Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Recently there was a news item in the media about halwais teaching M.Tech students the art of making traditional food products in Andhra Pradesh and the program deserves full credit for its innovative approach. What is not clear from the report is whether this is a casual phenomenon for grabbing attention or a realistic sustainable program with foresight. Traditional food products, thousands in number, prepared and consumed through out the country are still a grey area with very little scientific foundation and what will come out of such a program is not very clear. If the students are taught the recipes and the preparation methods of a few selected products, what good will come out of such efforts? The program will, of course, help the students to get some idea about these products but a technology course cannot be based on such meager resource inputs from artisans. This is not to criticize the program or the organizers who thought about this but to highlight the enormous logistics involved in designing a course aimed at "technologisation" of traditional food products in the country. Listen to what the organizers have to say about the program:

"The students will be given training on the manufacturing methods of delicious dishes. We will tie up with more firms dealing with food processing in future," JNTU-K vice chancellor Allam Appa Rao said. The V-C claimed that the M Tech course in Food Processing Technology offered by the university was first of its kind in Andhra Pradesh. "Apart from an orientation in engineering, we want to focus on food processing and provide on-field experience to the students," he said. Students would be given training in the making of much sought-after items like 'Pootharekulu', `Tapeswaram kaja', 'Kakinada kaja', and other delicacies. Suruchi Foods, which manufactures Tapeswaram kaja in bulk and sends it to various parts of the country, was roped in to impart training to the PG students. Sources said the university is planning to rope in more SHGs to conduct orientation classes for the students. University director E V Prasad said that they would also go for tie-ups with MNCs like Nestle, Tata Tea, Haldirams and a few others to offer better training to students.

Even collaborating with reputed manufacturers may not serve any purpose except exposing the students to field conditions and making them aware of the industry practices. There are no industry player in the country with adequate technological base and most of them have still small scale operations using manual labor and multiple battery units with very rudimentary processing equipment. One cannot blame the industry for this low technology base because food researchers in the country have not done much basic work to evolve appropriate processes with high production efficiency and this gross neglect is manifested in the sorry state of affairs vis-a-vis the traditional food industry. Another issue is whether such orientation of university students should be at the post graduate level or at the more basic under graduate or graduate level and is it not better if degree courses or certificate courses are designed for turning out competent technicians for employment by the industry? Probably there is a need for evolving an entirely new course in Culinology which combines recipes, preparations and processing aspects vis-a-vis traditional food products. Nonetheless, the JNTU-K deserves some credit for their new initiative in the area of traditional foods.



Rice bran, a bye product from the rice milling industry, was considered more as a cattle feed material till its oil was found to be very valuable as an edible fat source with significant nutrition quality. One of the major restraints in utilizing rice bran for oil extraction was its susceptibility to go rancid due to high lipase activity which, if not inactivated as soon as milling, can hydrolyze the oil into free fatty acids. If integrated milling cum oil processing facilities are available there may not be any need to "stabilize" the bran through thermal inactivation of lipase enzyme system. Indian situation is not considered ideal for rice bran oil extraction because of the widely scattered rice mills with low capacity working across the country making it difficult to collect adequate quantity for feeding a reasonably sized solvent extraction plant in time before oil quality starts deteriorating. In countries like Japan rice bran oil is the staple cooking medium and this oil has also made inroads into western markets recently. Against such a background it is intriguing to understand the recent attempts by an industrial conglomerate to extract protein from rice bran for offering as a protein ingredient in formulated foods. Here is a take on this new development.

"Rob van Leen, Chief Innovation Officer at DSM, adds: "While we fully realize that the world will continue to need animal derived proteins, we believe it is important to explore ways of extracting proteins from plant material, and we aim to make a contribution in this area. NutraCea's management team, headed by John Short and Leo Gingras, have restructured their company to focus only on rice bran derived products and rice bran bio-refining. Their proprietary and patented technologies and expertise in the field of rice bran combined with DSM's technology base in bio-based products form the perfect platform to tackle this plant-based protein challenge. This project fits extremely well within our sustainability and innovation focus at DSM." NutraCea's Chief Executive Officer, W. John Short, commented: "This Joint Research and Development Agreement between DSM and NutraCea provides the opportunity for our two companies to join forces in the development and potential commercialization of protein from rice bran targeted to human food and ingredient applications. To feed a growing world population, additional alternative sources of protein will become increasingly important. The intrinsic product characteristics of rice bran -- hypoallergenic, gluten free, full range of amino acids, and easy digestibility leading to high bioavailability -- can serve as a valuable additional protein source for our growing world population. In that context, working together with DSM provides the opportunity for our two companies to take advantage of an underutilized co-product of an existing resource -- rice bran -- obtained from the existing global rice crop as a sustainable and renewable protein source that requires no additional land or water resources. We appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with the people at DSM. Their corporate commitment to sustainability and renewability, as reflected in their philosophy and vision of 'people, planet and profit,' are values that we share at NutraCea. We look forward to working with the DSM team."

It is true that rice bran potential world wide is a staggering 30 million tons and no wonder it has attracted attention now as a source of valuable proteins. With a protein content of 12-15% and a PER value of 2-2.5, rice bran protein can be a viable food ingredient in many food preparations in place of costlier counterparts like Casein, Soy protein isolate and others. If commercial considerations pitchfork rice bran as a source of refined cooking oil and protein isolate with 90% plus protein, what is lost will be some of the most valuable health promoting nutrients like tocotrienol, gamma oryzenol, beta sitosterol, constituting about 4.3 % of the oil fraction because these unsaponifiable fractions are lost during normal refining process. There must be a holistic consideration while planning to use rice bran to recover these nutrients also.


Monday, August 29, 2011


Thousands of chemicals are used in millions of consumer products, most of them considered benign and safe. But there are a few which get into the "zone of controversy" with regard to how safe they are. One such chemical is Triclosan which is used world wide in many consumer products as an anti-bacterial agent and since these products are not used in foods, not much attention was focused on its safety due to "exposure". As is the case with many chemicals, Triclosan is also in the center of a controversy with the industry and the consumer activists literally at each other's throat. While antagonists are fighting fiercely to bring about a ban of this chemical, protagonists, viz the user industries swear by its safety, both citing scientific studies to support their stand. Unfortunately the safety pundits in the governments who are supposed to act as a referee in such cases procrastinate too long delaying any conclusion on the safety of this chemical. Here is a take on this issue bringing out the dilemma of the arbitrators in settling the safety debate once for all.

"The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing the safety of the chemical, which was created more than 40 years ago as a surgical scrub for hospitals. Triclosan is now in a range of consumer products, including soaps, kitchen cutting boards and even a best-selling toothpaste, Colgate Total. It is so prevalent that a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the chemical present in the urine of 75 percent of Americans over the age of 5. Several studies have shown that triclosan may alter hormone regulation in laboratory animals or cause antibiotic resistance, and some consumer groups and members of Congress want it banned in antiseptic products like hand soap. The F.D.A. has already said that soap with triclosan is no more effective than washing with ordinary soap and water, a finding that manufacturers dispute. The F.D.A. was to announce the results of its review several months ago, but now says the timing is uncertain and unlikely until next year. The Environmental Protection Agency is also looking into the safety of triclosan. The outcome of the federal inquiries poses a significant risk to the makers of antimicrobial and antibacterial hand soaps, which represent about half of the $750 million market for liquid hand soaps in the United States, according to the market research firm Kline & Company. Many of those soaps use triclosan as the active ingredient and say so on the label. Dial Complete is the fifth-best-selling liquid hand soap in the nation, according to data collected from most major stores (except for Wal-Mart) by SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm. Richard Theiler, senior vice president for research and development at Henkel, the German-based manufacturer of Dial Complete, said there was no real evidence showing that triclosan was dangerous for humans. He also said that several recent studies had proved the effectiveness of triclosan in killing germs, and that those studies had been submitted to the federal regulators. "It has been used now in products safely for decades," Mr. Theiler said. But as consumer groups have campaigned against triclosan, some consumer product manufacturers have removed it and substituted less controversial ingredients. Reckitt Benckiser removed triclosan from three face washes, for instance. And citing "changing consumer preferences," Colgate-Palmolive replaced triclosan with lactic acid in Palmolive Antibacterial Dish Liquid, and its Softsoap liquid hand soap has been reformulated without the chemical. Colgate, however, continues to use triclosan in its Colgate Total toothpaste because it has been proved to fight gingivitis, a claim approved by the F.D.A. "The safety and efficacy of Colgate Total toothpaste is fully supported by over 70 clinical studies in over 10,000 patients," the company said in a statement. Scientists have raised concerns about triclosan for decades. Last year, Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat from Massachusetts, pressured the F.D.A. to write regulations for antiseptic products like hand soap, including the use of triclosan. The process of creating regulations was started more than three decades ago, but has been repeatedly delayed. In the meantime, Mr. Markey has called for a ban on triclosan in hand soaps, in products that come in contact with food and in products marketed to children. The concern is based on recent studies about the possible health impacts of triclosan, which the F.D.A. said, in a Feb. 23, 2010, letter to Mr. Markey, "raise valid concerns about the effect of repetitive daily human exposure to these antiseptic ingredients." Several have shown that triclosan disrupts the thyroid hormone in frogs and rats, while others have shown that triclosan alters the sex hormones of laboratory animals. Others studies have shown that triclosan can cause some bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics'"

There is a nagging suspicion among the consumer activists that the enormous clout of the industry on the government is preventing the latter to ban the substance though available scientific findings do cast a shadow of doubt about its safety. Added to this the effectiveness of Triclosan in toiletry products is also under a cloud with latest findings showing its redundancy in products like soaps and other products which are equally effective without this chemical. While occasional use of washing aids containing Triclosan may not cause any adverse effect, it is the consequences of repeated exposure that is being questioned. Interestingly some of the major manufacturers of products containing Triclosan are switching over to other less controversial antibacterial chemicals fearing serious consumer backlash and probably they may prove to be wiser in the long run. One is reminded of the BPA controversy last year which eventually persuaded the feeding bottle industry made from polycarbonate plastics to shift to BPA free plastics fearing adverse consumer reaction. There is a lesson to be learned from these episodes that the industry cannot continue to be in a denial mode when it comes to consumer safety and must be more sensitive to issues concerning human safety.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


The cry by the processed food industry in India for adequately trained technical personnel who can be employed at reasonable salaries seems to have been heard if the recent report from TNAU regarding the launch of a new training program becomes a reality. There are several institutions/colleges which are providing graduate degree in food science and technology across the country, the intake students entering such places after the plus two stage and invariably these students are equipped to take up responsibilities for management of production, R & D and quality control. Unfortunately the food industry is reluctant to employ these "over qualified" graduates because of two considerations. First these graduates demand high salaries which are beyond the capability of the industry. Second, their utility is rather limited considering the real need on the manufacturing floor. The offer of a course by the Tamil Nadu Agri Varsity under the PG Diploma label is claimed to be in tune with industry requirement. Is this claim valid? Look at the details of the course being offered by them:

"The Directorate of Open and Distance learning, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), will offer a PG Diploma in Food Science and Processing for the first time during the 2011-2012 academic year. The course deals with subjects like preservation and value addition techniques of food processing, a press release from TNAU said. As India faces a food security crisis, scientific methods of food processing are much needed for its preservation, conservation, quality enhancement, market attraction and to increase shelf-life. Ways to counter food pilferage and to add value to the perishable, fragile, consumable and non-perishable food will be taught. The course will focus on processing of convenience foods, like ready-to-use mixes, traditional foods, quality control and preventive measures, food products and development, packaging, labeling and brand-making. The course also covers subject areas like value addition on tomato-based products such as jams, jellies, sauces, pickles and savories. Furthermore, the course will deal with preparation of snack items, processing techniques of meat and meat products, egg products and dry fish. The course invites applications from various segments of the public. The qualification is any science degree. Duration of course is one year consisting of two semesters of six months duration each. Study materials will be provided in the form of books with self-learning content. Contact classes will be held during weekends. Medium of instruction is English. The application can be obtained either in person or by post. The application fee is Rs 250 and Rs 300. The last date of receipt of filled in application is August 29".

There are several questions, begging for answers. Is this course based on any study by the Varsity regarding the exact need of the industry? Who decided the course content and in what way the curriculum is different? What is sought to be achieved by conducting a course, claimed to be different from the B.Tech and M.Tech courses being run by many colleges in the country? Can an industry oriented technical program requiring considerable on-hand training, be conducted through distance learning mode? Probably the Varsity cannot be faulted for starting this course in absence of a national consensus regarding what the industry really needs and how much is needed giving a free had to all teaching "shops" to start any course without any relation to the user need. It is time AICTE the apex organization for technical education in the country constitute a separate wing under its aegis to look into the personnel needs of food industry and evolve training programs at undergraduate, graduate and post graduate levels based on expert assessment.



Is Mayonnaise better than natural butter? It is a controversial issue on which probably there cannot be any unanimity. It is paradoxical that margarine and mayonnaise which are industry created imitations of original butter claiming now that the impostor is superior to the original! Many imitation products emerge as lower priced alternatives to attract the consumers and with the advent of modern food technology it is possible to develop substitute products that look and taste like the originals and consumers world over have accepted this ground reality without much of a demur though there are many who insist on natural products. It will be interesting to wait for the outcome of the court battle between two food giants in India regarding the nutritional comparison between butter and mayonnaise. Here is a take on this clash between the two dominant food players in the country.

"India's largest food brand Amul has dragged Hindustan Unilever in a lawsuit that challenges the punchline "better than butter" used by the global FMCG company for its Mayonnaise-based product launched in April. The $2-billion Amul has a 90% share in India's organised butter market and has accused HUL of portraying butter products inferior to mayonnaise. The multinational has launched Kissan Creamy Spread and got it endorsed by film actor Juhi Chawla for TV commercials which are on air. The product claims it is three times richer with essential nutrients and contains half the calories as that of regular butter. The dairy cooperative has challenged the claims saying comparison between mayonnaise and butter is not permissible under the law. In the lawsuit filed in Delhi High Court, Amul said: "This (advertisement) is sending a false and misleading message to the consumers who may refrain from consuming butter." Benefits of butter are well-known and time-tested, it added.

In one sense a designer food product can be made more nutritious than the original one because of the feasibility of incorporating out side nutrients to the extent "desirable" but the critical question is how one is sure that these external nutrients are added in optimal quantities that would be absorbed by the body. It is known that absorption and utilization of nutrients vary from person to person and to get a clear picture there will have to be massive data generated through human studies before any definitive claims can be made by the manufacturers on the label or in promotional advertisements. Added to this another factor that can vitiate any claim regarding advantage of a synthetic product over its natural counterpart is the influence of many micro nutrients or biochemicals present in the latter on the over all health value. There are many natural food substances about which complete nutrient details have not yet been unraveled. In the light of these compelling factors there may be a technical advantage for the stand that Mayonnaise is not superior to natural butter. .

Friday, August 26, 2011


Can any one dispute the fact that fruits and vegetables constitute the most important dietary component that can ensure sound health? Nutritionists world over have come to the conclusion that human beings must consume at least 4-5 servings of these vital foods every day as they are rich sources of many micro nutrients as well as fiber. Unfortunately gross distortions caused by cheap processed foods most of which are calorie rich in stead of being nutrient dense have pulled the consumers towards the former under economic compulsions. When such is the scenario, what justification any country can have in allowing these protective foods priced exorbitantly, making them beyond the reach of common man? Of course governments can always wring their hand saying that in a free market, prices are government by demand-supply dynamics! In India food inflation now raging between 9 and 10% is driven by the high prices for fruits and vegetables and such a situation is happening because of the skewed production and market policies of the government which allow "middle men" and pre-harvest contractors a free hand in dictating the consumer price. How long this can continue in a poor country like India? Obviously GOI does not seem to have any clue!

"India's food inflation turned higher in the week ended June 23 due to costlier fruits and vegetables, underscoring expectations that stubborn price pressures won't fade anytime soon and firming expectations of continued monetary policy tightening. Food inflation during the week accelerated to 8.04% from a year earlier, compared with 7.33% the week before, data issued Thursday by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry showed. On a week-on-week basis, the wholesale price index for food articles fell a marginal 0.6%. Nitesh Ranjan, an economist with Union Bank Of India, said the slight easing in the food index could be due to the prolonged rate hikes by the Reserve Bank of India. Still, it would take five to six weeks of continuous easing before a sustainable decline in inflation is seen, he added. The RBI has raised its key policy rate 11 times since March 2010 and is widely expected to raise it by a further 0.50 percentage point by March to tame inflation that has been at uncomfortably high levels for more than two years. The bond market drew some comfort from the week-on-week decline in the index for food as well as primary articles. The fall, even though marginal, gave some hope that food prices could see a sustained downtrend if monsoon rains progress normally".

There are grandiose plans and schemes announced from time to time for raising the production of fruits and vegetables but very little is happening at the ground level as reflected by the widely fluctuating market prices for these foods. Added to this the market prices are manipulated by traders during festivities which are many in the country. How can a consumer cope with a 100% increase in the price of any fresh produce during a particular festival, whether Ramzan or Diwali or Christmas, as is happening now? Since 1947 when India achieved independence, there has been only feeble efforts to establish the much needed infrastructure like cold storage, cold chain, MAS facilities etc which, if in place, could even out the prices between harvesting seasons. Probably Indian citizen is paying for the prolonged neglect of this sector by successive governments with short vision!


Thursday, August 25, 2011


Lot has been written and spoken about the enormity of food wastage that goes on with no self consciousness among most denizens in this world but very little is done to arrest this "habit" ingrained especially in the population considered rich and super-rich. True a small proportion of the food that eventually would end up in the garbage is being salvaged by the Food Bank system that is in vogue in some of the wealthy countries but wastage of food is still enormous which if saved can feed millions of hungry people. Another dimension to this waste is the impact such dumping of food can have on the environment. It is known that food wastes can generate the much dreaded Methane gas through the action of microorganisms in substantial quantities and this gas is capable of destroying the ozone zone that protects the earth from too much warming. Thus the need to control food wastage is of utmost importance for the very survival of mankind. While some wastage can be justified because of their uncertain safety credentials, most of the food heading for the garbage dump can still be saved through modern technological tools like refrigeration, freezing, controlled atmosphere packing etc. A human being with some conscience will not throw away food and what is needed is the awareness about the negative implications of wasting food.

"Just how much food goes to waste each year in the U.S.? In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated 33 million tons of food was thrown away. In 1996, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that if even 5 percent of the total food waste stream were recovered, that quantity would represent the equivalent of a day's food for 4 million people. "There are a number of plastic packaging innovations making it possible to keep food fresher longer, so less is wasted and sent to landfills," said Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council. "From resealable plastic bags and airtight plastic storage containers to portion-controlled plastic pouches for your favorite foods, the plastics industry offers many ways for American families to reduce the amount of food wasted in their homes, making it more affordable for them as well." Food waste also has a significant impact on the environment. The EPA confirms that methane gas produced by discarded food waste in landfills is 21 times more harmful to the ozone than the carbon dioxide emitted from cars. In fact, landfills account for more than 20 percent of all harmful methane gas emitted in the US contributing to global warming. "The issue of post-consumer food waste is a massive problem and arguably the most pressing issue regarding waste disposal," says food packaging consultant and author Dr. Paul Butler. "Focusing on packaging material weight reduction and recyclable food packaging materials is important; however, developing new innovations in packaging to help consumers manage their food inventory better and contribute to a more sustainable supply chain can have an even more significant impact on our environment." Consumers can help protect their wallets and the environment by using plastic innovations that help keep food fresher longer and looking for smart packaging innovations that ensure every last bit of the food is used before packaging is discarded. Plastics Make it Possible® has compiled a few simple tips to help consumers reduce food waste":

The role of labeling on the packed foods play some part in causing unnecessary waste of food. The precise implication of words like 'best before", "expiry date", "consume before", "sell before" etc is not well known to and too confusing for the lay man. Religiously date expired foods are thrown away though they may still be edible. If food scientists are to be believed most such foods are safe, though slightly inferior in quality and many of them can be cooked at home into different types of products which will ensure destruction of pathogens if any. Whether rich or poor wasting of food should be considered as a criminal act and must be frowned upon.



Food exports constitute a significant portion of foreign trade in many agriculture oriented economies, besides contributing substantially to the GDP basket. But many countries are often pulled between opposing forces representing the economic interest and compulsions of not stoking inflation. Food security is intricately linked to the extent of buffer stocks held by the government and the dilemma is to decide how much is enough for such a security. Hike in market prices of staple food grains, popular vegetables, sugar and edible oils can have very serious impact on the political stability of a country and this was amply demonstrated in 2008 in more than 30 developing countries where food riots took a heavy toll. In the case of India, GOI has often been caught on the wrong foot vis-a-vis export policies in the food area, though it is one of the top agri-foods producing countries in the world. The responsibility of managing the food portfolio is indeed a complex task and during the last 64 years after independence the country has been grappling with this problem with no durable success. Here is a take on this vexatious issue.

"The global spike in food inflation could force India to review its food exports policy. The government has gingerly opened rice and wheat exports after food inflation had moderated to less than 8%, but in recent weeks it has accelerated again to nearly 10%. Food prices in India have been mostly insulated from the world due to restrictions on exports and abundant grain stocks. "In terms of food grains, India is relatively insulated from global prices because it doesn't allow exports," said Ashok Gulati, chairman, Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices. "But this situation can't continue for long. The farmers must be allowed to reap the benefits of higher prices because their costs have gone up," he added advocating the opening up exports in a calibrated manner.So far, the government has only allowed limited export of one million tonne (MT) non-basmati rice, 1.5 MT sugar and an unspecified amount of wheat to prevent any speculative flare-up in prices. Food grain stocks are also at unmanageably high levels. At the beginning of August the country had food stocks of over 61 million tonnes".

Probably GOI can hope to manage exports better once its new "Right to Food" policy is put in place under which more than 70% of the population is to be fed with subsidized food grains, leaving only 30% to the mercy of the market forces. Still even a minor commodity like Onion can cause problem if there is a shortage in the market. Sugar is another politically sensitive commodity and the consumer price is dependent very much on how much free sugar is allowed to be sold by the mills in the open market, after meeting the need of the PDS. If the industry is given the freedom to export as much as they want without any restrictions, domestic consumers will have to pay high prices during any surge in the price of sugar in the international market. The desire to give high prices to the cane growers has to be balanced with the need to control inflation which can raise its ugly head if domestic market price of sugar shoots up consequent to unlimited export.
Unless a clear headed and calibrated stable policy on food exports is evolved, inflation will continue t eat into the hard earned earnings of the common man.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


How many workers in a restaurant or for that matter in any food handling facility are aware of the dangers posed by improper handling of foods at various stages like raw material cleaning, pre-processing, cooking, storing, re-heating and serving? Probably very few personnel have the wherewithal to exercise the required precaution to ensure its safety. In a country like India even the owners are either indifferent or illiterate regarding most of the safety issues, let alone the workers employed by them. How can a situation like this continue that involves the fate of millions of customers who flock to these eateries every day? Why not make it mandatory for workers in eating places and other institutions handling foods to undergo a minimum training program that will equip them to understand and deal with safety hazards, lurking around their working place? In some countries such practices are in vogue and in India and other developing countries also such training program must be made mandatory.

"The city now offers a one-day voluntary food safety certification course and demand is high for that course. Sherry Beadle, Ottawa health department's program manager of food safety, said her department plans to consult with the food industry about the plan and whether a mandatory course has worked in other regions. "Education occurs with every inspection that we conduct," Beadle said. "The difference with this certification program is it allows a greater in-depth look at food handling practices. Training is always a good thing." Eight of the province's 36 health units currently require mandatory certification. Beadle said the move to a mandatory course would be to ensure food safety continues and not because there is a particular problem within the system. "Certainly it is not as a result of a negative or an experienced problem. It is just ensuring that we are making food as safe as possible," Beadle said.

It is a very common sight to see cooking and serving personnel employed by majority of restaurants shabbily dressed, sweat odor permeating through the place, unshaven, unkempt, blissfully unaware of hygiene and sanitation which can cause revulsion some times. While many eateries do some "window dressing" to keep the serving area clean, at least to look at, the cooking areas are invariably ill-kept and fortunately since most foods served are hot, bacterial poisoning may be far and few. But bad sanitation can cause post-cooking contamination that needs to be checked. There are many universities which have students undergoing courses in food science and microbiology and it should not be a tall order to deploy these students to train local food workers as per a scheme involving capsule courses of duration of one or two days. As far as India is concerned an institution like CFTRI at Mysore can be entrusted with the responsibility of designing such a capsule course for country wide use. Similarly in other developing countries premier food research institutions can be involved in evolving appropriate programs of similar nature.


Monday, August 22, 2011


Here comes another "tall" claim from the scientific community regarding the discovery of a natural substance that can protect foods at room temperature without any need for heating, chemicals, radiation, freezing or other known preservation technologies. Of course they are not referring to the age old natural preservatives, organic acids, salt or sugar, all of which can preserve foods at relatively high concentrations. The new preservative substance is extracted from a bacteria which was found to be effective in killing 99% of the pathogens that commonly affect food products. While nisin, a bacteriocin of proven efficiency, is a well known preservative used widely in Cheese, whether the new preservative reported is as good as or better than it, is not certain. But the claim that it can preserve foods at ambient conditions for long is debatable because food spoilage is not entirely due to microbial action and chemical changes occurring at non-refrigerated temperatures can make the food unacceptable from sensory angle.

"There would also be no need to refrigerate produce treated with the preservative, called, bisin, which is produced by harmless bacteria. They say that foods like milk, sausages and sandwiches containing the agent could be on the shelves within three years. Ready meals, opened wine and fresh salad dressing could also be safely consumed long after they were bought, say scientists. Researchers at Minnesota University in the US discovered the substance from a culture of a harmless bacteria, Bifodobacterium longum, commonly found in the human gut. It is the first naturally occurring agent identified that attacks so-called gram-negative bacteria such as E.coli, salmonella and listeria".

"Bisin is related to nisin, which attacks gram-positive bacteria, and is used in the manufacture of processed cheeses and meats. As such, it is generally recognised as safe and would not have to be pharmacologically tested. It would not be able toprevent fruit and vegetables from rotting, however, as they decompose in a different way. Further research is now ongoing, looking at exactly how good it is at stopping bacteria from growing. Meanwhile, a British wholesaler has begun to make sandwiches with a two-week shelf life, by replacing all the oxygen in the plastic packaging with nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Ray Boggiana, a food technologist who helped develop the range for Booker, which supplies convenience stores, said: "The science is not new. It's all about using a protective atmosphere in the packaging."

There is nothing like a scenario in which foods can be stored for years together without any deterioration and it is doubtful whether man will ever come up with such a technology. Of course freezing is the nearest process conforming to the above perspective but here also changes do take place albeit at very low pace. Probably new antibacterials derived from bacteria, numbering about 30 at the present count, including nisin and bisin may have a better prospect if used in synergy with some of the currently practiced technologies. India should have a strong interest in these bacteriocins because many traditional foods popular in the country may be amenable to preservation using these substances. It is the duty of the Indian food scientists to work in this line for perpetuating many of the popular heritage foods through generations to come.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


It is common knowledge that healthy bees give safe quality honey. The skewed attitude on the part of honey processors to be smug in the feeling that good processing technology can convert even bad quality honey into good products is fraught with dangerous implications. Food industry, managed well, employing qualified food technologists, will never subscribe to the above view and it is a universally accepted truth that only good quality feed material can give high quality end product. When it comes to international trading in processed foods quality and safety can never be compromised and it is only to ensure smooth trade between countries that various safety certification procedures have been evolved. That China, whether with the connivance of the government or without the knowledge of the authorities, happens to be a source of adulterated and contaminated foods, is a fact that cannot be denied outright and "Honey Laundering" is another blot on the credentials of its industry. Look at the way Chinese does this "circus" to hoodwink the world!

"This is a serious issue because China has a monumental problem with its honey industry. A bee epidemic in China several years ago led beekeepers there to use an antibiotic that the U.S. FDA has banned in food and that has been linked to DNA damage in children. And as FSN observes, though China has a state-of-the-art honey processing industry, its beekeeping has not kept up -- resulting, for example, in some Chinese honey being contaminated with lead from the use of improper storage containers. Even worse, Chinese honey brokers have been known to create counterfeit product made of "a mix of sugar water, malt sweeteners, corn or rice syrup, jaggery [a type of unrefined sugar], barley malt sweetener or other additives with a bit of actual honey." A label is slapped on the container and the adulterated honey is shipped through another country -- for the most part, India -- before finally making its way to the US. Much of this came out two years ago during a major government investigation into "honey laundering" (that's when I first heard the term). But the resulting arrests didn't do much to halt the illegal activities. For all of the above reasons, honey from India is already banned in the European Union, and it's supposed to be illegal to import food into the U.S. that's been banned in other countries. However, the FDA response has been muted. A representative told FSN that the agency "would not know about honey that has been banned from other countries," but experts and other federal agencies believe that's because the FDA refuses to look. Indeed, the FDA appears to have adopted the policy the Pentagon just dropped: Don't ask, don't tell. And it's not just outside experts who are alarmed at FDA's lackadaisical approach to honey laundering. FDA is supposed to be working with U.S. Customs officials to crack down on this practice. Yet, according to FSN, Customs investigators claim that the cooperation is more on paper than in practice and that the FDA continues to be the weak link. They say the FDA either doesn't have the resources to properly do the job or is unwilling to commit them. ICE and the border patrol can and do go after the honey launderers by enforcing the anti-dumping and tariff violation laws. But protecting consumers from dangerous honey, identifying it as adulterated and therefore illegal for importation, falls to the FDA. And many of its enforcement colleagues say the food safety agency doesn't see this as a priority"

While the antibiotic tainted Honey was detected in many markets around the world, the recent finding that "artificial" honey made from sugar is being traded raises more concerns and it is a shame that the source of such products has been traced to China. It is understandable that honey producers may have to use antibiotics to treat sick bees to protect their business from ruin but this is a practice not accepted by the world community considering the risks of development of resistance to antibiotics by the humans. But cheating the consumers through corrupt practices like making and selling artificial honey claiming it to be genuine must be condemned with no uncertain terms. This is all the more reprehensible considering that Chinese honey makers or brokers are in nexus with other lumpen elements in about a dozen "decent" countries for marketing their products through them under their country label. It is imperative for countries like the US to stop this charade to protect their citizens from such a fraud, not withstanding its "love" for China!

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Recent food poisoning episode involving ground Turkey meat from one of the largest food companies in the world reflects the risks involved in food business. No excuse is adequate to cover up the laxity on the part of the manufacturer to exercise sufficient diligence in ensuring supply of safe foods to the market and retribution is inevitable in the form economic losses due to product recall and damage suits. This episode raises the critical question whether the current incidence is an accident or the manufacturer is a habitual defaulter. If the past records are any indication, it appears such breach of safety regulations has been going on with hardly any punishment meted out for these violations. In this context consumers taking the culprit to the court is nothing but logical and more such court cases can be expected arising out of the callousness of the industry.

"The family of a 10-month-old Troutdale, Oregon girl filed a lawsuit against Cargill Meat Solutions this week, alleging that the child is one of more than 107 people nationwide who became seriously ill with an antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg infection linked to ground turkey produced by the food giant. The lawsuit was filed in Oregon Federal District Court in Portland by Seattle-based food safety law firm Marler Clark. According to the complaint, the child ate Cargill ground turkey as part of a spaghetti and meatballs dinner her father prepared in early June. By June 10, she had developed severe diarrhea and a very high fever. By June 15, following numerous visits to the doctor, the doctors determined that the antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg had entered the child's bloodstream, and she was rushed to Doerenbecher hospital, where she was treated for seven days. The family's attorney, Bill Marler, says Cargill owes it to the family to take responsibility for its actions. "Since 1993, Cargill has been the source of contaminated meat implicated in at least 10 major outbreaks, 10 deaths, three stillbirths and 366 illnesses," said Marler, who is publisher of Food Safety News. "Considering that these illnesses are likely undercounted by a factor of at least 20, those are significant numbers. What would we say if a car company or some other product manufacturer had the same numbers for an ongoing defect,? Since1993, Cargill -- the largest privately held corporation in the U.S. in terms of revenue -- has been responsible for at least 10 major foodborne illness outbreaks, which resulted in 366 illnesses, 10 deaths, and 3 stillbirths. Public health officials have thus far have attributed 107 illnesses and at least one death to the consumption of ground turkey produced by Cargill. On July 29, the company recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey, the largest Class I meat recall in U.S. history".

One can only admire the environment in a country like the US where judiciary is receptive and responsive to citizens' grievances and taking very little time to dispose of such consumer complaints. In contrast it takes years for getting justice in India and even government initiated food safety violation cases are in limbo because of the "tortoise" like pace of convictions of food criminals. Of course there are critics who feel that trial lawyers in the US are "over eager" to "capture" clients for getting compensation of which they share as much as 50% in many cases! Probably India should have special "Legal Food Courts" with mandate to decide on each case of violation with a reasonable time frame, say 30-60 days. The deterrent quantum of punishment also needs to be enhanced instead of the current puny fines. The so much trumpeted Food Safety Act which took 6 years to materialize from government "cupboard" may be far short of the need at the ground level, assuming it will be implemented with no fear or favor.


Thursday, August 18, 2011


Home scale or cottage scale production of food is very common in most developing countries and these so called micro enterprises are encouraged as they are the best self employed entrepreneurs with innovative ideas and unique skills. Supporting these enterprises is an avowed policy choice in many countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa and such support services must include liberal financial assistance, technological inputs, training facilities and advisory facilities. In contrast larger enterprises are invariably self reliant with respect to the above needs and are better placed in marketing their products. One of the most critical inputs for flowering of micro enterprises is "hand holding" service that will enable them to "wade" through the complex procedural maze and set up the minimum facilities for starting production successfully. The example of a Center that provides the above service comes from one of the counties in the US which is indeed a model for all those countries aspiring to strengthen the foundation of food industry through the so called "unorganized" but important food manufacturing sector.

"Hillsborough County's Small Business Information Center (SBIC) is offering two additional free food industry workshops this month for at-home bakers. The workshops will provide information on proper licensing and permitting for mobile food units, caterers, restaurants, personal chefs and commercial kitchens. The workshops will also provide information on the new Florida Cottage Food Act, which became a state law on July 1 and gives budding chefs the freedom to start a business in their own kitchen without having to obtain expensive special licensing".

In seminars, conferences, workshops, get-together events concerning food industry development, the issue of concrete help to unorganized sector of food industry that include home based units, cottage scale entities etc, is never taken up seriously and there is hardly any impact such events can make on the industrial landscape. In India, for example, there is no clue for a new entrepreneur regarding the pre-requisites for starting a food industry though the District Industry Centers (DICs), so imaginative in concept, was set up more than 4 decades ago. It is another matter that such Centers have become just government offices with old chairs and tables with "babus" manning them! Is it not possible to modernize these DICs by equipping with the necessary wherewithal to escort new entrepreneurs all the way to set up and productionize their dream projects? After all there are only about 800 DICs and making them truly functional and effective with suitable personnel may entail hardly a few million rupees. It is beyond one's comprehension as to why this idea has not endeared to the babus that lord over the Ministry of Food Processing Industry at Delhi! There appears to be a total paralysis that has crippled the government in taking any initiative like this that can give a ray of hope to this unfortunate sector of food industry.


Rural-Urban divide is a universal phenomenon and it is recognized that those living in cities and towns in any part of the world receive more attention from the ruling class. The wide disparity in living standards between the populations in urban and rural areas is also some thing that is a societal fault line which cries for reddressal without much delay. While in India 70% of the population live in the country side under poverty, underdeveloped infrastructure like roads, power and water supply, their urban cousins have a comparatively higher disposable income that can fetch for them many luxuries besides a decent living style. In contrast in countries like the US there are many rural farms cultivating thousands of hectares of land, getting huge government subsidies, enjoying life styles comparable to or better than average urban families. In this euphoria, there is a forgotten entity of family farmers who are slowly disappearing against the might of large scale farms which dominate the landscape. What are the consequences of such a transformation? Here is a take on this issue through the lens of a small American farmer.

"In the past 30 years, since Ronald Reagan took office, the U.S. government has stopped enforcing antitrust laws, while recklessly encouraging an orgy of corporate mergers. During this time, food and agriculture production has become one of the most concentrated sectors in the U.S. economy. General economic theory states that when 4 or less companies control more than 40% of market share that industry is no longer competitive, competitiveness being the lifeblood of capitalism, innovation and democracies. Today just 4 companies control 84% of the beef packing industry, 66% of the pork packing industry and just one company, Monsanto, controls genetically engineered seeds for corn, cotton, soybeans and canola on more than 90% of the acres that are planted with GMO seeds. Such excessive market concentration has given corporations an increased stranglehold on supply, shrinking both profits and markets for family farmers. Since 1952 farmers have seen their share of the food dollar that they receive shrink from 47¢ on every dollar spent on food to barely 20¢".

Are the big fishes holding the American citizens to ransom by concentrating the food production power in their hands? What is the government doing to reverse such a trend? If the political clout enjoyed by these giant monoliths is any indication there does not appear to be any possibility of salvation for the citizens in this country and added to this the drastic reduction in the budget of the food safety guardian agencies by the partisan political dispensation may increase the consumer woes in the coming years. Looking at the situation in India, the scenario provides a sharp contrast and the small family farms, if they can be called so, are too small to be viable and land consolidation into viable farm size is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. Whether the revised FDI policy allowing global retailers into the retail sector which may develop backward linkage with farming, will change the rural landscape is uncertain as of now. Probably rural farms in India can find salvation only if the concept of cooperative farming is introduced in the country, a shining example being the successful cooperative maize farming in Karnataka run by Tibetan immigrants.


GM foods, presented often as biotechnologically developed foods, are shunned by many people on many grounds including their safety but in countries like the US, Canada etc these foods and ingredients based on them have crept into the food plates of the consumers unannounced and unrecognized. The regulatory authorities in these countries, invariably pro-industry, depended very heavily on safety data generated by the genetic food companies while not insisting on mandatory labeling provision. In contrast European Union has been more cautious in dealing with GM foods and even to day no commercial GM food crops have been cleared. The recent Bt Brinjal episode in India brought out the enormous clout the GM food industry enjoys with governments, even the democratic ones and Bt Brinjal would have become a reality but for the hostile reaction from the public articulated all over the country. Now comes the news that Indian Government is on the threshold of enacting a Bill for regulation of Biotechnology Industry and since the government has a majority in the Parliament, it is a question of time before GM crops are cleared by the so called regulatory body mostly managed by "Sarkari" babus like the food safety agency. Here is a take on this controversial issue.

After vocal protests over the commercial introduction of BT-Brinjal in the country over the last few months, activists fighting against Genetically Modified foods in Madhya Pradesh have now called the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) bill an effort to stifle anti-GM voices in the country. The bill, which is likely to be approved by the cabinet next month and tabled for passage in the budget session, will bring about wide ranging changes in the process of regulating the research, transport, import, manufacture and use of GM products in the country. According to activists, the bill serves to override State-specific concerns by making the proposed authority solely responsible for releasing and controlling GMOs throughout the country and envisages only an advisory role for States. According to Section 81 of the Bill, the Act will have an over-riding effect (over other State-level acts). Activists allege that this ignores the constitutional powers that State governments have over their Agriculture & Health.

As per Section 24 of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, FSSAI is supposed to regulate GM foods but once the NBRAI comes into existence, the Section could in all probability be diluted as the latter will be a single regulatory body for all GM-related issues in the country. It is presumed that all aspects regarding crops, food and vaccines may be regulated by the NBRAI except for food-labeling. The proposal for setting up the NBRAI was prepared by the Department of Biotechnology, under the ministry of science & technology in 2008. It was in 2004 that a Task Force on the Application of Agricultural Biotechnology was set up and according to its recommendations, an autonomous, statutory and professionally-led National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority should be set up with distinct wings for dealing separately with one responsible for food and agricultural biotechnology and the other with medical and pharmaceutical biotechnology. The avowed objective of NBRAI is for "generating the necessary public, political, professional and commercial confidence" in the science-based regulatory mechanism in place in the country. There is a sneaking suspicion that GOI wants to bring in GM technology in a big way into the country, probably under American pressure, and NBRAI would only be a fig leaf to cover this agenda. As the anti GM movement in the country is pretty strong, unless the technology is really beneficial to the country, it will be difficult to imagine that transnational companies with large financial stake in GM technology propagation, would be able "to do an America" on India!