Thursday, June 23, 2011


Resistance to foods grown in far away places and retailed by super market giants have spawned the emergence of local food movement which promotes consumption of foods grown locally. Such foods are supposed to have many advantages including significant reduction in carbon foot print, more safety from pesticide residues and assured freshness. Urban gardening, another version of local foods movement, is fast spreading in some of the inner cities in the US which were deserted by affluent people due to fast deterioration of the living conditions there. A typical case is that of Detroit city, the automobile capital of the US, where vacant plots of the fleeing population are being used to raise fresh produce through cooperative efforts of the residual citizens. 

"Open space and farms" turns out to be the answer. In fact, locally grown food has become Detroit's rallying cry for urban renewal. A recent story in the New York Times said "gardens are everywhere." You can't drive through the city without seeing them. Organizations like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and the Detroit Food Policy Council have made it their goal to eliminate inner-city food deserts and turn abandoned blocks, which were once home to dozens of occupied houses, into productive plots of land. Jackie Victor is co-owner of the Avalon Bakery, an unofficial meeting place for the Detroit food movement. She told the Times, "Imagine a city, rebuilt block by block, with a gorgeous riverfront, world class museums and fantastic local food. Everyone who wants one has a quarter-acre garden, and every kid lives within bike distance of a farm." San Diego has not suffered the kind of population decline that's seen in Detroit, nor has any other American city. But while Detroit is an extreme case, other places have seen similar trends. Minneapolis, my old hometown, had more than half a million people in the 1950s. Today, it has about 380,000.

In a country like India such a situation cannot even be imagined because of the unending urban migration from rural areas to big cities where land is a big constraint. The land values are sky-rocketing in all urban areas in the country and possibility of vacant sizes in adequate number is remote but in smaller towns housing plots are bought by investors, not for building houses but as an investment. If these vacant plots are to be used for gardening, some sort of legal frame work has to be provided by the government assuring protection to the owners regarding their ownership. Probably there can be bilateral agreements for cooperation between the plot owner and willing citizens interested in gardening whereby the income arising out of the produce raised and sold are divided in certain agreed proportion. Such arrangements will put the vacant land to productive use, yield dividend to both and offer fresh produce to the neighborhood at relatively low prices.  



Nepal may be a small country and it may be undergoing some political turmoil at present but the governance does not seem to be affected as reflected by the recent action proposed by the government there to institutionalize a scientifically designed vigilance system for the catering sector for ensuring consumer safety. As this country is known for its many tourist attractions with millions visiting every year, it is important that their safety is not compromised by foods served in thousands of restaurants providing catering service. According to the new initiative proposed, the health authorities there would grade restaurants into three categories identified by different colored cards that are to be exhibited prominently for consumer attention. This is indeed a welcome proposal and if implemented efficiently will assure the visitors about the safety of foods served to them.  

"Highway hotels and restaurants will get blue, yellow and red cards based on quality of foods they serve and hygienic environment. "Department of Commerce is finalising a directive to classify highway hotels in good (blue), satisfactory (yellow) and bad (red) categories from next fiscal year based on food quality, environment and price," director general of the department Anil Kumar Thakur. "The cards have to be publicly displayed at the front desk." The neat-and-clean hotels and restaurants serving fresh foods in reasonable price will get blue card. Similarly, hotels and restaurants willing to develop food quality and dining environment will get yellow card, and the worst will get red card. "We will give six months to improve hotels and restaurants' environment and the card has to be renewed every year," he said, adding that the department is planning to examine food quality at least twice a year and the card can cancelled at any time, if the food quality found not satisfactory. "We have to set up specific criterion before issuing the cards," he said, adding that the department will be distributing cards from August".

While on paper the scheme looks excellent, the way it is going to be enforced will decide about its impact. It is a fact that many developing countries like Nepal have noble intentions and appropriate laws for the protection of their citizens but laxity in enforcement due to many logical constraints is their "Achilles heel". Probably the new proposal, with restricted focus on high way restaurants may still work as the resources required can be marshaled if the intention is serious. Another constraint could be insufficient infrastructure which is needed to determine food quality, like analytic laboratories  equipped with technically qualified personnel and modern technology for quality assessment. One can wish Nepal success in its new safety initiatives.

Monday, June 20, 2011


It is true that in Europe many member countries are scared by the increasing incidences of food safety breeches and the consumers want the EU to take more stringent preventive steps to arrest the trend. Against such a background they cannot be blamed if the safety bar is raised continuously which may not be liked by the countries exporting foods to this region. Latest instance is regarding the pesticide residue in Guar Gum, a food additive used mainly for viscosity modification and improvement textural properties in processed foods and beverages. Already there is a scare regarding the presence of Dioxin in imported foods and now comes the news that pesticide residues are also found in imported Guar Gum products beyond permissible limits. However, over reaction by exporting countries can only harm their exports as being demonstrated by the recent stipulation by Indian authorities not to allow export of Guar Gum unless it is free from pesticide residues like PCP. What is the provocation for this new stipulation is not clear. Is it based on technical evaluation of the situation or just an arbitrary decision? If the importing countries are making such demands, is it not incumbent on the part of GOI to negotiate and convince the buyers regarding the technical constraints in reducing PCP to zero level? is this ban based on international protocols or just a precaution? Industry has a right to know about it in a more transparent manner.

"Indian food-grade guar gum export to the European Union is set to take a hit as the commerce ministry has directed exporters that there should be absolutely no pesticide content in the product. Till now, the commerce ministry had allowed a 0.01 milligram of pentacholorophenols (PCP), a pesticide, in a kg of food-grade guar gum. The move comes at a time when the industry is flooded with orders from EU countries. "In FY10-11, the guar gum industry earned an export revenue of Rs 2,000 crore. And this year, the export trend is extremely positive. This recent notification (notification no. 47 RE-2010 dated May 18, 2011) has created a lot of confusion among exporters. We have taken up the matter with Director General of Foreign Trade (DGFT). We are hoping that things will be sorted out this week," said Debjani Roy, executive director of Shefexil. In fact, containers are piling up at Kandla port which is worrying guar gum exporters. The guar gum industry in India has been following the quality requirements as laid down by the EU commission directive (No 258/2010 of March 25, 2010) and DGFT notification (No 50/2009-14 dated July 6, 2010). "There has been no case of dispute with the PCP presence limit of below 0.01mg/kg of guar gum," Roy added".

If the importers want zero limit for PCP, they must pay for it and GOI must help the industry to strike amicable agreements with the buyers in stead of holding up export consignments without giving clearance. Pesticide residues in foods are attracting igreater attention all over the world and their presence in foods is not tolerated by consumers with increasing sensitivity to this issue due to fear of health risks associated with them. If pesticide use is inevitable there has to be a cost-benefit-risk assessment and only based on such evaluation decision regarding the residue level can be taken. Commerce Ministry of GOI must reconsider its decision based on technical considerations rather than pious attitude and "holier than thou" approach!


Mother's milk is supposed to be a complete food that can sustain the life of a child during initial months after being born and animal milk from cow and buffalo is also equally nourishing for human beings of all ages. There are also milk derived from sheep, goat and camel consumed in some regions and irrespective of the source, milk can be rightly called the "elixir" of life. Of course some nutrients like Vitamin C and Iron are not supplied by milk and often in formulated products these nutrients are added during processing. Another dimension to milk yielding cattle is that they are also good sources of meat with beef from cow being the most consumed animal product in the world. One of the endeavors of science has been to make the milk animals yield more and more milk through breeding and more efficient feed materials. While India, based on its "low input-low out put" model surpassed the US in milk production, it is the "high input-high out put" model which raised productivity to very high levels, never thought of before. As against India's 100 million milch animal population produced on an average less than 4 kg per head per day, the corresponding figure in the US is around 30 kg. It may, however be debatable whether the methods used to achieve this impressive yield figure are ethical or safety pliant.

"The United States has about 60,000 dairy farms; the vast majority, about 99 percent, are family owned and operated and members of producer cooperatives. According to USDA, since 1970 milk production per cow has more than doubled - from 9,700 pounds to more than 20,500 pounds per year. In total, U.S. dairy cows produced 189 billion pounds of milk in 2009. Even after seeing numbers like these, it still may be surprising to learn that milk has a farm value second only to beef among livestock industries and equal to corn. According to the American Dairy Association, dairy is the No. 1 agricultural business in California, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin. Not only do dairy farmers help fuel the economy, they fuel people's bodies with economical food products essential to good health. The National Dietary Guidelines for Americans, commonly known as the food pyramid, recommends that children and adults consume three cups of milk or dairy products per day to provide vital nutrients, including calcium, potassium, vitamin D and protein. Diets rich in dairy foods help maintain bone mass, reducing the risk of osteoporosis in older adults. And, proving that mother's old adage of "Drink your milk" was sound advice, researchers have shown that the intake of milk and milk products is crucial during childhood and adolescence, when bone mass is being built. According to the National Dairy Council, dairy products are the No. 1 source of calcium, potassium, phosphorus and vitamin D in Americans' diets. Research shows that dairy foods, when consumed as part of an overall healthy diet, may help to reduce the risk of diseases such as hypertension, obesity and colon cancer".

Is it not amazing that milk when taken as per the recommendations of nutrition pundits can provide biologically efficient Calcium to the extent of 25% of "Daily Recommended Intake" (DRI) for an adult? While Indian can be proud of outpacing the US in total milk production, it has a long way to go to increase the per capita consumption to the minimum nutritional requirement. While the top milk consuming country Finland shows a per capita consumption of 184 liters per year, the corresponding figure for India is 78 liters per year. Of course the average consumption figure hides the unpalatable situation behind, in that the gap in consumption between "haves" and "have nots" is very wide with poor people practically not consuming any milk at all due to economic compulsion. How milk production in India can be increased is a complex question as the current out put is achieved by millions of small producers with limited income and to transform this low input-low output situation into a high production model calls for investments and technological intervention of a massive nature. Whether this is feasible remains to be seen.


Sunday, June 19, 2011


Nationalism is inculcated in young minds in the schools and it is true that every denizen on this planet is proud of his or her country, whatever be the fault lines. But time has changed and there is a yearning desire that the world should have borderless countries, enabling people to make seamless interaction and camaraderie. The very idea of WTO is that there should be free trade among the nations and barriers are slowly being brought down to attain such a dream. If this is true how can one explain the phenomenon of "protectionism" that is rearing its ugly head now and then? Any one single country cannot be blamed for this as more and more nations, rich or poor, are indulging in this practice. European Union (EU) was conceived based on such ideal and it is good to see the members of EU working together as a single identity, submerging each one's individual identity in many areas. Probably it is time that a "World Union" is conceived that may remove most of the irritation and reservation among countries due to many reasons. Here is a case of an orchestrated British campaign that has been unleashed to condemn imported foods, mainly from developing countries, as low quality and pressurizing the local buyers to patronize only British-made products. How can one justify such blatantly irrational policies in a world considered as a global village?

"MORe British food is set to be served up to troops, civil servants and prisoners under a new Government drive to stop departments splashing out on low-quality foreign produce at the expense of domestic farmers But farmers fear they will still be squeezed out by the new rules which will require food bought by Government departments, the military and prisons to meet high British welfare standards – as long as it is not more expensive. The new rules come after years in which Whitehall departments have shunned home-grown produce in favour of imports which are much cheaper because animal welfare standards are often much lower. Earlier this year the Yorkshire Post revealed that as little as half of the food served to the nation's servicemen and women is produced on British farms. But farmers have accused Ministers of a "missed opportunity" after swathes of the public sector – including hospitals, councils and schools – were omitted from the new rules and a loophole was left that means British-standard food only has to be purchased if it is cheaper. There are also questions over transparency after it emerged that departments will not be forced to publish the proportion of food they source from UK producers – although they have been "strongly advised" to do so by Environment Ministers. Instead, each department will be required to report annually on what proportion of food has been produced to UK standards. Despite repeated pledges from different political parties for Government to set a better example of buying domestic produce, Ministers have been hamstrung by the fact that it would be illegal to introduce a simple "buy British" rule. Instead, Ministers hope to give British farmers an advantage by insisting that produce must meet "UK or equivalent standards of production". Imports of meat are often cheaper because many foreign countries have lower animal welfare standards to meet - a significant factor in the increased cost of British produce. However, with public spending under strain, the Government has decided the new rules should only apply if there is no increase in cost – raising fears that British farmers will continue to be under-cut by lower quality foreign produce".

The UK is not the only country practicing such double standards as they have good company in Australia, USA, Japan and others who want to be choosy in accepting or rejecting foreign made food products at their whims and fancies! If 80% of the meat, fish and poultry products eaten in Western countries come from Asia, it is not because of the noble nature of these nations but because of compulsion in the form of feeding their population with cheap foods! No doubt that there should not be any compromise on safety issues but if safety standards are set and exporters from Asia are able to meet them, why this wailing against such imports?. If domestic industry cannot compete with imported foods, these countries must get to the root of the problem and find answers as to how processing efficiency can be improved to make them competitive. It is a strange logic on the part of countries like the US when they put pressure on countries like India to increase imports from them, knowing well that their products cost at least 100% more when imported into that in India. Advocates of free market must leave the market to dictate about the products consumer wants to buy rather than indulging in political chicanery!


Saturday, June 18, 2011


Is there any country in this world which does not bother about the well being of its ordinary citizens? The answer is loud and clear, it is the newly anointed economic power China! It is a common knowledge that Communist China does not believe in individual liberty and rights and considers the State as supreme! Otherwise it is very difficult to believe the recent report about lead poisoning in some parts of that country with the government not doing much to alleviate the situation. How can a country that aspires to replace the US as the Super Power can be so indifferent to the sufferings of its citizens? In its relentless pursuit of economic superiority, China is trampling over the rights of its population to be normal and healthy like any one else in the world but the regime there is totally insensitive to global outcry regarding the latest episode of lead poisoning.

"Chasing the political dividends of economic development, local officials regularly overlook environmental contamination, worker safety and dangers to public health until forced to confront them by episodes like the Haijiu factory riot. In the past two and a half years, thousands of workers, villagers and children in at least 9 of mainland China's 31 province-level regions have been found to be suffering from toxic levels of lead exposure, mostly caused by pollution from battery factories and metal smelters. The cases underscore a pattern of government neglect seen in industry after industry as China strives for headlong growth with only embryonic safeguards. "What we are trying to underscore is how little has been done to address the massive impact of lead pollution in China," Joe Amon, the organization's health and human rights director, said in an interview. "It really has affected a whole generation of kids." In more developed nations, where lead pollution has been tightly regulated for decades, a pattern of lead poisoning like China's would most likely be deemed a public-health emergency. High levels can damage the brain, kidney, liver, nerves and stomach and, in extreme cases, cause death. Children are particularly susceptible because they absorb lead more easily than adults. A report by Human Rights Watch released Wednesday states that some local officials have reacted to mass poisonings by arbitrarily limiting lead testing, withholding and possibly manipulating test results, denying proper treatment to children and adults and trying to silence parents and activists. "No blood lead level has been found to be safe for a child," Dr. Mary Jean Brown, chief of the lead poisoning prevention branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview last week.Here, Chinese leaders have acknowledged that lead contamination is a grave issue and have raised the priority of reducing heavy-metal pollution in the government's latest five-year plan, presented in March. But despite efforts to step up enforcement, including suspending production last month at a number of battery factories, the government's response remains faltering".

If pleas from the world community is continuously ignored, some thing needs to be done to bring them to their senses. Of course past experience is any indication, China cares two hoots for world opinion as it is powerful enough to withstand any punishment that may be meted out to them by the the global community for their criminal negligence. All they are interested is to show piece the achievement of communism to the world and the whole world knows how they "organized" the Beijing Olympics in 2009 and what methods they employ to produce "champions". The million dollar question is what purpose it serves such "accolades" are achieved if they are at the expense of the common man who continue to lead a life of low quality!

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Will the latest E.coli food poisoning episode in Europe adversely affect the credibility of the multi billion dollar organic food industry? Probably to some extent, at least temporarily. It is not logical to blame the entire industry for the fault of one single producer as it has happened in Germany. Of course the loss of precious lives and handicapping thousands of consumers due to serious kidney damage cannot be condoned and it is incumbent on the part of industry not to repeat such costly lapses through better and fool proof safety assessment of products before releasing into the market. There will be many critics including the mainstream food processors baying for the blood of organic food industry and under the prevalent situation any response taken must be based on rationale, logic and reality on a long term basis. A set of useful suggestions was recently made that looks reasonable and unavoidable. Here is a take on the issue.

"The core of organic farming is the rejection of a century's worth of scientific advances. The same risks that Christian Scientists take with their own children when they reject modern medicine, organic farmers are eager to take with your children when they reject modern agriculture. First, the Obama administration needs to impose a timeout in the expansion or opening of any new organic farms while regulators and federal safety experts examine the ongoing dangers presented by organic food. Third, each obsolete technology should require public health and environmental disaster planning for all foreseeable risks while each organic farm pays into a national fund designed to implement organic farms' disaster plans. Such plans could be accepted only after wide-ranging public comment and the opportunity to strengthen plans through extensive litigation. Afterward, a strict - and independent - inspection regime would be required to keep tough protections in place. Obviously, the powerful organic industry would object, but the case against it is easily understood. No one would allow an electric utility to build and operate a new nuclear power plant with 1950s-era-technology without proof the design was safer than modern technology. Those who cling to the 1850s feces-based agricultural technology should face the same hurdles. As should those who reject key safety advances such as the E. coli-killing practice of irradiating suspect foods and genetic engineering, which holds promise in using natural biological processes to limit the spread of food-borne illness.Second, before organic farms are allowed to expand again, the industry must prove that ignoring modern technology does not hold hidden risks to public health or the environment. A permitting program for obsolete technology, perhaps as part of the existing agricultural or environmental permitting program, should demand that old technologies outperform new ones at each site where a business proposes to open or expand using obsolete technology".

The point about technology is well taken and there is no dispute regarding the need for continuous upgrade of the same keeping in view modern developments. However more critical is the preventive protocol that needs to be put in place without bothering about investments required for the purpose. There can be no compromise as far as consumer safety is concerned and semantics will have to be replaced with actionable strategy. It is a tragedy of the highest order that the well proven irradiation technology is languishing without being used by the industry for consideration other than merit and consumers must understand the seriousness of pathogenic microorganisms which can only be preempted by using ionizing radiation process, especially those foods not undergoing any heating before consumption. Governments all over the world must make irradiation compulsory for all fresh produce and sprouts without insisting on labeling them, in the over all interest of their citizens.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Here comes the bomb! If USDA figures are to be taken seriously most of the fruits and vegetables available in the market there carry with them more than 50 chemicals including pesticides of different nature. To day's industrial agriculture is based on high inputs of fertilizers, growth boosters and pesticides and though industry is supposed to clean the produce before delivering to the consumer, there is a limit as to how efficient the cleaning operation can be. Most fresh produce have a natural coating of wax in which pesticides are soluble and if 100% of the dissolved as well as adhering chemicals are to be removed, the processing has to be severe destroying the very character of the treated products. This in turn will adversely affect their marketability. The compilation of the list containing most contaminated fruits and vegetables in the US probably should be a guide for other countries to put in place a monitoring mechanism for the market produce and provide guidance to discerning consumers.

"The health benefits of fruits and vegetables are, without a doubt, a known fact -- reinstating the message was last month's release of the USDA's MyPlatefood pyramid replacement, which suggests filling half of your plate with fruits and vegetables. But the potentially darker side of fruits and vegetables is centered around concerns about their pesticide loads, which some studies have linked to possible health problems, particularly among women who are pregnant and children. So when organic foods typically carry a higher price tag, what's a frugal shopper to do? That's where the new shopper's guide comes into play (download it here). "Picking five servings of fruits and vegetables from the 12 most contaminated would cause you to consume an average of 14 different pesticides a day," thegroup reports in its findings, which were based on data collected by the United States Departure of Agriculture of food samples that often were ready to be eaten (meaning that they had already been peeled or washed as necessary). On the flip side, EWG writes that choosing foods from their counterpart "Clean 15" list will slash the pesticide volume by more than 90 percent. Topping the "Clean 15" were onions, sweet corn, pineapples and avocado (check out the full list here)".

It is interesting that the organization which puts out such useful information has a positive agenda as reflected by another compilation giving information about products that contain least chemicals. If consumers have to avoid favorite fruits like Nectarine, Apple, Peaches, Grapes, Raspberries, Strawberries etc what is left behind is limited. Similarly vegetables like Potato, Sweet Pepper, Lettuce, Greens etc are to be avoided what other option the consumer has? On the whole the information from EWG is quite disturbing raising serious questions regarding the practices followed by the agriculture industry with practically no oversight by the safety authorities, vested with such responsibilities, leaving the citizens to mend for them selves!


Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Eating in a restaurant is becoming increasingly complicated with the customers being bombarded with threat perceptions regarding the "healthiness" of the menu and safety of the preparations offered by the caterer. Enjoying the food in one's favorite restaurant needs an atmosphere not marred by tension, suspicion and fear and that is why people frequent some restaurants regularly after experiencing the pleasure of eating good and safe food. Unfortunately time has changed, especially in western countries where "healthiness" has overtaken the eating quality of the foods served. Foods rich in salt or sugar or fat are being increasingly shunned because of the fear that they can damage the health from diseases like CVD, blood pressure, diabetes, over weight syndrome and obesity. Trust in the ability of a caterer to provide safe food is progressively ebbing and regulatory authorities are stepping in for safety enforcement. Latest fad that is being promoted is the DNA reading instruments which can trace the ingredients used in a food preparation and help the processor to decide on the quality of products like meat. When such "traceable" ingredients are used and when the customer is informed about it, the restaurants can charge premium prices for preparations made from them. Here is a take on this development that is taking place using modern electronic and biotechnology techniques.

The technology can determine not only where the meat came from, but also whether it's organic or Angus — or whatever the label says. Workers take DNA samples at processing and other places along the supply chain. The samples are gathered to determine the specific animals each product came from. Information kept by farmers and others involved in the raising and processing of the animals can be added to give a more complete history. DNA tracing also provides a faster way to identify the source of contaminated meat in the event of a recall, speeding the process from weeks or months to just hours. For example, it can identify the multiple animals whose parts were used in ground beef, which Holm said may be made from 1,000 different animals in a 10-pound box. The technology's ability to pinpoint particular animals could even reduce the amount of meat affected by recalls, which generally are tremendously costly for producers, suppliers and others. "In more recent years, food safety issues have become much more prominent in the supply chain here," said Ronan Loftus, co-founder of IdentiGEN Ltd., which is working with Performance Food Group on its DNA tracing. Countries like the United Kingdom and others turned to the technology because of food safety concerns, including worries about mad cow disease.

How far such "gimmicks" will impress the customers remains to be seen. Probably over the years DNA tracing may become an industry standard, especially for meat products which are accessed from different sources and it could be helpful for the industries, both processing as well as catering, to trace the source of meat supplied to them by the distributor. Besides this technique can also prevent false claims about the type of meat supplied and reveal whether good meat is adulterated with inferior ones.


Monday, June 13, 2011


The very mention of E.coli has become scary in the light of the European food poisoning episode claiming many innocent lives besides causing extensive kidney damage to many consumers. Here is a typical example of an innocuous bug assuming monstrous proposition for which man has to bear the responsibility. Knowing pretty well for years that some strains of E.coli are becoming dangerous and resistant to many antibiotics, precious little has been done to evolve appropriate measures that could pre-empt any serious food poisoning by these versions. That contaminated water used for processing was the source of contamination does not evoke any surprise because of large quantity of water required for the food industry and how this bug got into the bean sprouts which cause the havoc in Europe is still a mystery considering that under HACCP regime, water quality is definitely a critical point requiring focused attention. Recent news that the drinking water supply source in Chennai contained E.coli was received with some concern though the authorities claim that after treatment before delivery the water is safe for consumption.

The TNPCB has been monitoring the water quality under the Central Pollution Control Board's Monitoring of International Aquatic Resources System programme from February this year. The samples are taken every month and tested at the TNPCB's laboratories for various parameters, including the level of pH, nitrate, chloride, total hardness, calcium hardness, sulphate and magnesium. Tests by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board show the presence of coliform bacteria in samples of untreated water drawn from Porur, Red Hills, Poondi and Veeranam waterbodies, which serve as sources of supply to the city. "Coliform contamination in the surface water is a common phenomenon due to unhygienic anthropogenic activities before chlorination," sources in the board said. Chennai Metrowater supplies a total of 710 million litres a day to the city, of which 695 mld is through pipes. Engineers of the Quality Monitoring Wing of Metrowater said: "Water is supplied only after treatment and the treated water does not have any coliforms. It is tested before being supplied to the residents." Sources in the Water Resources Department, said that no effluent or sewage disposal is allowed in these waterbodies.Residents of Red Hills said the tank's bund was used as an open toilet. "There are no security personnel to guard the entire perimeter. There are many residential areas surrounding the tank and people use the water for purposes other than drinking," a resident said.

The mute question is how can there be negligence on the part of the water supply agency to ensure that the source is protected from contamination due to uncontrolled use of the water bodies for waste dumping and defecation, both containing high levels of E.coli, some of which could be virulent. Though chlorination is routinely done at the water processing facilities, there cannot be iron-clad guarantee that 100% disinfection is achieved, especially if organic load is high in such water sources. The strain on the processing facilities will increase many fold if the incoming water has high BOD or if it has come into contact with fecal matters. A high degree of risk is involved if water sources are not well protected from dangerous human activities near them.


Recent reports that the ever progressive state of California in the US is about to ban the use of polystyrene plastic is a welcome news for many environmentalists and enlightened citizens, knowing well about the darker side of this fossil fuel based product. While expanded polystyrene is extensively used for packing foods or as disposable containers, extruded polystyrene is the most popular insulation material being a bad conductor of heat. Being made from petroleum chemicals its safety for food contact applications is questionable while it has very poor biodegradability credentials. It is worth emulating the US in abolishing polystyrene which has many natural alternatives.

"Expanded polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam, is a lightweight plastic that, when littered, is often carried from streets through storm drains into the ocean. It accounts for 15% of storm drain litter, according to the California Department of Transportation. It is the second-most-common type of beach debris, according to a study by the Southern California Coastal Water Quality Research Project. Fifty California jurisdictions have already banned foam takeout food packaging, including Huntington Beach, Santa Monica, Malibu and Ventura County. "There are all these jurisdictions in California that have to control trash and reduce their discharges of trash to waterways, and they're having a hard time complying because foam litter is so hard to control. That's the reason for this bill," said Miriam Gordon, state director of Clean Water Action, a national advocacy group that sponsored SB 568".

One is justified in getting scared using polystyrene, especially for food contact applications, considering that it is suspected to be linked to neural damage and cancer. It is unfortunate that millions of people who use polystyrene disposable cups and plates are totally unaware of the dangers lurking behind this plastic material. Take out dinners and frozen meals are invariably packed in polystyrene containers, ready for nuking in microwave oven and how much "leachate" emerges at higher temperatures is still not certain. Polystyrene, like any other plastics, can be recycled but the needed facilities are far and few.


Saturday, June 11, 2011


The word 'food" means different things to different people. Those who are over consuming, it is a question of the sensory pleasure they get out of eating more and more rich foods while poor people with insufficient quantity to access their needs fully are under consumers. There are also population considered mal consumers who do not eat nutritionally balanced food due to poverty or ignorance. One of the most blizzare developments modern world has seen is co-existence of over consumed and under consumed categories of population in all countries whether rich or poor with the former, due to their affluence form an island amongst the unfortunate impoverished fellow denizens. Wealth distribution to narrow the gap between the poor and the affluent does not take place in spite of many so called poverty eradication policies that are touted by each country but on the contrary the chasm is widening which is hurtling the world towards anarchy and devastation. The rich man's club, going under the crisp banner of G8 makes tall promises but defaults when it comes to implementation. Food prices which are sky rocketing will exacerbate the crisis further leading to food riots, as seen in 2008, in more than 35 countries considered vulnerable to potential starvation. Unless there is a clean break from the failed policies of the past and food does not assume a center stage role in new policies, future of this planet is likely to be bleak.

"From the 1960s, with growing evidence and conviction, environmentalists have warned that human reliance on the eco-sphere might be threatened. Public health analysts spotted the transition from problems of under-consumption to those of over- and mal-consumption. Mass hunger sits alongside mass obesity. This distortion is no longer one where the rich world is fat, and the developing world is thin; even sub-Saharan Africa now has an obesity problem. The evidence of this mismatch between policy and reality has been growing for decades. It ought to be centre-stage on every government's food policy agenda. The tragedy is this isn't the case. For a moment, when in 2006-08 world food prices rose, even rich countries looked worried. Fresh from the banking crisis, no one wanted food destabilisation too. An emergency world conference was scheduled. But even before it was held, prices began to drop. Sighs of relief in the west. Three years on, prices are way above 2008 levels, and food inflation is endemic. Oxfam predicts food prices will double by 2030. That would take the average British shopping basket to about 20 per cent of disposable income. But to the poorest of the world, it would mean almost all income going on food. Even the World Bank and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are troubled".

The key to achieve equity in food accessibility is increased production of food all around with each country contributing its might to improve availability. The much needed technological tools are already available and what is required is transferring them to small and marginal farmers along with adequate resource inputs. Farmers are intelligent by nature and if adequate national support is provided they can do marvels to the economic and human health of a country. Intertwined with the agriculture are policies regarding land, energy and water, all to be considered holistically. It is sad that countries like India touts about massive agricultural and food subsidies as a tool for national growth where as these subsidies in reality serve more as a means of catching votes during the 5 yearly elections. Probably the current crop of politicians at the helm of affairs have proved their incompetence and more competent technocratic administrators may have to emerge to achieve the goal of food for every body "without pain".



One of the most visible changes taking place in some of the wealthy countries is the phenomenal growth of farmers' markets which are supposed to offer fresh produce directly from the farmers to the consumers in the neighborhood communities. The major factor for the large scale patronage of these markets by the consumers is the progressively ebbing confidence on the ability of organized retailing sector to provide products in fresh condition with assured quality and safety as expected by the consumers. Not that all farmers' markets are able to satisfy the consumer but majority of them are well organized and deliver products to the full satisfaction of the buyers. Generally the number of farmers' markets in an urban community is limited forcing many to travel quite some distance to reach them but with transportation never a constraint for citizens in wealthy countries, those who are particular to buy really fresh produce do nor mind this minor inconvenience. Many farmers' markets are organized in places and facilities provided by the civic authorities and sanitary conditions are overseen by them. Having convinced about the relevance of farmers' markets, there is a clamor for setting up more such centers in cities that will spare the customers the need to travel through busy city streets. Here is a view point from a citizen in Canada regarding the importance of farmers' market to the urban community.

"First off, the Calgary Farmers' Market is not a true farmers' market. Only about half of the vendors are farmers. It is as much a food court and craft market as a true farmers' market. I also don't buy the argument that the city should be supporting a farmers' market because it connects consumers with producers and will lead to a stronger sustainable food policy. It's a nice, altruistic idea, but I don't think the city should be in the behaviour modification business. As Jeremy Klaszus recently pointed out in the Calgary Herald, other cities subsidize their major markets. But in Calgary's case, if we were to do that, we would have to subsidize not only the Calgary Farmers' Market, but also the Crossroads Market and Kingsland Market because they have a similar business model. I recall one letter to the editor in the Herald asking about why there's all the media fuss over the Calgary Farmers' Market, as it's not the city's only farmer's market — good point. Rather than imitate what other cities are currently doing or looking to the past, I say let's look to the future and develop a new Calgary model for farmers' markets. I propose that instead of a major downtown market that requires Calgarians to drive across town to get to it, we develop more modest, year-round farmer/food producer-only markets in each quadrant of the city (all three current major farmer's markets are currently in the south)".

Whether one calls it farmers' market or by any other name the concept is very sound and world over such markets must come up to link the grower to the consumer. Of course there will be stiff resistance from whole sale distributors and large retailing giants as their business may be affected to some extent. In a country like India there are scattered road side vending practice in almost all cities while some rudimentary facilities are built in some towns and cities for selling fresh produce. Unfortunately those who sell the produce are not real farmers but vendors who get their materials from the government controlled marketing yards. What is required is a genuine farmers' market where individual farmers are allowed to bring their produce directly to the customers. Archaic laws which come in the way of implementing such progressive new ideas must be scrapped. Farmers' markets, functionally designed with all necessary facilities must be built in almost all townships in the country for the benefit of both farmers as well as the citizens of the country.


Friday, June 10, 2011


It is wrongly assumed that frozen foods are convenience products because those who buy these products will vouch safe for the "ordeal" involved in cooking them. It is true that most frozen foods come pre-prepared requiring no efforts except for cooking but the recommended practice of thawing in a refrigerator can be time consuming negating the convenience factor very significantly. Fearing cross contamination and growth of undesirable microorganisms, room temperature thawing is generally frowned upon but recent studies have brought out the fact that thawing after immersing in water can cut down the thawing time considerably and this provides the consumer more opportunities to use frozen foods in day to day food preparations. Microwave oven is supposed to be handy in thawing but uneven heating make the product inferior for consumption. Water medium transfers heat much better than air and therefore it is logical to expect better results.

"Air-thawing in the refrigerator took 18 to 20 hours, while the room-temperature water bath thawed the steaks in about 20 minutes, and the hot-summer-day bath in 11 minutes. These water-bath times are so short that any bacterial growth would remain within safe limits. The water-thawed steaks actually leaked less juice than the air-thawed steaks. The researchers grilled the steaks, too, and found that all the thawed steaks lost about 26 percent of their original weight once cooked, while never-frozen steaks lost 21 percent. The study found no significant differences in tenderness between slow- and quick-thawed steaks. Eleven minutes is pretty quick, but Brian A. Nummer and colleagues at Utah State University in Logan shaved away another couple of minutes by heating the water bath to 140 degrees, the standard temperature of steam tables in food service kitchens. The Utah State group found that chicken breasts about a half-inch thick thawed in a little more than 3 minutes, and inch-thick breasts in less than 9 minutes. Although 140-degree water would eventually cook the chicken to medium-rare, they saw no signs of cooking. The quick-thawed breasts did lose slightly more juice than the refrigerator-thawed breasts, but when the chicken was grilled and served, a panel of 18 tasters was unable to tell them apart. And based on their mathematical modeling, the researchers concluded that any bacterial growth would remain well within safe limits. So there's no downside to quick-thawing steaks, chops, fillets and other relatively thin cuts in warm water right before cooking. Large roasts are a different story. They take long enough to thaw that there may be time for significant bacterial growth on their surfaces. Prompt cooking might well eliminate that problem, but until this has been studied, it's safest to continue thawing roasts in the refrigerator or in water under 40 degrees. Quick-thawing is easy to adopt in the home kitchen. But don't expect your thaw times to match the lab times I've quoted unless you have an immersion circulator or another method to keep the water in motion and at a constant temperature. If the water is still, a cold zone develops around the food and insulates it from the remaining warm water. And without infusions of hot water or heat from a burner, the icy food cools the water bath".

One of the problems of using water bath is the rapid cooling of layers of water in contact with the frozen pack hindering heat transfer and unless there is circulation of water around the frozen pack, thawing is bound to be slower. A common practice adopted in many kitchens is to change the water 2-3 times to accelerate the thawing rate. While the above findings may be true with thin slabs of meat, how far it is applicable to thawing of frozen vegetables or fruits may be uncertain. Of course common sense tells that being not so compact as meat, thawing these materials may be much less problematic.


Thursday, June 9, 2011


In spite of enormous progress achieved in the field of food technology there are still some gray areas where clarity is some what vague. One such area is pasteurization, meaning of which is understood differently by different agencies involved in food safety. Of course originally it was used almost exclusively by the dairy which used the thermal death time of common pathogenic bacteria to process fluid milk before marketing under refrigerated conditions. While pasteurization confers limited shelf life, even at low temperatures to fluid products, sterilization is the chosen method using higher temperatures to achieve longer life for food products at ambient temperatures. Recent controversy, regarding the claim by the meat industry that it is pasteurizing its products and therefore must be allowed to declare the same for boosting the confidence of the consumer regarding the safety of these products, must be resolved based on scientific interpretation of the term pasteurization.

"Technologies have emerged that allow for the pasteurization of certain meat and poultry products, and the term 'pasteurized' best describes these products to consumers," said NAMP executive director Phil Kimball, in a recent association news update. NAMP cites a U.S. National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods (NACMCF) definition of pasteurization: "Any process, treatment, or combination thereof, which is applied to food to reduce the most resistant microorganism(s) of public health significance to a level that is not likely to present a public health risk under normal conditions of distribution and storage." The petition asks that FSIS approve immediately the use of the term "pasteurized" on labels for certain categories of products, and to issue a communication clarifying its policy: "FSIS is legally required to accept the use of such terminology unless it can reasonably assert that the use of such a claim on a given label is either false or misleading ... Clearly that is not the case for products that are fully cooked or that have otherwise been processed in a manner that has effectively eliminated potential public health risks from pathogenic organisms, particularly when firms have validated this outcome."

Science is an evolving area where new discoveries are made at rapid pace and clinging to old concepts and practices will make the industry stagnant. After all the aim of pasteurization is to destroy pathogens and if this can be achieved by any technology that ensures product integrity and quality there should not be any objection. It is unfortunate that use of irradiation process, one of the most effective methods in destroying pathogens, is not adopted by the industry, probably fearing consumer backlash and loss of business, May be it is time that governments world over make it mandatory for highly perishable foods like fresh produce like salad vegetables and raw animal products to be irradiated in the interest of consumer safety.


Whether one likes it or not artificial sweeteners have become a part and parcel of those who are constrained from consuming sugar for various reasons. Saccharine had dominated the artificial sweetener market till about 3 decades ago and subsequently chemicals like Cyclamates, Aspartame, Acesulfame and Sucralose got them selves established because of doubts about the safety of saccharine. Latest entrance in the field is Stevia sugar, a sweetener extracted from the plant species Stevia rebaudiana, grown abundantly in South America. Japanese were the earliest to use Stevia sugar, their sweetener market being dominated by this plant derived material to the extent of 40%. Rebaudioside A, the most acceptable glycoside in the leaves of the plant is approved for use in foods in many countries and to day Chinese dominate the global market by supplying low cost sweetener preparations from Stevia leaves. Being at least 300 times sweeter than sucrose, Rebaudioside A has all the credentials to out pace other sweeteners in the coming years. Now comes the news that attempts to produce Steviol glycosides using the fermentation route have succeeded and it is possible that the market price of Stevia sugar may come down significantly once commercial production becomes a reality.

"Stevia sweeteners have attracted great interest and R&D spend by the food and beverage industry in recent years following FDA GRAS (generally recognised as safe) status of high purity Reb-A in late 2008, and subsequently other steviol glycosides. European approval, according to the FAO/WHO JECFA specifications, is expected this year. While all the steviol gycosides currently available are derived from the native Paraguauan plant, butEvolva and Abunda have been quietly working on proprietary technology to make them viafermentation in yeast. "This process bypasses the complex logistics associated with the traditional cultivation, processing and refining of stevia plants, and allows pure stevia sweetness components to be produced," said Evolva. Steviol glycosides produced in this way are still a few years from market. The main task for the next 12 to 18 months will be to further improve the yield and transfer to the scale-up phase. However the development could eventually mean cheaper steviol gycosides will be available for food and beverage manufacturers. CEO Neil Goldsmith told "The logic of the approach is to achieve better economies, but I wouldn't want to go into more details than that". He said that the whole spectrum of steviol glycosides can be produced using the method. This would allow manufacturers to use the blends best suited to application needs. Goldsmith expects that by the time Evolva is ready to market its fermentation-produced sweetness components the full spectrum of steviol glycosides will have GRAS status and novel foods approval. This means that the company will only have to seek substantial equivalence – a much quicker process".

It is interesting that both the cola giants, Coke and Pepsi have entered Stevia market and are offering their own brands besides using it in their diet beverages. Though there are still some lingering safety questions with Stevia, large majority of scientific studies have established that it is safe for human consumption. That people in some of the South American countries have been using Stevia leaves for centuries further strengthens the safety credentials of this natural non-carbohydrate sweetener. While the technical feasibility of production through microorganisms has been established beyond doubt, the commercial viability will depend very much on the yield and this requires enormous investment, long time and intensive efforts. One can only hope that this valuable sugar substitute will become cheap and affordable to consumers badly in need of non-caloric sweeteners for their daily use due to compulsions like diabetes, over weight and obesity.