even higher when they spiked three years ago, he said. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said on Tuesday that 5.2 million hectares of China's 14.2 million hectares of wheat fields had been affected by the drought. It said that 2.6 million people and 2.8 million head of livestock faced shortages of drinking water".

Except stating the case no one seems to have an answer as to how best the anticipated contingency can be met. Probably there is a need for the rich countries to come forward and help the poorest of the poor countries through liberal special assistance through food aid and other inputs for a limited period. In the long term the idea of setting up regional food grain banks must be pursued rigorously for meeting such future contingencies.



Can responsible governments play with the lives of their people by not taking corrective policies to prevent food shortages and escalating prices unaffordable to billions of poor people? This a critical poser coming from some of the most respected aid agencies across the world after helplessly watching the continued rise in price of most food staples during the last few months. According to FAO the world stock of food grains can reach critically low levels this year if there are production shortfalls in major producing countries like China, India, Russia etc this year and the writing on the wall is clear as reflected by the 2.2% jump in the food price index recently reaching an all time high in two decades. It is not the producing countries which face the problem posed by high food prices as they take corrective measures to moderate their exports but many poor countries, not self reliant in the food front, will have to bear the brunt of the problem because of high global prices for these food grains.

"Global food prices have reached their highest point in 20 years and could increase further because of rising oil prices stemming from the unrest in Libya and the Mideast, a U.N. agency warned Thursday. Skyrocketing food prices have been among the triggers for protests in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, and raised fears of a repeat of the food price crises in 2007 and 2008. Some experts point to key differences compared to those years: for one, the price of rice, an important food security commodity, is much lower today. Still, Oxfam called the hike "deeply worrying." The Food and Agriculture Organization said in a statement that its food price index was up 2.2 percent last month, the highest record in both real, inflation-corrected terms and nominal terms since the agency started monitoring prices two decades ago.It also was the eighth consecutive month that food prices had risen, the Rome-based agency said. In January, the index had already registered a record peak. The increase was driven mostly by higher prices of cereals, meat and dairy products, FAO said. Sugar was the only commodity of the groups being monitored whose price hadn't risen. Global oil prices, which increased on concerns about the potential impact of supply disruptions following unrest in Libya, are a crucial variable. "Unexpected oil price spikes could further exacerbate an already precarious situation in food markets," said David Hallam, director of FAO's trade and market division. "This adds even more uncertainty concerning the price outlook just as plantings for crops in some of the major growing regions are about to start."

It is true that countries like India, China and Russia do clamp on exports when significant production shortfalls take place but one has to understand their compulsions to protect their people from shortages and consequent rise in price with potential for causing political and social unrest with lethal consequences. The nexus between fossil fuel price and food price is a little difficult to understand though there is the convenient explanation that fossil fuel is involved in a big way in grain production, storage, transport and wholesale as well as retain marketing. What about diversion of food grains for bio-fuel production? Of course this is also an area of great concern since it is well known that more than 40% of corn production in a country like the US, is diverted with government blessings, for bio-fuel conversion. Against such a bleak scenario it is time that agencies like FAO, WHO, UNICEF, WTO and others sit with governments of some major countries to evolve a practical long term solution so that such contingencies as being faced now, do not pose grave threat to global peace.


Saturday, March 5, 2011


Government of India, which ever party holds power at any given time, has always indulged in fanciful announcements, mostly crafted by the omnipotent bureaucrats but with no urgency to implement them. Latest to emerge from New Delhi is regarding the grandiose plan to set up a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) what ever that means, to "undertake" studies on food problem facing the country. The announcement coming from a junior minister can only raise laughter because the so called SPV will be a lame duck set up with umpteen number of similar groups which have been doing similar studies with no solution in sight for any of the problems faced by the hapless citizens of the country! Have a look at the grandiose statement by the minister which looks ridiculous to most observers familiar with the issues on the food front.

India Government has decided to create a Special Purpose Vehicle to undertake studies of food grain storage, handling and its transport. It will also assess cold chain infrastructure requirements and will endeavour private sector participation in creation of such facilities. A comprehensive study is also being undertaken by the Planning Commission to suggest measures for creation of modern food grain storage infrastructure in the country, according to Prof. K.V.Thomas, Minister for Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution. Inaugurating the national Conference on Policy for Storage of Food Grains the other day, Prof Thomas apprised the audience of steps taken by the Government to create additional storage capacity for food grains in the country. Hes said that his ministry has proposed creation of two million tonnes of additional storage through modern silos. This will be part of about 15 million tones of new storage capacity being created under Public Entrepreneurs Guarantee (PEG) scheme of FCI. Central Warehousing Corporation (CWC) is also creating 10,000 tonnes of temperature control storage facilities on pilot basis, the minister said.

The "Aam Admi" person in this country has every right to question the credibility of a government which callously allows thousands of tons of food grains under its custody to rot inviting wrath from even the Supreme Court! What prevented the government from building up the infrastructure for handling and storage of food grains for so many years though adequate funds are available at its disposal? Technology could not have been the constraint and technical man power is available in plenty. What lacks is the commitment and concern about those who go hungry day and night due to poverty, food inflation and hijacking of PDS by grain mafia, probably in collusion with the establishment!


Indian Railways (IR) can rightly claim to be a gigantic behemoth but with little control on its "arms and limbs". If statistics can tell a story IR has a fantastic national foot print connecting various regions in the country, costing the citizen practically nothing, its fares being very low compared to other modes of transport. Whether IR measures up to the expectation of the citizen is another matter and as is usual with all government controlled bodies, IR is a highly bureaucratized agency with very little autonomy to decide any thing on its own and naturally this is reflected in all its services. Food catering service to millions of travelers in thousands of trains every day is no exception with no one happy with the quality and cost of food served both inside the trains as well as at most of the Railway Stations where many trains halt for brief duration. The separate agency set up for this service , viz Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) seems to have failed the traveling public which necessitated the parent body IR to take over the function. Here is a take on this comic circus being indulged by the IR to throw dust over the eyes of the hapless customers.

Seeking to allay apprehensions of members over the new catering policy of the railways, Government today said it aimed at improving quality of food and services to passengers. The government decided to implement the new policy last year in view of a spate of complaints regarding quality of food and services under the earlier arrangement with the IRCTC, Minister of State for Railways Bharat Singh Solanki said in the Rajya Sabha during Question Hour. "The reason behind bringing this new policy was that people should get quality food at reasonable price. The decision was taken because there was a public perception that the corporation was charging more money and better food could be made available at that cost," he said. The minister said the vendors are engaged by licencees on their own terms and conditions and Railways do not have any contractual relations with the vendors appointed by the licencees, both erstwhile and present. "Even though the licencee may change, the vendors are always working with the new per the Catering Policy 2010, all existing operationalised catering licences for minor units have been permitted renewal, subject to satisfactory performance and payment of all dues, which will take care of interests of such vendors," he added.

It is interesting to note that it was left to a junior minister of GOI to speak about catering in the Rajya Sabha reflecting the low priority accorded to food service in the mind of the Railway Minister of cabinet rank! In what way IR can perform the service better than IRCTC under the new policy can be imagined knowing well the mindset of "babudom" that runs the ministry from top to bottom. In a scam scorched country like India will any "babu" take a serious decision on reforms for fear of being hauled up for corruption. Demolishing some thing is easy but building a more efficient system is fraught with umpteen number of hurdles in the form of red tapism and rigid set of rules of archaeological vintage! This blogger had suggested several times in the past that catering in Railways must be entrusted to well reputed food industry players who can provide good quality foods besides taking the responsibility of safety to the traveling public. A government service can never be expected to be of class as proved by the flopping of several hotels under the tourism ministry during the last few years and junking of many food processing units being run by the States. When will the GOI learn the bitter truth that "running a business is none of the business" of any government? Why not take a lesson from past failures and think differently for the sake of millions of people who are forced to travel by trains under the IR due to many reasons to make the travel at least enjoyable gastronomically!



Olive oil is considered one of the most nutritious fats and as such it is valued very high in the minds of the consumers every where. The cardio-protective effect attributed to Olive oil was considered to be due to the rich content of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid though the polyphenolic antioxidants such as tyrosol and hydroxy tyrosol and tocopherol, also present in the oil play an important role. Besides Olive oil contains 11% polyunsaturated fats, both with Omega-3 as well as Omega-6 acids. More than 60% of the global production of olive oil, about 3 million tons annually, is accounted for by two countries, Spain and Italy. Since Olive is grown extensively in the Mediterranean region, it is often assumed that the good health with relatively less incidence of cardiac disease amongst the population there could be due to high consumption of the oil from this fruit. Olive oil is versatile fat used for cooking, in cosmetics and pharmaceutical products and for making high quality soaps. As per the international Olive Oil Council (IOC), Extra Virgin Olive oil shall contain less than 0.7% free fatty acids while Virgin Oil can have up to 2% acid. How ever what is interesting is that consumers are reported to have a preference to rancid oils, probably due to price considerations. It is recognized that such preference for products considered inferior is acquired over a period of time and the reported ready acceptance of rancid Olive oil could be because of this factor. Considering that olive oil is associated with better cardiac health, consumers must be "tolerating" rancidity to some extent.

"The new study captured the preferences of 110 Northern California olive oil consumers and the reasons for those preferences. The study participants were asked to taste and rate 22 commercial olive oils that were labeled as extra virgin. Half of the oils in the study were imported, and half were from California. The study found that 74 percent of the consumers did not like what the expert tasters identified as high-quality oil — those that were bitter, pungent and free of defects. Bitterness and pungency are two of the positive sensory attributes of high-quality olive oil, as identified by International Olive Council standards. The researchers note that, in the case of other food products such as specialty beers and coffees, bitterness is an attribute that consumers initially dislike but learn to accept. They suggest that consumers might find bitterness and pungency more acceptable when using olive oil with food and in cooking and by knowing that healthy antioxidants in the oil are the cause of bitterness and pungency. Consumers participating in the study did like those olive oils that had the third desirable attribute of extra virgin olive oil, which is fruitiness. In order for an olive oil to be considered extra virgin, it must have some fruitiness and zero defects such as rancidity. Surprisingly, 44 percent of the consumers liked the olive oils that had rancid flavors, even though this is an undesirable quality that would disqualify an olive oil from being considered extra virgin. The study also found that 74 percent of the study participants said they use olive oil for its health benefits; other reasons included for use in a recipe, bread-dipping in restaurants, family tradition and flavor".

Olive oil is reported to be extensively adulterated and considering the high prices commanded by this product it is no wonder that fraudsters see lot of money in adulterating this oil. Adding chlorophyll to simulate pure pressed Olive oil and diluting with oils like soy oil and many undesirable practices indulged in by the trade have brought a bad name to this wonder oil and IOC with 23 member countries controlling 95% of production, is striving hard to protect its reputation through cooperative efforts to control the market. A larger question is whether Olive oil really deserves the euphoria that has made it the costliest cooking oil consumer has known. There are many plant oils with similar chemical composition which also may be as effective if not more, that can match Olive oil but tradition, history and high profile promotion were able to put it on a high pedestal.


Friday, March 4, 2011


Fighting for a good cause is worth the investment on such an exercise but trivial issues do not warrant waste of time and resources spending on them. The labeling tussle on beer products between the beer industry and consumer activist groups is an example of such a tug of war on a trivial matter. Every beer consumer knows that the brewed beverage is made from malted barley and other grains like wheat, rye, oats etc are also used along with. Gluten-free beer can be made from Sorghum, Rice etc but only small quantity is produced targeting at special consumer groups with wheat and gluten allergy. Since gluten allergy affects a significant number of people there are compulsory labeling regulations calling for declaration of gluten in the label of products with necessary warning for people with such allergies to avoid buying these products containing wheat as an ingredient. Here is a take on that controversy that is raging in Canada currently.

Allergy and groups are asking the Conservative government to press ahead with new food-labelling regulations even as the beer asks to pull out of them. The proposed regulations, published July 2008, would require manufacturers and importers to clearly note potential allergens on — an important indication for those with serious or life-threatening allergies. In an open letter to the prime minister this week, those fighting for the new regulations questioned the position of brewers who are asking for an exemption. "Our organizations remain, as we always have, willing to listen," the letter said. "What we are not prepared to do, prime minister, is let this once-in-a-generation opportunity be put at risk because of the last minute interventions of a powerful, private, industry lobby." The letter was signed by eight organizations, including Anaphylaxis Canada, the Canadian Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Foundation and the Canadian Celiac Association. New labels would have to list any of 10 priority allergens outlined by Health Canada, such as milk, eggs or shellfish, gluten sources, and sulphites, all over 10 parts per million. The declaration statement would read: "Allergy and Intolerance Information – Contains: …" But brewers say people with celiac disease, who are most concerned with gluten content, already know they can't drink beer. "We believe that people with celiac disease are very educated on the issue," said Andre Fortin, spokesman for Brewers Association of Canada.

There may be a point in the arguments of both the parties involved in this sparring. While the activists are pressing the government to go ahead with the new labeling regulation that calls for including allergy warning on the beer packs, the brewing industry is forcefully arguing against such an unnecessary labeling as they feel. On a similar note, one cannot help wondering whether there can be demand for compulsory allergy labeling on milk for the benefit of lactose intolerant people though every person having this affliction knows that milk does contain lactose, the component responsible for the affliction. Probably same logic may apply to beer also which is known to be made from grains like wheat containing prolamins and glutelins, the two components that make up gluten. Practically speaking it should not make any difference whether label warning is printed or not and hence this is much ado about nothing.