Monday, May 30, 2011


Fresh meat products industry has been facing serious challenges in maintaining safety of their products when delivered to the consumers. As these foods are highly perishable attracting a variety of pathogenic microorganisms, processors have to be extra cautious in raising the animals, slaughtering them, processing the carcass into consumer products and retailing them in sound condition. Though sanitation in the shop floor and preparation environment can be meticulously maintained, storage and distribution pose hazards of cross infection. Thermal processing can be effective but is fraught with problems vis-a-vis logistics and eating quality and refrigeration has its own limitations in giving required shelf life. Toxicity of CO2 to most pathogens has been exploited in evolving a new technology that protects the meat through in situ generation of this gas in the pack.

"Fresh-Pads use a unique CO2 generating technology incorporated in a physical pad that modifies the atmosphere surrounding perishable food for an extended period of time. The results include less purge, longer shelf life, and improved texture, color and smell, thereby improving the marketability of the food. CO2 Fresh-Pads gradually generate carbon dioxide, a natural atmospheric gas, in a controlled manner to retard bacteria growth from 20%-50% on perishable foods, significantly reducing purge and spoilage to provide safer fresher food. With the government's new Food Safety requirements for food processors, the addition of a product that's proven to reduce bacteria growth in fresh meat, poultry and seafood can be a real benefit. In contrast to other food preservation technologies, CO2 pads provide an all-natural solution without resorting to the use of expensive equipment, chemicals, preservatives or high heat processes that can affect the integrity of the product or add substances that today's consumers find undesirable".

Though this is a patented technology, the principle involved in CO2 generation is well known and there are CO2 generating systems already existing for other products. For example the ubiquitous baking powder is a CO2 generating system used extensively in the bakery industry and any mixture of a carbonate and an acid can generate the gas when coming into contact with moisture. Or take the case of effervescent beverage powders which, when added to water, provide a fizz drink in a jiffy. As CO2 gas is a constituent of air that all living beings inhale and exhale, any question regarding its safety is out of place. The challenge is in designing suitable package modules containing the CO2 yielding source that will generate the gas when in contact with the moist contents without tainting the product.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


Use of hydrogenated fats has been an industry standard for a number of years because of the technological necessity to impart the desired texture and other quality features typical of many bakery products. Discovery of trans fats present in such man made food ingredients and their role in causing health disorders, similar to that caused by high levels of saturated fats in the diet, led more stringent regulation of their use in foods. Though their use is not banned, the compulsory label declaration provision in the food laws, made the processors voluntarily cut down their use. Of course like any other issue, the subject matter of trans fats in foods also is a controversial area though there is unanimity regarding the health risks posed by high levels of these optical isomers of desirable unsaturated fatty acids. Some of the products are reported to contain trans fats as high as 30% which definitely poses serious health risks when consumed regularly. It is this factor which is propelling scientists to evolve trans fat free alternatives to hydrogenated fats

"Shortening is generally a semisolid fat for use in food preparations, especially of baked goods; so called because it promotes a 'short' or crumbly texture. Walker his and colleagues explained that shortening is a major ingredient in high-ratio layer cakes; cakes in which there is as much or more sugar than flour in the formula. Shortening performs three basic functions in such cake products: it traps air during the creaming process, coats protein and starch particles, and emulsifies large amounts of liquid. Solid 'plastic' shortenings are the most commonly used type of shortening in the baking industry. However they often contain a high proportion of hydrogenated fats, including trans-fats. Research has highlighted that trans-fats in the diet may increase the risk of coronary heart disease, by raising the levels of LDL cholesterol and lowering the levels of HDL cholesterol. Walker and his co-workers explained that 'liquid' cake shortenings function much like solid shortenings in baking systems, but they offer the user certain advantages, including having a healthier fat profile".

"The authors explained that as industry moves away from the use of trans-fats in its formulations, it is important to look at the properties of replacement ingredients, in order to achieve the most effective yet healthy profile. "Many companies began to use the relatively inexpensive palm oil instead of hydrogenated soybean oil to make zero-trans fat shortenings. Ironically, the high levels of saturated fatty acids in palm oil result in the same cardiovascular problems as do trans-fats," said the authors, led by Dr Chuck Walker from the department of grain science & industry at Kansas State University, USA. "For baking companies, a liquid oil plus an emulsifier combination blend would be easy to handle and they could combine different emulsifiers as their requirements change," they added. However, the authors conceded that investment in equipment, and a skilled staff to prepare such shortenings would be required".

Since animal fats like that present in milk do contain 1-4% trans fats about which nothing much can be done, there is a perception that the diet normally consumed should have less than 1%. As the bakery industry needs technically suitable fat ingredients that will ensure high eating quality in their products, innovative attempts to mimic the action of plastic fats are being made and use of emulsifiers with liquid oils seems to be giving satisfactory results as indicated by the above finding. Probably more research efforts may be required to develop this theme further so that use of high trans fat containing ingredients are eventually phased out.


Saturday, May 28, 2011


One of the critical questions that haunts small scale food processors world over is whether the application of food laws are discriminatory in nature, invariably favoring large industries with financial and political clouts. It is a matter of concern that the transnational food and beverage giant Coca Cola Corporation was allowed to get away with just a rap on its knuckles after committing a grave mistake in the form of manufacturing bottled water products contaminated with mold which caused diarrhea and vomiting when consumed. Instead of punishing the manufacturer with severe penalties, the New Zealand food safety agency pushed the incidence under the carpet after administering a mild rebuke. The manufacturer was able to get away by apologizing to those "inconvenienced" by drinking the contaminated water! Here is a take on this episode.

"NZFSA initially agreed on a trade level recall, rather than asking consumers to return the product, because the water was usually drunk soon after it was bought and people would not have drunk much of the water as it tasted horrible. However, it was then decided that the scope of the recall was not enough and it was extended to more water produced at the factory. Between August and February Coca-Cola sold more than 2.5 million Pumped bottles. Following an investigation which concluded last month NZFSA identified a number of deficiencies in Coca-Cola's processes. It said a marketing company, not Coca-Cola, alerted NZFSA to the trade recall and Coca-Cola had not notified its third party auditor it was recalling the product. NZFSA was also unaware Coca-Cola's had changed its third party auditor. MAF said Coca-Cola's recall plan was now being rewritten with its guidance. Coca-Cola realised major improvements had to be made to its recall plan and was pro-active in getting to the source of complaints, MAF said. However, MAF warned that although it was closing the file, if Coca-Cola breached the Food Act again it would consider legal action. In a statement Coca-Cola apologised for taking Pumped off the shelves, especially to those who had bought the contaminated bottles".

It is shocking that a company like Coca Cola can commit a mistake in the simple process of sterilizing water and obviously one cannot attribute this to any genuine problem. The mishap must have happened because of the negligence of the company staff including the QC group and the concerned authorities should have taken a more serious view of this episode. Not only that, the manufacturer should have been taken to the court for awarding financial compensation to the affected consumers as per international norms. One may recall that the same company was hauled up in India a few years ago for contaminating the waters around their bottling plant, for which heavy financial compensation is being sought. No matter how powerful the industry is, liability for damages wrought about by its mistakes on the community must be enforced.


Friday, May 27, 2011


Is genetically modified food safe? This is a question that is haunting consumers all over the world and there does not appear to be any consensus amongst scientists regarding this issue. The whole scientific community is fiercely divided between pro GM foods and anti GM foods and whether any clarity will emerge in the near future remains to be seen. If American market is scrutinized closely, majority of the processed food products contain one or the other GM ingredient and consumers have been eating them since last one and half decades without knowing about it as there are no label provision to declare their presence. The protagonists invariably zero in on the fact that no major calamity has taken place in the US by its population consuming GM foods for a number of years. This is countered by the anti GM food groups by suggesting that GM foods may not show any immediate health set back on short term and there are ample indications that these foods can affect the health of the consumer over a longer time span, say 30 years. Unless the world community takes concerted action to organize credible scientific studies on a massive scale, the safety question will remain at the "debating" table only. Here is an excellent expose on GM foods and their safety which is worth reading.

"To put it more broadly, regulation of the safety of GM food is virtually nil, and research is scant and largely industry-funded. In a 2010 paper [PDF] in the journal Food Policy, researchers looked at all the papers on the health and nutritional effects of GM foods published in English between 1996 and 2009. Of the 94 studies they identified -- not a large number, given the surge of GMOs into our diets over that period -- 80 delivered "favorable" conclusions about the novel foods, while 10 had "negative" views and two were neutral. That sounds at first glance like a positive near-consensus around GMOs. But then the researchers dug deeper and looked for industry ties. In 44 of the 94 total papers, one or more of the researchers had a financial or professional tie to the agrichemical industry. Of those 44, 43 had "positive" conclusions and one turned out "negative." Meanwhile, 37 of the studies were done by independent researchers. Of those, 27 came back positive, eight came back "negative," and two were "neutral." In other words, near-complete consensus reigns among industry-linked scientists as to the safety of GM foods. But among independent scientists, the issue is much more contested.

In a peer-reviewed 2008 paper, Don Lotter demonstrates that only one independent long-term study has ever assessed how eating GMOs affects mammals. Funded by the Austrian government and released in 2008, that study initially seemed to reveal disturbing reproductive trouble in mice fed GMOs. But then in 2010, the Austrian government withdrew it from publication, citing insufficient data. I am trying to contact the study's lead author, Austrian scientist Jurgen Zentek, for comment. So where does all of this leave us? Obviously, in need of much more independent research. In April, a bit more trickled out from Quebec, Canada -- and again, the results are unsettling. The study, published in the journal Reproductive Toxicology, focused on corn engineered to possess a trait from the bacteria Bt, which is toxic to a range of insects. So-called Bt corn is extremely common in the United States; according to the USDA, upwards of 60 percent of corn planted here has it. Since its introduction in the '90s, its maker, Monsanto, has insisted that Bt corn must be safe, because the toxin embedded in it cannot survive the human digestive system. The Quebec study (here's the abstract) casts serious doubt on that bedrock assumption. Researchers checked blood samples of 39 pregnant women and 30 non-pregnant women for the presence of the toxin. None were exposed directly to Bt, but all had conventional diets. The results: The Bt toxin showed up in 93 percent of pregnant women and 80 percent of their fetuses. It was also present in 69 percent of non-pregnant women in the study".

The million dollar question that eludes an answer is whether there is a deliberate attempt to suppress "inconvenient" results of scientific research by independent scientists at the behest of the GM food industry led by powerful multinational companies with vested interests to protect their business at the expense of the consumer. It has to be conceded that GM technology is one of the marvels of modern science and can revolutionize the food production in a way that is unprecedented. But a good technology is not an assurance that the product made through its application is safe! The Bt corn story, if confirmed by other scientists, is really scary and those who pushed this technology knowing well the dangers inherent in using it, have lot to answer to the future generation. The environmental disaster that is a consequence of wide scale use of GM technology is another danger for which there is no ready remedy. Ultimately consumer resistance including revolt against such dangerous foods can make the regulatory authorities more vigilant and keep consumer interest above all other interests.


Thursday, May 26, 2011


When Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming as an antibiotic drug that can kill many pathogenic microorganisms, probably he would not have bargained for the large scale misuse of such antibiotics by the meat industry to create a food safety crisis of unparalleled dimension that is haunting the consumers to no end. That uncontrolled use of antibiotics in regularly consumed foods can lead to drug resistance eventually is well established by now and due to this undesirable practice by the industry, mankind is running out of effective and efficient drugs to treat microbial originating diseases, many of them life-threatening. A recent report about the implications of this industry practice is quite disturbing.

"It has been found that nearly half of the meat and poultry (47 percent) sold in U.S. grocery stores is contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus ("Staph"), a bacteria linked to a wide range of human diseases, and this bacteria is resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics in more than half (52 percent) of contaminated samples. This comes from a nationwide study by the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) published this week in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. For the study the team collected and analyzed 136 samples–covering 80 brands–of beef, chicken, pork and turkey from 26 retail grocery stores in five U.S. cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Flagstaff and Washington, D.C.. DNA testing suggested that the food animals themselves were the major source of contamination. The study was funded through a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts as part of The Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming".

The industry stance that use of antibiotics cut down the risk of food poisoning may be true but using life saving drugs like antibiotics for routine processing cannot be an excuse for their continued use because of the drug resistance phenomenon. What is alarming is that S.aureus, which was found widely in meat and poultry products in the market has its origin in the farm animals, despite the use of antibiotics in their feeds and this could have been possible only because of bad hygienic environment prevalent in the farms. There are well established protocols for maintenance of farms and industry must abide by these standards instead of using liberal doses of life saving antibiotics. Added to this there are reports that antibiotics are often used to accelerate growth of the animals and obtaining higher meat yield which is deplorable. The weak-kneed policies and ineffective implementation of safety protocols by the food safety agency vested with the responsibility are to be blamed for this malady. This is a lesson to be learnt by meat food industries world over when trying to ape the western models of food manufacturing practices.



Insecticides and pesticides, thousands in number evoke bitter feeling amongst many consumer activists who feel that these are slow poisons affecting adversely the health of billions of people on this planet. The gruesome tragedy of Bhopal is still fresh in the memory of many people in India and there are hundreds of such cases where pesticides have caused heavy damages to the agriculturists, consumers and people exposed to these deadly chemicals. Of course mankind is pulled between the necessity to increase food production and freedom from health hazards and use of chemicals as crop protectants is supposed to be based on an analysis of cost, benefits and risks. Unfortunately when most of the pesticides were approved for use, the science of nutrition, health, analytical techniques etc were some what primitive and it is only to day that these aspects are better understood. The birth of organic food industry can be attributed to the inherent dangers of using pesticides and if this industry is growing at a phenomenal pace thanks are due to the indiscriminate use of pesticides and the dangers pose by them.

"Environmentalists are once again taking aim at our nation's food supply in the debate over pesticide use.

And if those groups are victorious, up to 80 percent of Washington's farmland could be affected. The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Environmental Protection Agency in January, alleging that the EPA failed to demonstrate due diligence in consulting with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service about new pesticides. Farmers are concerned, to say the least. The lawsuit could jettison the use of 380 pesticides used in 49 states, said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. That's a problem. Pesticides are used to, well, control pests of all manner -- bugs, weeds, fungus and more. The use of pesticides increases crop production, decreases back-breaking weed-pulling by workers and creates more appealing produce free of scars left by hungry bugs. Without pesticides, food would cost more, and there would be less of it. Millions of workers would be needed to pull weeds that threaten to overtake crops. Insects could wipe out entire crops for the season. No one wants to trade the health of our rivers and lakes for the health of our agricultural industry, but it's possible to marry responsible stewardship with modern farming practices".

Nearer home the fierce fight between the Central Government at Delhi and some State Governments for banning Endosulfan, one of the cheapest pesticides available, is assuming international dimension with the recent Stockholm Convention recommending its ban once for all. The Government of Kerala which is in the forefront in campaigning for the ban of this chemical has graphic accounts of population in one of the districts with predominant cashew plantations suffering from a multitude of health problems, some of them proving to be fatal. While banning use of chemical pesticides is fraught with tremendous future implications vis-a-vis global food security, mankind has no other alternative but to look for alternative options as being done by the fossil fuel industry facing future energy insecurity.


Monday, May 23, 2011


Chinese food producers and processors are notorious for short circuiting the consumers through illegal and dangerous practices and the tragedy surrounding the Melamine-tainted milk which affected thousands of children some time back is still fresh in the memory of the world. Many such episodes followed the above fraud with Chinese authorities having no clue as to how such unscrupulous players can be controlled and the citizens protected from dangers lurking in the market place. Now comes another bit of news from this autocratic country about the misuse of a plant hormone in Watermelon cultivation resulting in fruits with a tendency to burst open like a "bomb" as it matures!

"Watermelons have been bursting by the score in eastern China after farmers gave them overdoses of growth chemicals during wet weather, creating what state media called fields of "land mines." About 20 farmers around Danyang city in Jiangsu province were affected, losing up to 115 acres (45 hectares) of melon, China Central Television said in an investigative report. Prices over the past year prompted many farmers to jump into the watermelon market. All of those with exploding melons apparently were first-time users of the growth accelerator forchlorfenuron, though it has been widely available for some time, CCTV said in the report broadcast Monday night. Chinese regulations don't forbid the drug, and it is allowed in the U.S. on kiwi fruit and grapes. But the report underscores how farmers in China are abusing both legal and illegal chemicals, with many farms misusing pesticides and fertilizers".

Probably Chinese farmers got the idea of using Forchlorofenuron from their US and New Zealand counterparts as this chemical, relatively a new one was permitted recently for use in grapes and Kiwi fruits for enlarging the size of the fruits and for early maturation. The Chinese farmers must have been scared by the unusual phenomenon of the fruit exploding in the field and the news came out because of the uncertainties regarding the safety of these fruits as the chemical was never used before in Watermelons. If the news reports are to be believed, in China there is widespread use of illegal chemicals while permitted ones are used in concentrations beyond the legal limits. One can only wonder why a country competing with US for being "glorified" as a super power cannot enforce global standards in agricultural and food processing practices by the industry!


Sunday, May 22, 2011


One often wonders how Malaysia, the leading producer of Palm oil in the world can afford to sell their products so cheap in the global market in competition with other oils produced by industrially advanced countries. Palm oil and Coconut oil are the two mainstream oils produced in Asia and there was a time when these oils were denigrated from health angle. It only now the world is waking up to the fact that both Palm oil and Coconut oil can be as nutritious as, if not better than others like Canola, Soybean oil, Corn oil, etc. Malaysia deserves all kudos for protecting the Palm oil interests through shrewed policies and if the new initiative being taken to beneficiate the pressed residues for raising the farm income bears fruit, Palm oil can be expected to be still more competitive in the coming years.

"Much of the 70 million tonnes of oil palm biomass produced annually is burnt or left to rot.

This waste pollutes rivers through seepage and harms the environment when it produces methane and carbon dioxide. The Government has realised that oil palm biomass can be as valuable as crude palm oil and has come out with the Oil Palm Biomass Roadmap that will streamline efforts to convert this waste into wealth-generating industries. Unik, an agency under the Prime Minister's Department to promote innovation, will undertake this project. The agency will be collaborating with Dutch consortium BE-Basic to develop Malaysia's capabilities in using renewable resources for the production of chemicals, materials, products and fuels. According to BE-Basic director Prof Dr Luuk van der Wielen, oil palm biomass would be able to contribute to the economy by as much as 5% if its use is widened to produce liquid biofuels and biochemicals. "There's no technical barrier any more, it's a matter of making Malaysia attractive for companies to invest in this sector here, a matter of making connections to the plantation sector here," he said in a recent report. This development has also attracted foreign chemical companies which have invested by establishing demo-facilities in Malaysia. Oil palm biomass can be converted into high-value chemicals such as ethanol and even higher value acids such as lactic acid, which is used in a wide range of food applications as well as the cosmetics industry and numerous biochemical processes. It is also used as a monomer for producing polylactic acid, which has applications in biodegradable plastic".

Food industry is considered a big polluter of environment and disposal of wastes generated in huge quantities is a resource straining effort. Sugarcane industry which has more than 85% of the sugarcane crushed as waste has been able to use them for power generation and paper making and the economic impact of the waste utilization cannot be belittled. If Palm oil industry can also convert the high pollution material left behind after oil recovery, the economic impact will be no less than that being gained by sugar crushing industry. Good luck to the project.


Saturday, May 21, 2011


It is amazing how in a country as wealthy as the US, industry interests can override all other interests including citizen welfare. Other wise it is very difficult to explain away the unrestricted deceitful practices to mislead the consumer with tall and unsubstantiated health claims made by industry. In contrast countries in the EU are some what more sensitive to consumer health as evidenced by the recent clamp down on more than 8000 products claiming a multitude of health benefits for probiotic products being marketed. Why should the food safety issue be politicized giving any scope for bargaining with the industry is beyond comprehension. The argument of the industry that forcing them to declare negative quality of a product should be balanced with their right to highlight the strength of their products is perfectly valid provided that is supported by scientific data. The loophole currently available to the industry is going through the "dietary supplement" route which must be closed if the government there is serious in protecting their citizens from fraud.

"Since melatonin is a drug and not an approved food additive, the makers of these products are trying to get around the annoying FDA restrictions by marketing the brownies as "dietary supplements." Supplements, by order of Congress when it passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, do not have to meet FDA's rigorous scientific criteria for safety or efficacy. DSHEA applied to supplements, not foods, but the FDA has chosen to regulate foods containing such additives by the weaker rules applying to supplements and to deal with them as a regulatory gray area. Is melatonin a drug, a supplement, or in brownie form a food? The FDA is going to have to decide, and fast. A much longer story in the business section, "Foods with benefits, or so they say" (in which I am quoted) focuses on the entire poin of functional foods: the ability to put something in a product that allows you to market it using health and wellness claims. Health claims sell food products. People like buying products with a "health aura," no matter how poorly the health claim is supported by science. Science is irrelevant here. Marketing is what's relevant".

It defies logic as to why a food has to be spiked with a drug like Melatonin which is a sleep inducing medical substance. Probably when this is sold as a drug it costs more besides requiring prescription. It is possible that if the concerned authorities do not take any corrective policy measures immediately, a day is not too far off when American consumers will "enjoy" a variety of "foods" containing opiates like Marijuana and other intoxicating substances!


Tuesday, May 17, 2011


One of the perennial questions that remains unanswered satisfactorily is whether Caffeine is safe or not. It is true that Coffee, Tea and Cocoa, all containing caffeine to varying extent are being consumed for ages and there is no clear evidence that these beverages are unsafe when taken in moderate quantities. Surprisingly there are convincing studies that have brought out the beneficial effect of caffeine for human health. Against this background Beverage Industry may be justified in introducing drinking water and drinks that contain caffeine, alone or in combination with other permitted ingredients. However, too much consumption of these products can be a cause for worry as being pointed out by health and nutrition experts. It is under these circumstances that in some countries there are moves to tighten regulations concerning caffeine containing products. Australia and New Zealand are in the forefront trying to bring about some sanity in this industry.

"A review ordered by New Zealand and Australia will put caffeinated energy drinks under the spotlight, highlighting health concerns surrounding the products. "Over the past four years the amount of caffeine consumed in the world has been around four million litres of energy drinks," said AUT nutrition expert Elaine Rush. Ministers responsible for trans-Tasman food and drink regulation met yesterday, after a New Zealand study revealed that excessive levels of caffeine can cause irritability, anxiety and dizziness, and long-term damage to pregnant women and children. "Applying one rule or regulation to say this is safe is very difficult because some people will have more of an adverse effect than others, and yet caffeine is a psychometric drug, its not a nutrient and therefore there is no real use for it in the body," said Rush. An Environmental Science and Research study found that some people may experience short-term anxiety if consuming more than 3 milligrams of caffeine daily for each kilogram of body weight - about four cups of tea a day for adults. Waikato Clinical School of Medicine academic psychiatrist David Menkes said evidence shows these drinks can have serious adverse effects. He said he would like to see better information about the products and warnings around who should drink them. Energy Drinks are already covered by a trans-Tasman food standard, however energy 'shots' and other energy products have been widely available since it was drafted".

The fact that caffeine is not considered a nutrient viewed from any angle, allows sufficient elbow space to regulate their use more easily and the finding that consuming this stimulant substance in whatever form can create symptoms like irritability and anxiety amongst some consumers must be viewed with serious apprehension. Added to this some products in the market containing caffeine and alcohol, targeted at youngsters cannot be justified and must be banned altogether. Probably an omnipotent provision for inclusion of suitable warnings on the label regarding the adverse effects of caffeine, may, to some extent, serve the purpose of consumer protection while a mandatory ceiling of caffeine content in all synthetic products will provide further safety.


Thursday, May 12, 2011


With fossil fuel prices rising rapidly these days, the energy scenario is being revisited to identify areas where energy can be saved significantly. That food processing and retailing system has come in for some attention in this regard is not very surprising. While the industry is continuously developing mechanized and automated processing plants to keep human intervention to the minimum, this is accomplished by using more energy. Similarly with free trade regime taking hold of global food business, foods travel over long distances to reach the retail markets. In many developed countries agricultural land is diverted for industry shrinking their production base continuously, necessitating more and more imports from developing countries. Thus food accounts substantially for energy consumption directly as well as indirectly. Here is a commentary on this vital issue based on data from the US that may be relevant to most of the countries in the world.

From the diesel fuel tractors that harvest our crops, to the refrigerated trucks that transport products cross-country, to the labor-saving technology found in the home such as toasters and self-cleaning ovens, the U.S. food system is about as energy inefficient as it gets. And it's only getting worse. A fall 2010 report by the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, ERS, called "Fuel for Food: Energy Use in the U.S. Food System," found that while energy consumption per capita fell by 1 percent between 2002 and 2007, food-related energy use grew nearly 8 percent, as the food industry relied on more energy-intensive technologies to produce more food for more people. Between 1997 and 2002, in fact, over 80 percent of the increase in annual U.S. energy consumption was food related. And estimates for 2007 suggest the U.S. food system accounted for nearly 16 percent of the nation's total energy budget, up from 14.4 percent in 2002, according to the report, which measured both the direct energy used to power machines and appliances (like trucks and microwave ovens) as well as the "embodied" energy used to manufacture, store and distribute food products. "This is what they call a fossil fuel party," says Kamyar Enshayan, director of the Center for Energy & Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa. "We've created a food system that relies heavily on fossil energy, and it's become so globalized that there are literally grapes from South Africa in the grocery store in Cedar Falls, Iowa. It's a long-distance shipping economy, which makes all of us vulnerable to disruptions in the supply chain and other unforeseen emergencies." That's particularly troublesome, he notes, when so much of the U.S. — particularly the Midwest — has such potential for primary production. "We have the best soils and a great climate and yet, most of what we eat is imported," says Enshayan. "You have to step back and say, 'Wait, why is a region like Iowa not feeding itself?" The environmental consequence of relying so heavily on a national and international network of suppliers is even greater, he notes. "It dulls our imagination and prevents us from paying attention to what sustains us," says Enshayan. "The loss of water and soil quality is right in front of us, but since our food doesn't come from it, why worry?" And then, of course, there's the impact on our climate.

"The production and distribution of food has long been known to be a major source of green house gas and other environmental emissions, and, for many reasons, it is seen by many environmental advocates as one of the major ways concerned consumers can reduce their carbon footprints," writes Christopher Weber, an environmental engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, in a 2008 paper called "Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the Unites States" that he co-authored with H. Scott Mathews. According to the report, the average household's climate impact related to food is estimated to be 8.1 t CO2/yr, or tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year, a common measure for determining how much global warming a type of greenhouse gas may cause. To put that figure into perspective, driving a car that gets 25 miles per gallon roughly 12,000 miles produces 4.4 t CO2/yr.

While energy consumption is one facet of the problem, environment degradation due to high CO2 emission from all activities connected with food production, processing and marketing, is another aspect that is worrying the planners. Since food is essential there is no way to avoid such emissions but it can always be pared down to unavoidable minimum for which industry, both production as well as processing and consumers will have to work hard to achieve. Probably local markets, farmers markets, organic food production and other efforts, though constitute a minuscule part of the current food landscape, do provide some options. Energy auditing and carbon foot print assessment for every food item consumed by human beings as well as reared animals need to be done for sensitizing the consumers and hopefully there will be natural weeding out of "guzzlers" eventually.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Use of Ultrasonic sound is very common as a diagnostic tool in the medical industry but its application in other areas was restricted somewhat till recently. In biological research sonicator that generates the ultrasonic sound waves is used to disrupt the cell wall in microorganisms to extract enzymes and study their characteristics. Lately food industry is finding use of this technology for cutting cheese, accelerating some reactions, improving juice extraction from fruits and cleaning processing equipment. There are also other reported use of Ultrasonic sound in food industry though it is not wide spread. Recently a totally new application of Ultrasonic energy has been reported in bakery industry in the manufacture of sponge cakes.

"The authors note that as breads, sponges and biscuit owe their distinctive appeal to their aerated structure, the goal of their study was to investigate the potential use of power ultrasonic in improving this essential attribute. As the formation of air cells during mixing is known to be important to a cake's texture, the effect of application of ultrasonic waves during the batter mixing stage was studied in terms of batter and sponge cake quality, said the Malaysian team. In terms of previous food processing applications, power ultrasound has been used to reduce total fermentation time of yoghurt after inoculation, to shorten the ice cream freezing process time and to reduce the drying time of orange peel, said the researchers. They note that the technique has also been used to minimize flavour loss, induce greater homogeneity and to generate significant energy savings during heat pasteurization of sweet juices".

Ultrasonic waves work through the phenomenon of cavitation which creates high temperature and pressure in a liquid medium, bringing about changes in the viscosity characteristics of the system. Though the cake batter is not considered a liquid system, still its behavior as a soft medium enables the Ultrasonic waves to improve the ultimate quality of the sponge cake on baking. Though the above study was limited in scope as it was carried out under laboratory conditions, it has the potential to become the standard for the bakery industry in many applications.


Sunday, May 8, 2011


Is it not a tragedy that most people do not understand the basis of weight gain or weight loss or even if they understand, tend to ignore them without realizing the potential harm brought about by indisciplined eating practices.? Any one who knows a little arithmetic can understand that if one takes more foods or calories than that is required by the body, excess has to be deposited some where in some form, mainly as fat deposits in different parts of the body. It is just like managing one's finances with surplus going into term deposits while such deposits are some times mobilized for managing at times of inadequate income. Unfortunately ignoring this fundamental fact, people resort to crazy means to shed their unwanted body weight including practices considered life threatening. Here is an instance of such a practice "popular" in some parts of the US involving hormonal injections and starvation diets.

"Ms. Brown, 35, is not taking hCG to help her bear a child. She believes that by combining the hormone injections with a 500-calorie-a-day diet, she will achieve a kind of weight-loss nirvana: losing fat in all the right places without feeling tired or hungry. "I had a friend who did it before her wedding," Ms. Brown said. "She looks great." Women like Ms. Brown are streaming into doctors' offices and weight-loss clinics all over the country, paying upward of $1,000 a month for a consultation, a supply of the hormone and the syringes needed to deliver it. More than 50 years after a doctor at a Roman clinic began promoting hCG as a dieting aid, it is as popular as ever, even though there is scant evidence that it makes any difference. The regimen combines daily injections with a near-starvation diet, and patients, mostly women, are often enticed by promises that they can lose about a pound a day without feeling hungry. Perhaps even more seductively, they are frequently told that the hCG will prompt their bodies to carry away and metabolize fat that has been stored where they least want it — in their upper arms, bellies and thighs. In response to inquiries stirred up by the diet's popularity, the Food and Drug Administration warned in January that "homeopathic" forms of hCG, like lozenges and sprays, sold over the Internet and in some health food stores, are fraudulent and illegal if they claim weight-loss powers".

"The injectable, prescription form of hCG, human chorionic gonadotropin, is approved as a treatment for infertility and other uses, and it is legal for doctors to prescribe it "off-label" for weight loss. But the F.D.A. has also reiterated a warning, first issued in the mid-1970s, that is required on hCG packaging: It has not been shown to increase weight loss, to cause a more "attractive" distribution of fat or to "decrease hunger and discomfort" from low-calorie diets. The F.D.A. recently received a report of a patient on the hCG diet who had a pulmonary embolism, said Christopher Kelly, a spokesman for the agency. He said the hormone carried risks of blood clots, depression, headaches and breast tenderness or enlargement. Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard medical school who researches weight-loss supplements, said that aside from the issue of side effects, the use of hCG as a diet tool was "manipulating people to give them the sense that they're receiving something that's powerful and potent and effective, and in fact they're receiving something that's nothing better than a placebo."

It is a mystery as to how such dishonest physicians who indulge in this type of unscientific and unethical practices, bordering on fraud, are allowed to get away amassing fortunes in the process. Though hormonal injection as a means of weight loss is not supported by any shred of scientific evidence, the merry go-around goes on unhindered with practically no restraint by the food safety agencies and drug authorities. More alarming is the reported side effects such hormone injections can cause including blood clotting and the consequent risk to life. It is time that an agency like the WHO comes out unequivocally against such questionable medical practices.


Saturday, May 7, 2011


At last the new Food Processing Minister at the Center seems to be thinking about the new"portfolio" thrust on him if the statement by a junior official of the Ministry is to be believed. Ever since there was the change in the government set up a few months ago, putting the MFPI in charge of the Agriculture Minister, all policy pronouncements were being made by the junior minister, raising some questions regarding the commitment of the cabinet minister to the subject of food processing. Why an an important pronouncement like launching of a National Mission on Food Processing Industry was not announced by the senior minister may remain a mystery. What is intriguing is the casual nature of the announcement in an insignificant seminar raising serious doubts about the sincerity of the effort to give a boost to the fortunes of food industry in the country.

"'On April 21 this year, at a meeting with the full Planning Commission, Minister for Food Processing Industries Sharad Pawar called for a National Food Processing Industry Mission so that the industry can achieve a growth rate of around of 25 percent by the end of the 12th Plan period from around 14 percent now,' U. Venkateswarlu, joint secretary in the ministry, told a seminar here. Venkateswarlu also urged representatives of the packaging, food processing and pharmaceutical industries to think of ways to manage post-use plastic and other non-biodegradable packaging materials in an environment-friendly way. 'There is nothing bad (about plastic or other non-biodegradable materials), it is bad only if it is not managed,' he said. 'If suppose the local milk booth offers consumers a small sum for returning used packets, the problem can be managed much better,' he pointed out. Referring to a public interest litigation now in the Supreme Court seeking a complete ban on plastics, the official said: 'Once the Supreme Court gives an order, we will all have to comply with it and there will be nothing that the ministry will be able to do to help the processing industry.' However, if the industry players on their own put in place systems for collecting and recycling non-biodegradable packaging materials, then there could be case for persuading the apex court not to order a complete ban and instead call for some regulatory norms, he added".

It is amusing to read about the "treatise" by this bureaucrat on plastics recycling, that too at a conference of plastic experts! Every one knows recycling of plastics is a subject that is posing enormous technical and logistical challenges confronting all the countries and no satisfactory solution has yet emerged that is practical and economical. It is rather comical for scientific organizations to "invite" bureaucrats and politicians, most of them subject illiterates for inauguration of scientific events, special lectures, key not address, etc knowing pretty well that they themselves have to prepare the "speech" to be read by the invited "guest"! Regarding the "Mission" mentioned above what is trying to be achieved by spending precious public money is not clear and if the experience of the past missions is any indication, nothing significant is likely to be achieved. Food industry must unequivocally tell the government that they do not need any "help" from it and will be grateful if there is no unwanted intervention causing unnecessary disruption to the development of the industry!



That a country like the UK, seriously thinking about changing its labeling regulation for avoiding unnecessary waste of foods by the retailing system there and at consumer homes is a matter that deserves consideration world-wide. It all started with a minister there starting the ball rolling by asking the consumers not to throw food even if they are "date expired" and it was rather odd to hear a government official contradicting the law of the land that is framed to protect the health of the consumer. Of course there is a point in what is said about date expired foods and their edibility but it is only proper that the law is changed to reflect the new reality. Unfortunately this may not be easy as it involves legal and logistical issues which will have to be dealt with. It is true that meat and dairy industries are already using the "use by" date to indicate that beyond that date the products are not safe to consume. But will the main stream food industry accept such a provision as it may open up a Pandora's box with divergence of views all around?. The UK "debate" is a welcome development and one has to wait and see what will emerge eventually.

"One exception is eggs, which the FSA says should not be eaten after their "best-before" date because they can contain salmonella bacteria, which could multiply. The agency cautions that the date is only reliable if the product is stored according to the instructions on the label, such as "keep refrigerated" or "store in a cool, dry place". These are distinct from "use-by" dates, which are the most important in terms of safety. Typically found on meats, soft cheeses and dairy-based items, "use by" refers to a time period after which a product should never be eaten, even if it still appears fresh. Sell-by and display-until dates are for the benefit of the retailer, rather than the customer, and are mainly used for stock control. However, the "best-before" label as we know it could be in for major reform as the government has been consulting on ways to simplify food labelling. According to the advisory body Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap), consumers can end up binning up to a quarter of their weekly food and drink purchases - worth £680 to the average British household each year. Wrap says it has identified confusion over date labelling, with consumers being unclear of the difference between "use-by" and "best-before", as one of the major causes for this".

One can understand the dilemma for any responsible government in choosing between the necessity to prevent enormous wastage of food and the need to protect the health of its citizens. If the "use by" date declaration is enforced, the industry is at a disadvantage because any consumer falling sick by consuming a food even a day earlier than that date, can sue the manufacturer for damages! Probably the present provision of "best before' date is better to be continued but the consumer can be given directions regarding the signs of spoilage for guidance and decision as to whether products after the date is safe or not. Also industry must be allowed to reprocess such date expired products as they are not unfit for consumption. It is interesting to see the retail marketing logistics in a country like the US where there is the differential pricing practices that enables the manufacturer to recover the cost within about a month of putting the products on the super market shelves by charging higher prices during that period and progressively reducing the retail price as the products approach "best before" date. For this to happen in a country like India, the present provision of declaring "MRP" must be scrapped so that differential pricing system will facilitate faster uptake of the products with practically no waste, at least at the retail level. If smart packs, now being developed with "spoilage sensors" inside the pack, are introduced the provision for declaring expiration date can be dispensed with


Thursday, May 5, 2011


African continent faces enormous challenges in achieving a modicum of food security because of over dependence of many countries there on foreign economic aid for sustenance. Especially those nations, liberated from French colonialism do not compare well with others as they have very little resources to meet the food requirements of their population. If a country like India could achieve self sufficiency in the production of staple foods, it is due to enormous indigenous efforts in agricultural research that brought about the Green Revolution. That each country must invest at least 1% of its GDP on agricultural research is a standard norm accepted by international experts and practically no African country can muster sufficient resources to meet this basic need. The tendency of international donors to tie their contributions to buying of food from their countries rather than strengthening the agricultural base in the donee countries further aggravates the problem. Also deplorable is the attempt by some western countries to use Africa for pushing their GM seeds which does not make any sense at all. Unless there is a concerted effort by the international community to upgrade the research infrastructure in Africa, many countries in the region are likely to face enormous unrest and misery in the long term.

"Studies show that investments in agricultural research and development have greatly contributed to economic growth, agricultural development, food security, and poverty reduction in developing regions over the past five decades," said Nienke Beintema, head of IFPRI's Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators (ASTI) initiative, which carried out the survey. "New agricultural technologies and crop varieties have helped to increase yields, improve nutrition, conserve natural resources, and expand rural markets." In 2008, only eight countries in the study - Botswana, Burundi, Kenya, Mauritania, Mauritius, Namibia, South Africa, and Uganda - spent more than one percent of their agricultural GDP on research and development, in line with a target set by the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), an African-led redevelopment effort for the continent. Many countries depend on donor funding, which tends to be short-term and unpredictable, leaving programs vulnerable and hurting efforts at long-term planning, the study found. To address the problems, the report calls for a boost in consistent and coordinated agricultural research funding, better pooling of resources, information and innovation at regional and sub-regional levels, and better efforts to build capacity, including more investment in agricultural higher education and better recruitment and training.

As the problems of countries in this continent are some what common, an appropriate approach could be to pool the local resources for undertaking organized and targeted research that would benefit most countries. Of course there are international organizations like the Rice Research Institute at Manila, Philippines or International Crop Research Institute Semi-arid Tropics ( ICRISAT) at Hyderabad, India which serve as examples of regional cooperation and similar research centers with focused programs on staple foods of Africa, assisted by international community can go a long way in addressing the long term food needs of the continent.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Fear of microbial contamination is an over riding factor that weighs heavily in the minds of food processors, caterers and institutional food agencies. Of course plenty of knowledge exists to day regarding various ways of achieving satisfactory hygiene and sanitation that can pre-empt serious food safety problems. Chlorine has been used since ages as a disinfecting chemical by the food and beverage industry while protected water supplies world over use this chemical with good effect. However chlorine being a gas tends to get out of the system within a few minutes unless used in a closed loop. If the dream of some scientists becomes a reality, it may be possible to trap chlorine for a longer time on special surfaces like plastics and steel so that its continued presence acts as a deterrent to many pathogens that cause food safety problems. Here is a take on this new approach.

"Scientists at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have recently received a four-year, $488,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) to create a "self-sanitizing" top layer for food processing surfaces such as counters and conveyors. In preliminary research published in the Journal of Food Protection from Journal of Food Protection in 2008 (71(10):2042-2047), a team led by Julie Goddard, PhD, assistant professor of food science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, reported that halamine-infused surfaces could achieve a 5-log reduction for a number of organisms relevant to food quality, including Listeria and E. coli. "When you modify the surface of food processing materials, like some plastics and stainless steels, you can introduce halamine into just the surface layer," Dr. Goddard said in an interview with Food Quality. "Halamine complexes chlorine very strongly, so every time you rinse the surface with bleach, it recharges the layer's existing antimicrobial power. "With the new AFRI grant, Dr. Goddard's team will improve the technology and adapt it to other polymers, such as gasket material, and to stainless steel. "We'll also improve the activity and stability of the halamine," she said. "Our early studies are very promising. You could potentially apply this coating to existing materials; otherwise, it would be important to look at where in the plant it would be most useful and fit new portions of materials into existing ones."

Though this is still at a conceptual stage, there is sufficient basis to think that such an approach may work and soon the technology would be available to the processing industry and catering sector. There are some imponderable factors like the effectiveness of bonding between halamine and the solid surfaces, durability of the coating, any ill effect of continued emission of chlorine from the surface, effectiveness against some of the frequent pathogenic infections, etc and a full fledged research can only provide satisfactory answers to these issues.