Sunday, November 13, 2011


Food safety concerns are growing day by day in every nook and corner of the world and what is surprising is that the seriousness of the crisis is assuming dangerous proportion in most wealthy countries! The fatality numbers due to food poisoning and extent of market recall of foods are also on the increase despite the best safety monitoring infrastructure available in developed countries. Probably a stage is coming when governments will have to throw up their hands and take the stand that ultimate responsibility for food safety lies with the consumer and eternal vigilance is the price one has to pay for safety. China, though not considered a rich country, still has pretensions to be an economic power that will overturn the US from the perch as most powerful country in the world one day and its record in the food safety front is one of the worst in the world. Here is a recent case of tea contamination reported from this country for which responsibility has been placed on the Uni Lever which markets the brand of tea found to contain rare earth metals considered highly injurious to health. Here is a take on this unfortunate episode and its consequences as reported by the Media: 

"Unilever reassured Chinese consumers on Thursday that it had destroyed a batch of Lipton tea bags that were found contaminated with harmful rare earths and sent new samples for safety inspections. In an inspection in July, 19 samples of Lipton Tieguanyin tea bags, produced in January in Anhui province, were found to contain excess amounts of rare earths, which can cause liver and bone damage if accumulated in the body, said Tan Guijun, a doctor at Tianjin First Center Hospital. Many agriculture and food experts accused Unilever of deliberately using the rare earth as a fertilizer and adding it to tea trees to help combat droughts and flooding. Unilever has denied this claim, saying the rare earths came from the soil where its tea grows, according to China Daily. A third party who examined new tea bag samples in September found the amount of rare earths met Chinese government standards. Many multinational brands in China have been wrapped up in food safety scandals recently. Guangdong authorities found that foods sold in local supermarkets, including those at Walmart, were substandard. The supermarket has issued a statement to stress that the problematic foods have been removed.

Generally tea is a product subjected to hot water leaching to get the brew and the extent of solids extracted depends on the water used and the temperature of brewing. In some countries the standards are not rigorous considering that tea is never consumed directly and only the hot water extract has beverage value. It is understandable that most microorganisms are killed during extraction while insoluble contaminants cannot leach into the brew. Even presence iron filings is permitted in tea in some countries because of this reason. It is arguable that rare earths might not be soluble and there fore are not injurious to the consumer. Still there are lot of things not known about these mineral materials and their behavior during food processing. A thorough probe is necessary to reach a finality regarding the source of these contaminants to preclude the possibility that they are part of the insecticides or fertilizers used by the plantations".Unilever, the MNC giant has an obligation to the unsuspecting consumers to explain regarding this vexed issue.  


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