Sunday, July 31, 2011


The E.coli scare in Europe seems to be waking up giant food retailers on the other side of the Atlantic regarding the danger this hitherto considered benign bug can pose to the American consumers. Already facing multiple market recalls of meat products and fresh produce due to dangerous bacterial contamination costing billions of dollars and affecting the very viability of the business, the industry does not want to take any chances on the contingency of a situation similar to that occurred in Europe. Though the existence of six rarer varieties of toxic E.coli was known for a number of years, the regulatory authorities closed their eyes to the potential danger posed by them and did not even bother to develop reliable testing methods for detecting and quantifying their presence in some of the vulnerable foods. Now that the "house is on fire", the urgency of doing some thing is being considered. It is rather sad that the industry is being left with no choice but to take this issue seriously and credit must go to them for implementing voluntary measures for testing all the seven versions of E.coli, considered highly virulent, in some of the most vulnerable products.
"Now, two major American companies,Costco Wholesale and Beef Products Inc., have gotten tired of waiting for regulators to act. They are proceeding with their own plans to protect customers. Last month, Costco, one of the nation's largest food retailers, quietly began requiring its suppliers of bagged produce, including salad greens and mixes, apple slices and baby carrots, to test for a broad range of toxic E.coli. "We know this is where we have to go and there's no reason to wait," said Craig Wilson, the food safety director of Costco. In the last two weeks, he said, most produce suppliers have added a test that can detect the strain from the European outbreak as well. The company also plans to test all of the ground beef sold at its warehouse stores. Costco operates a large ground beef plant in Tracy, Calif., and Mr. Wilson said the plant recently began evaluating testing procedures to detect the broader range of E. coli in the hamburger it makes and the beef trimmings that go into it. As an added step, the company plans to ask suppliers of the trimmings to do their own testing, starting later this summer, he said. Until recently, the produce and beef industries focused E. coli prevention efforts on a single strain of the bacteria, known as O157:H7, which was responsible for scores of outbreaks and recalls. But public health experts have identified six rarer forms, often referred to as the "Big Six," which have increasingly been found to be the cause of illness related to food, including an outbreak in the United States last year traced to tainted romaine lettuce. The devastating outbreak of illness in Europe this spring was caused by yet another rare form of E. coli, O104:H4, which investigators say was spread through tainted sprouts. That strain has not been known to cause illness in this country and it is not on the list of the Big Six, but it was so virulent that it made the food industry take notice. More than 3,900 people were sickened in the German outbreak and at least 42 died, including one American who became ill after traveling to Germany. People infected with E. coli can get bloody diarrhea; severe cases may lead to kidney failure and death. Costco's new testing requirements come as the federal government continues to drag its feet on what to do about the expanding E. coli threat. After four years of study, the United States Department of Agriculture finished drafting rules in January for how the industry should handle the "Big Six" E. coli in ground beef. But the proposal has been stalled within the Office of Management and Budget, which reviews most federal regulations before they are released. Details of the proposal are confidential, but many in the industry expect that the rules would require testing or even make it illegal to sell ground beef that contained the additional strains of toxic E. coli".
It is in the interest of consumers world over that this problem is taken seriously and global efforts are made to evolve agreed protocols to check for these toxic bugs. Is it not amusing that these bugs are selective in their infection sparing most of the developing countries where the hygiene and sanitation conditions leave much to be desired? Or is it because, these bugs cannot survive in an environment, over populated by benign bacterial species that thrive under the tropical conditions which prevail in these countries? Strange it may sound, cleaner the environment, more dangerous is going to be this world! May be, this is an area deserving the attention of microbiologists for unraveling the mystery.


"After almost two decades of "eating" GM foods by the people in the United States, the country is still surviving", seems to be the stand of those who do not find any danger in the wide scale use of this much abhorred technology and want to convert the whole world agriculture into a GM based regime! If this stand is really based on solid science, why is that in entire Europe one can scarcely see any GM versions of common foods on the retail shelves? Not because they are totally banned but due to the law that permits the industry to use them, provided the same is clearly labeled! Why is that the industry is afraid of labeling? Because they are afraid of consumer backlash! No consumer, given a choice, will opt for GM foods and obviously one can imagine the impact of transparent labeling on the bottom line of the industry! Against such a context why is that more than 80% of the foods in the US are GM component based with hardly any murmur from the consumers against this aberration? It could have happened only because of the temerity on the part of the safety agency there in enforcing compulsory labeling of GM foods! Does not this amount to force feeding the population of a nation with foods that they might not consume, given a choice? Probably that is the price American consumer pays for being "admired' as a citizen of the most "powerful" and "wealthy" country in the Universe.

"The Achilles heel of Monsanto and the biotech industry is consumers' right to know. If GE-tainted foods are labeled in supermarkets and natural food stores, a massive rejection of chemical and GMO foods will take place, transforming the marketplace and supercharging the organic and local foods revolution. The biotech industry has been aware of their tremendous vulnerability in the United States ever since Monsanto forced their controversial recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone on the market in February 1994. In the wake of nationwide "Frankenfood" protests and milk dumps, industry made sure that no federal labeling or safety testing would be required. As the biotechnocrats understand full well, mandatory GE food labels will cripple the industry: consumers will not buy gene-altered foods, farmers will not plant them, restaurants and food processors will avoid them, and grocery stores will not sell them. How can we be certain about this? By looking at the experience of the European Union, the largest agricultural market in the world. In the EU there are almost no genetically engineered crops under cultivation or GE consumer food products on supermarket shelves. And why is this? Not because GE crops are automatically banned in Europe. But rather because under EU law, all foods containing genetically engineered ingredients must be labeled".

One need not agree with all the views and opinions expressed by antagonists of GM foods but at least demanding the right of the consumer to know what food is eaten cannot be denied and the American government is as guilty as governments in many totalitarian countries that roughshod over human rights. Look at the dichotomy of policy making under which irradiated foods, proven safe time and again, need to be labeled while controversy-ridden GM foods need not! The awareness march by many organizations of concerned people in October this year from the United Nations Office in New York to the White House, the seat of power in the US, in Washington DC is precisely to focus on this issue. They want to impress upon the President of the country the seriousness of the issue and to reclaim their "right to know" about the presence of GM components in the food they are eating. This can be a defining moment in the history of human rights assertion in a country, claiming to be most democratic in the world.


Friday, July 29, 2011


These are the days when one hears frequently about new initiatives in different parts of the world for food supply with better safety credentials. Local food movement, urban gardening, terrace top gardens, multistory green house gardens, gorilla gardening are all manifestations of the frustration among urban dwellers concerning risks involved in getting their food needs from the established supply chains. The common perception is that the "industrialized" agriculture produces food with chemical residues and microbial contamination with potential for grievously harming the health of the consumers. The organic food industry which accounts for almost 2% of the food business globally is borne out of such apprehensions and no wonder it continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. China, where there have been serious food safety violations during the last one decade, seems to be encouraging a new trend in agriculture that is bound to increase consumption of vegetables in urban households by providing opportunities for the families to raise their own crops through their own efforts. Here is a take on this new urban model which can be relevant in other parts of the world also.

"The garden has lettuce and other fresh vegetables that are grown without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides, Yao said. Her weekly trip to the garden spares her from shopping at local vegetable markets, where Yao fears produce could be tainted with harmful chemicals, as the media has frequently reported on.The excessive use of agricultural chemicals became a grave concern of Yao years ago, when she had intense cravings for cucumbers during her pregnancy, but found that the cucumbers she bought would swell up to unnatural sizes after being stored for just a few days.This prompted Yao to seriously consider growing food by herself, an idea resonated with a group of 20 parents, who in 2010 founded the Safeguard Homeland Green Consumers Association. "It's an association of mothers who joined to find safer food for their children," said Yao, who noted that the membership has grown to 80 this spring. The association made a deal with an eco-farm that uses earthworms to help fertilize the crops. The farm leased out small pieces of land, usually 20 square meters as a share, to every member of the association at the monthly rent of 100 yuan (about $15). Members could either plant vegetables themselves or hire farmers to do the work for 280 yuan for each month. "Now I can finally put my mind at ease, as the vegetables are grown right before my eyes on ecologically fertilized land," said Zhang Lushuang, one of the association's members".

Can this model be applicable in India? Probably not because land near urban townships is too costly for pursuing a low value operation like gardening. Many recent Supreme Court rulings have exposed the role of land in many financial scams and this clearly shows that there is no way such costly land can be used for urban gardening by the city dwellers, even if there are willing participants, to take up vegetable growing. China is able to do it because its governing system allows to use land without any legal encumbrance for purposes considered important from a national perspective. If GOI can evolve policies that will insist on a green belt around each town in future for which land is reserved, there is a possibility of city dwellers taking up gardening as a regular part of their daily routine. It will also call for creation of infrastructure for supply of seeds and other paraphernalia for cultivation, probably by the private sector that will make the gardening activity hassle-free, satisfactory and efficient.



With the advent of plastics, use of sanitary cans took a beating and as a technology for food preservation canning has been relegated to the background. One of the major reasons is the emergence of refrigeration at an affordable cost that can extend the life of many foods and the freezing technology can protect foods for months together with minimum hassle. Still from the food safety angle, canning still remains the safest technology if practiced scientifically. If at all it has to be criticized, the technology can be faulted for literally destroying the texture and flavor of products inside because of the high temperatures deployed for long times, especially in foods valued for their textural quality. The amenability of canning to low scale operation makes it suitable for home scale preservation and probably it is going to come back in this sector with a bang, if trends in some countries are any indication. With advances in material technology, better cans and bottles are available to day and kitchen gadgets that adore many households, canning can be a very simple operation, manageable at the house wife level.

"Almost a lost art, canning has come back in style as more people get into vegetable gardening. The interest in farmers markets and pick-your-own farms also fuels this trend as consumers want to preserve their own food. "Starting two years ago, we saw many more people coming to our classes," said Smith, a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Food Preserver, who teaches canning and other preservation techniques. "We saw attendance double, even triple or more. When we used to get 10 people, now we get 30 or 40 in a class." "The food safety issue and economics; that's driving the interest in canning," she said. "People want to know how to do it themselves." Smith experiments with different ways to keep her crop. Last summer, she tried pressure canning. She also made tomato leather. She's always perfecting her techniques. "I grew up watching my mom do it," Smith said. "I took some food classes in college and bought the 1970s version of the USDA guide. I did a little canning on my own." A dozen years ago, Smith became a Master Food Preserver, passing the rigorous certification needed to earn that title. Since her days as mother's helper, Smith discovered a lot has changed in the approach to processing tomatoes, she said. "Acidity; there's a lot more emphasis on how important that is to food safety," she explained. "Food needs to be processed a lot longer, too. That's why it's important to use up-to-date, reliable recipes."
The Master Food Preservers handle all sorts of fruit and vegetables, but processing tomatoes is always the No. 1 request. "Tomatoes are the biggest canned item," Smith said. "People have an abundance of tomatoes and they wonder: What do I do now?" As an alternative to canning, freezing works well, too, with tomatoes and tomato-based products such as pasta sauce. But, as Smith added, "You only have so much freezer space."

In a country like India tomato "gluts" are very common forcing the growers not even to harvest them because of unremunerative market price. For that matter vegetables and fruits can be easily preserved by house wives when ever there is a price crash and canned product also saves energy as it does not need severe cooking as being done in Indian kitchens. The restaurant sector which face serious problem of scarcity of vegetables during some or the other time in an year can resort to canning to build up reserves for use throughout the year. Of course, if government can modify its fiscal policies to remove taxes on cans and heat proof glass bottles, canning process can be a boon to the consumer as well as to the catering sector. Equipment manufacturers have to come up with innovative designs suitable for home scale sector and house wives will need some minimum training to avoid mishaps in the form of bottulism caused by Clostridium bottulinum bacteria. Similarly food scientists need to bring about minor modifications in the canning process, especially when low acid foods are canned to ensure absolute safety of finished products.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Here is another tiny "monster" raising its ugly head in Europe and after the deadly E.coli infection episode that crippled and killed many in the EU nations, another such outbreak can be devastating to the people in this continent. Campylobacter, which was found to be present in Chicken carcasses processed across Europe, is considered very dangerous to humans and foods infected with it can be fatal to children and others with weak immunity. Surprisingly infection to Chicken was known for quite some time and still no serious attention was paid to this strange sounding bacteria till recently. Probably the fact that chicken meat is never consumed uncooked must have the reason for such a complacency on the part of the industry. What is not considered by the consumers is that chicken meat having surface infection can cause cross contamination to many products some of which are consumed without cooking. Now that this potential threat is highlighted by the scientists, appropriate counter measures are expected to be taken to address the Campylobacter contamination problem in the EU countries.
"The FSAI advised that poultry needs to be cooked thoroughly until the juices run clear and there is no pink meat remaining. Hand washing and disinfection of surfaces are essential after handling and preparing raw poultry and it's important that there is no cross contamination between the products. Handling and preparation of chicken and consumption of under-cooked chicken meat accounts for approximately 30pc of human cases of the infection. "When people are shopping they need to pack raw meat and poultry into a dedicated bag to keep it separate from other foods," Prof Reilly advised. "They should only ever use that bag for raw meat and poultry and should wash and disinfect it regularly. This will prevent harmful bacteria from the outside of poultry and meat packaging from contaminating other foods."
It is scary to know that Campylobacter is four times as dangerous as other well known pathogens like Salmonella and kids are most vulnerable to its attack. The poultry industry has to answer as to how it can continue with such a dangerous manufacturing regime with no consideration for consumer safety. Why the industry should leave to scientists to bring out the potential hazards that can be caused by this highly infectious microorganism, when it fully knows the adverse consequences of a food poisoning incidence on its credibility and viability? It is time for the EU food safety authorities to put in place a mandatory assessment protocol that will ensure that chicken products are adequately sanitized before leaving the processing premises. Considering that such food safety violations are continuing in spite of all the checkmates thought of, ultimate responsibility seems to be falling on the lap of the consumer to protect themselves from "food dangers" like the one posed by Campylobacter bacteria.


That the massive feeding programs which are going in this country for quite some time is a "golden goose" for at least some people like the private manufacturers and the controlling "babudom" , is well known. Why the governments at the center and states close their eyes to such blatant corruption is also known, the main reason being the unholy nexus between the politicians in power aided by the babus and the manufacturers with no conscience regarding the harm they are doing through their devious practices. Under the guise of economic liberalization, governments in almost all states have roped in private manufacturers for supply of nutritious food to beneficiaries under various state sponsored feeding programs, most of them being children. On the other hand they have systematically sidelined their own specially set up organizations, in many cases forcing them to wind up in absence of adequate funds. The consequences are there for every body to see! If an estimate is to be made regarding the looting of public funds through such apparently "noble' schemes, it could run into thousands of crore of rupees! A recent report from Orissa typically exemplify this national malaise.

"The Orissa Vigilance Directorate has submitted a status report in the High Court on its probe into the multi-crore pulses scam, saying pecuniary advantages to the tune of nearly Rs 20 crore were made by government officials by showing undue favours to traders. According to the Directorate, pecuniary advantages to the tune of Rs 19.62 crore were made by certain government officials by showing undue favour to private suppliers and traders in the districts of Balasore, Jajpur, Ganjam, Mayurbhanj and Deogarh. As a result, poor and substandard quality of pulses were supplied during implementation of feeding schemes in 2009-10 and 2010-11, said the report submitted yesterday. School students, children, pregnant and nursing mothers coming under midday meal (MDM), supplementary nutrition programme (SNP) and emergency food programme (EFP) in these districts were provided with mould-grown and substandard pulses, it said. The report further said that at least one criminal case each was registered in all these districts in which a total of 34 accused persons were arrested ever since the vigilance registered cases over the scam earlier this year. "All the arrested persons were, however, released on bail as per orders of the High Court, the report said. The investigating officers have also examined at least 87 witnesses and seized a total of 152 documents from all the five districts, the report said, adding further investigation in the cases are on. Detailing the findings from each of these districts, the report said samples collected from different feeding centres were sent for laboratory tests to Bhubaneswar-based State Drugs Management Unit. "In most of the samples, the analytical reports said the pulses did not confirm to the prescribed standard and were highly infected and of poor quality due to presence of insects in it," the report said. The irregularities in supply of pulses was brought to the notice of vigilance sleuths by Bari MLA Debashis Naik last year. The then Women and Child Development minister Pramila Mallick resigned over the scam, the state government took action against three district (Deogarh, Mayurbhanj and Balasore) collectors".

Is it not a sorry state of affairs in this country that despite tons of evidence regarding the corruption being indulged in by "the high and the mighty", these criminals roam around the country in style with least impunity, regret and remorse? They can be rightly called the "Merchants of Death", as these unsafe foods can cause health damage and eventual mortality in the long run. Will the curse and desperation of millions of kids, who are deprived of their legitimate share of food provided from public funds, ever spare these culprits in the long run? May be the citizens in this country are no where to go except the God!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


It is well known that kids, given a choice, invariably do not like to eat vegetables, whether they are in India or the US while governments world over make conscious efforts to encourage vegetable consumption at least to the minimum level recommended by nutritional experts. Vegetables are considered protective foods because they are rich sources of minerals, vitamins and health promoting phytochemicals. Without getting into the controversial issue as to how this vegetable "shunning" habit is formed, for which there are many reasons, the need to change the kids' diet composition is universally recognized. If willingly this cannot be accomplished, there has to be alternate strategies to protect their health. Blaming the industry solely for the current situation where kids are hooked on to calorie rich, high fat and high sugar foods, is not a solution as parents and the school system also have to bear part of the responsibility. The latest move by some members of the US food industry to increase the content of vegetables in their processed food products is a welcome move in the long run. Though they are being criticized for not being transparent, the end probably will justify the means!

"Don't tell the kids! Kraft Foods is the latest large food manufacturer to try hiding additional veggies in packaged foods, an effort to ride a renewed interest in healthy eating to fatter profits. It's a slowly growing trend, and it's one that is dividing food industry experts. In June, Wal-Mart and Target stores started stocking Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner Veggie Pasta across the country, alongside boxes of the traditional recipe and other alternative versions, including organic and whole grain. Every neon-orange cup serving of the new recipe packs a half-serving of cauliflower. Kraft joins brands such as ConAgra Foods' Chef Boyardee, which includes enough tomato in some of its canned pasta to claim half a cup of vegetables per serving, and Unilever's Ragu pasta sauces, which says it has two servings of veggies for every half cup of sauce. "We know moms are always looking to please their kids and wanting to not make meals a big ordeal, insofar as being able to get them to eat their food," said Alberto Huerta, who oversees the Kraft Macaroni & Cheese brand at Kraft. "Mom is looking for ways to sneak veggies into her kids' diet."In the Kraft product, the company freeze-dries cauliflower and pulverizes it into a powder, then uses that powder to replace some of the flour in the pasta".

Strict interpretation of the food law might not condone such a practice because of the legal provision, mandating the manufacturers to declare each and very ingredient in the packed food to be listed in the order of their concentration. If there is indeed a legal hitch, the food authorities must change the law to encourage more manufacturers to adopt such a practice. As long as the vegetables incorporated are edible, there should not be any objection and if there has to be a monitoring need a provision to just inform the regulatory authorities will meet with that requirement.


Did anyone forget about the E.coli tragedy that happened in Europe recently? Probably it may be difficult to remove the images of misery and trauma experienced by those who had the misfortune to consume salads supposed to be healthy! It was expected that with powerful enforcement machinery at its disposal the EU would not spare any effort to get to the "bottom" of this incidence to "pin point the culprit" and sure enough they found one in some Fenugreek seeds supposed to have been imported from Egypt, used for sprouting by the manufacturer in Germany. Look at the trail which was unraveled which highlights, if true, the imponderable dangers inherent in international import-export business.
Wired magazine reported the first wave of cases, in Germany in May, arose from a firm that grew and sold sprouts at wholesale. The sprouts from that farm would subsequently be linked to 41 separate clusters of cases; all of them could be traced back to that facility's sprouts, re-sold as a produce item somewhere in Europe. A second wave, in "France in June, initially confounded investigators. Out of those 16 cases, 11 had attended the same event. They did eat sprouts there — but not sprouts from the German farm. Instead, the sprouts had been grown by the event's catering firm, from seeds the company had bought at an everyday garden center. That shifted the focus from the German farm's practices to the seeds that both the farm and the caterer used. The German farm sold two blends of grown sprouts, spicy (grown from fenugreek and radish seeds and black and brown lentils) and mild (fenugreek and alfalfa seeds, adzuki beans and lentils). The French caterer had used three seed types: fenugreek, mustard and rocket (or roquette; what Americans call arugula). The only type in common with both companies and all the mixtures was fenugreek. That discovery sent EU investigators in pursuit of fenugreek seeds back down the European food chain, in a rapid-fire search that deployed personnel from eight countries' food agencies as well as the ECDC, World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. They drafted a detailed 4-page questionnaire that fed data into Excel spreadsheets and a relational database. They crunched (and crunched and crunched) the numbers, and this is what emerged: All of the seeds came from a single shipment that left a port in Egypt almost 2 years earlier, on Nov. 24, 2009. The seeds took a tortuous path. That initial shipment — which was immense, 15,000 kg (33,000 lbs) — was containerized at the port of Damietta in Egypt, shipped by boat to Antwerp in Belgium, went by barge to Rotterdam in the Netherlands where it passed customs, and then was trucked to Germany. There, an importer broke up the shipment: 10,500 kg to a single German distributor; 3,550 kg to nine other German companies; 375 kg to a Spanish company; 250 kg to an Austrian distributor that sold the entire lot to a single Austrian company; and 400 kg to a company in England".
Will there be any effort on the part of the global community to bring in some sanity in the present system? It is time to put in place an easier and more reliable "traceability" protocol that can trace the contaminated foods or ingredients to the source in a matter of few hours rather than weeks and months as it happened in the present case? One always wonders the Egyptian Fenugreek has become a scapegoat while sparing the local manufacturer all the blues! There is even a scientific theory floated to explain how the "indicted" bug got attached to the seed coat with "firm" bonding capable of withstanding the rigors of the shipment, storage and multiple stage handling conditions! If such an attitude to blame developing countries for every food poisoning episode in the world, what will happen to the concept of a seamless "world trading system" with no barriers? WTO must mull over this important issue without any further delay.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


It is very fashionable these days to talk about "carbon foot prints" of consumer products which is an indication of the extent of pollution to the environment caused by the process of manufacturing and distributing the product but very little is happening at the ground level to cut down CO2 emission through "green" processes with minimum pollution. At global level every country wants to reduce emission of green house gases that contribute to warming of weather and reduce the impact of its attendant consequences. While those with high living standards depend heavily on fossil fuel sources to maintain their comfort level, countries aspiring to climb up the ladder of development have few options but to depend on these very non-renewable energy sources! Against such a bewildering scenario, Australia deserves to be congratulated in mustering the necessary political will to come up with a carbon tax regime that will compel major polluters in the industry and business conglomerates to try to reduce CO2 emission. The proposal by the Government of Australia to provide financial support to help them reduce pollution is also praise worthy.
"The average cost of living will rise about ten dollars a week in a carbon priced economy and weekly grocery bills are expected to rise by 80 cents a week in the first year of the new tax. However Treasury' estimates that while food prices will rise nominally has food manufacturers questioning the accuracy of the Government's projections. Under the Government's carbon tax package, the food industry will receive $150 million over six years to assist industry to become more energy efficient as part of as part of the Clean Technology Food and Foundries Investment Program. The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) chief executive Kate Carnell welcomed the assistance package but stressed that the $150 million may not be enough. "We are particularly pleased the Government acknowledged this amount of money may not be enough and indicated if it's expended, industry will be able access extra funding," Ms Carnell said.Carnell said AFGC lobbied the Government to increase the $150 million package that was also part of the CPRS, as we believed it would not be sufficient for a $102 billion industry, which is already investing heavily in technology to reduce environmental impacts.Under this program, funding will be provided on a co-investment basis, with industry contributing three dollars for every dollar from Government. "This could make it difficult for smaller manufacturers as the cost of becoming more energy efficient are often very high." "At the end of the day, there will still be price increases right across the supply chain and this will impact on the competitiveness of industry," Carnell said. According to chief executive of the Australian National Retailers Association, Margy Osmond who spoke with ABC'S AM, any price rises in the food retail space is more likely to be the product of what is happening with the manufacturers of the food products. Carnell said the cost increase will predominantly result from the high price of power. "The Government carbon tax will increase the cost of Australian manufactured goods – but will not affect imports, which are already cheaper due to the high Australian dollar," Carnell said".
The area of renewable energy is receiving world wide attention and enormous investments have been made to tap the most abundant natural energy source, the Sun. To day countries like the US, China, India and Europe are in the forefront in generating huge quantum of solar energy, though it is still a fraction of their total energy requirement. Economic incentives used to be provided liberally and if they are continued or enhanced the growth of renewable energy industry can be very high. There are many other renewable sources of energy like wind mills, hydroelectric power, ocean waves, geothermal energy etc which also can supplement the energy pool in the world if exploited efficiently. The example shown by Australia must be a lesson for other wavering nations to be strict on polluters and stingy in using fossil fuels to help this world survive from the impending catastrophe posed by global warming. Paying a little more for material comforts is a small price to pay for the longevity of this planet.


If consumer is given a chance to wish for any thing that is related to food safety, most probably that wish could be to equip one with the capacity to see the bacteria that poses danger to the food! A recent development in Europe where a group of scientists is reported to have developed a technique to see bacteria on meat carcasses, comes very near to the above consumer wish. Unfortunately the visibility is not with naked eyes but using UV scanner and the technique is suitable only for poultry meat processors with integrated farming and slaughter facilities. Success of such scanning is contingent on administering a special feed to the birds just before slaughter containing a natural additive which helps to highlight the bacteria on the carcass with a glow easily visible under a UV scanner.
Scientists will today unveil a new weapon in the battle against food poisoning, which could also cut the thousands of tonnes of meat thrown away by supermarkets. The Aberystwyth University experts believe the new system which can highlight millions of tiny bacteria invisible to the human eye could revolutionize food safety and Wales' £10m-a-year poultry industry. Developed at the university's Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS), it aims to use a natural additive to poultry feed to make any contamination in chicken carcasses glow a bright ultra-violet fluorescent color. Dr Michael Lee, from IBERS, said the aim was to create a gold standard system in Wales for screening carcasses at abattoirs and to develop commercial solutions to benefit Wales' food industry.
As the development is still in its early stage, potential seems to be there for evolving a reliable tool to fight meat contamination during processing and before releasing to the market. Whether it will reduce the number of market recalls depend on its reliability against some of the worst food pathogens encountered by the poultry industry. What is not clear from the bare details provided by the innovators is regarding the safety of the additive used and how long the glow will last before the product is packed. It is also not clear whether consumers at the retail market level would be able to assess their purchase under the scanner provided by the retailer before buying. Standards need to be evolved regarding the number of such glowing "hot spots" that can be safe for release into the market. Such critical questions are required to be answered if the laboratory findings have to be become an industry reality.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Restaurants provide tasty foods and an opportunity to "eat out' providing relief to the families stressed out by the modern way of life. With very little time at their disposal due to the pressure of professional work, few families can afford to invest their precious time in the kitchen and eating out has become a way of life in many countries leading to explosive growth of the catering sector. Though it offers convenience, what is debatable is the quality of preparations served in most of the restaurants, especially from the health angle. Taste being the supreme "ingredient" of a product in an eatery, customers invariably have the tendency to binge on the foods forgetting the consequences of over eating. Besides the nutritional aspect of restaurant foods is never a consideration for both the caterer as well as the customer who patronize such joints. This is where the government steps in to regulate the industry in such a manner that necessary nutrition information about the products offered by them is provided to the customers, anticipating that such information will restrain them from indulging in foods not considered healthy. New menu labeling proposal that is sought to be made mandatory in the US has come in for some sharp criticism from the hotel industry and there may be some justification in viewing this proposal with serious concern..
"Our members strongly supported adoption of a national menu labeling law, and we look forward to the orderly implementation of these requirements," said NCCR Vice President Scott Vinson. "However, we have grave concerns regarding certain of the FDA's proposed interpretations of the legislation Congress passed and the President signed into law. We hope the FDA will carefully consider our comments and adjust the final regulations to be consistent with the statute." The National Council of Chain Restaurants has filed comments responding to menu labeling regulations proposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), welcoming the proposal but asking for flexibility that would recognize differences between the restaurant industry and other foodservice sectors. In addition, the NCCR asked that the FDA modify its initial proposal to ensure a smooth program rollout to the diverse array of chain restaurant concepts and similar retail food establishments. According to the NCCR, the FDA's final regulations should incorporate a flexible approach in several key areas so that restaurants and other covered retailers are not burdened with unnecessary expenses and complexities, and consumers are provided information in ways that make sense and are easy to understand.In one example cited by NCCR in its 53 pages of comments, the FDA proposal includes an enforcement mechanism intended for the packaged food industry rather than the chain restaurant industry where food is prepared by hand and not machines. NCCR contends that the standard would be impossible for chain restaurants to comply with and would expose the industry's thousands of small business franchisees to massive legal liability.

A most important point that needs consideration is whether products made by different chefs will have same nutrient composition and if not how can the government expect each eatery to analyze its products to generate such information. Also of concern is whether the same preparation will have same composition every day and whether samples will have to be tested every day. The cost aspect in implementing this policy may become an important constraint with very few large restaurants being able to adopt the system. In stead of forcing the industry to strictly adhere to the law, a flexible regime would be more appropriate. Similarly wide latitude should be given in declaring the composition with variations allowed as much as 10-15% of the standard values shown on the label. Whether the customers will care for such information or the policy will have any impact on their health, is another matter, if the effect of labeling on packed foods in vogue for decades on the health of American consumers is any thing to go by!.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


From time immemorial, chemicals have been in use for preserving foods for long time. Sugar and salt are the most ancient chemical substances used in food preparations for preventing bacterial spoilage while vinegar became an accepted preservative later. Emergence of synthetic chemicals like sulphites, chlorine, sorbic acid, propionic acid, paraben, medium chain fatty acids etc provided the industry with more options for deploying in different food products without imparting any odor of their own. Based on the antimicrobial properties of some of these chemicals, active packaging systems are gaining popularity with the industry. At present most applications of active antimicrobial packing are more visible for culture media preservation. But for packing bread or cheese active antimicrobial packaging materials are available based on LDPE and sorbates. Here is a take on this emerging area of food packaging.

"When antimicrobial agents are incorporated into a polymer, the material limits or prevents microbial growth. This application could be used for foods effectively, not only in the form of films but also as containers and utensils. Food packaging materials may obtain antimicrobial activity by common antimicrobial substances, radiation, or gas emission/flushing. Radiation methods may include using radioactive materials, laser-excited materials, UV-exposed films, or far-infrared-emitting ceramic powders. However, irradiation sterilization of food packaging materials is not yet permitted by the Food and Drug Administration. Gas emission/flushing controls mold growth. For examples, berries and grapes are stored in produce boxes, palletized and stretch wrapped, then flushed with sulfite to prevent fungal
It is easy to use these types of bulk gas flushing and controlled/modified-atmosphere technologies. However, there is no commercial material which contains or releases sterilizing gases such as sulfite. Sachet systems have been used to control the gas One of the earliest attempts in using packaging material as a protective medium to prevent microbiological spoilage is sorbate or propionate coated wrapping materials for fresh bread which is susceptible to fungal attack within 2-3 days of storage".

"Active antimicrobial packaging could have potential for extending the shelf life of packaged foods. There is therefore significant interest in finding organic or inorganic antimicrobial compounds for use in active polymeric packaging suitable for foodstuffs. Silver nanoparticles (AgNPs) have antibacterial properties and are widely used in biomedical, food packaging and water treatment applications. The antibacterial activity is mainly related to the strong inhibitory and bactericidal effects of silver ions and to its interaction with sulfur-containing proteins found in respiratory enzymes of bacterial cells. AgNPs bind to the bacterial cell wall and membrane, inhibiting the respiratory process and cell division, causing cell death. They have shown growth inhibition of various pathogens including Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Escherichia coli. The antibacterial effectiveness of polymeric nano composites strongly depends on the hydrophilic nature of the polymeric matrix and on boundary conditions, such as pH and ionic strength of the release solution. The use of silver in highly filled systems is a viable approach for avoiding direct contact with food and thus meeting EU safety regulations for the presence of silver ions in food matrices. Inorganic phyllosilicate clays have been used as a support for AgNPs to produce a new class of antimicrobial systems with improved stability and release kinetics".

Silver nano particle embedded plastics will be a hit with the industry, if it works as claimed. There are 3 active packaging construction models based on different mechanisms like release ( for gases), absorption the ones based on release mechanism can be effective only for liquid medium and immobilization incorporating chemical preservatives. obviously Silver nano particle based anti microbial plastics will have to constructed on the immobilization technique. How far these packing materials can be depended upon for 100 % reliability is not known. Probably the current level of development may not result in ready availability of commercial products to the user industries in the immediate future. Besides the controversy regarding the safety of nano technology needs to be resolved satisfactorily for the consumer to willingly accept such packaged foods


Saturday, July 23, 2011


Love for Desi foods does not ebb for Indians in foreign countries in spite of their stay in there for years together and this had spawned thousands of Indian restaurants in many parts of the world where immigrant population from India have settled down. While Chinese foods happen to be most frequently patronized by non-Chinese population, Indian foods closely follow them in popularity. What prevents Indian restaurants from becoming more popular is the scant attention paid to the cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation by the owners, most of them not highly educated. Besides the ambiance of the eating set up plays an important role in attracting local customers and very little attention is paid to this aspect by most ethnic restaurants abroad. Lately things seem to be changing, albeit slowly but definitely with young, modern, IT- savy, management trained, catering qualified entrepreneurs entering this field providing an image make over to Indian foods. Here is an expose on the subject by an accomplished entrepreneur of Indian origin who tasted success against all odds in promoting ethnic foods in the UK.

"So my question is this: why do so many owners of Indian restaurants turn a unique culinary heritage into a bastardized abomination? I believe there are several contributory factors. These include using low-quality ingredients, employing staff with low skill levels and staying open nearly all night for customers who have consumed far too much alcohol. It is no wonder that the public shows no respect for the cuisine. I blame those involved in the restaurant industry. I know what I am talking about, too, because I am self-taught and have become chef and director of a great restaurant against considerable odds. There's no denying the racism I and others have had to fight. I suffered from regular bullying in both schools I attended, which is why I left, barely educated, at 16, much to my parents' displeasure".

There is a point in the statement above and that is about the attitude on the part of most of the owners of Indian eateries regarding the foods they serve, a cocktail of preparations which looks alike, tastes alike and provide low level of sensory satisfaction. Probably they consider changing the recipe or appearance of commonly known Indian preparations too risky for the business as they are not sure about customer reaction to changes. It is forgotten that Indian food preparations are so versatile that they are amenable to thousand variations with varying taste profiles. All that is required is imagination and willingness to try out and take reasonable risk!


Friday, July 22, 2011


It is rare any one in India speaks on R & D in the food field as this area is the most neglected one and to hear some one, especially with right credentials talk about is indeed welcome. Head of the S & T Department of GOI, a technocrat of some standing, recently stated that in order to make any meaningful impact private and public institutions must join hands pooling their resources and investing them in an optimal way. Probably the pitiable status of food research in the country must have prompted him to make such a statement. What is missing in his expose is how such a symbiosis can be achieved at the ground level with industry and the scientific community not trusting each other for various reasons. In contrast the discourse by the Babu from the MoFP is, as usual, is an exercise in verbosity meaning nothing and no amount of sermonizing can bring about desired results unless there is a commitment, focus and vision. Here is a take on the subject.

"A group of government and private institutions should join hands to provide research and development inputs to food processing enterprises as most firms in the sector don't have the capacity to invest in R&D activities, senior officials said Wednesday. "The bulk of the food processing units in the country do not have the capacity and the funds to undertake R&D activity. It is, therefore, important to create a system for absorption of technologies through models that are most suited to these enterprises," T. Ramasami, secretary in the ministry of science and technology, said at an event organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry here. He said a group of institutions should form a consortium to undertake research and development activities in the food processing industry. "A group of institutions can come together through the public private partnership (PPP) model to provide R&D inputs to food processing enterprises," Ramasami said. He said research and development could bring about a 10-15 percent increase in value addition in agri-produce. A huge amount of agricultural produce is wasted every year in India due to lack of proper processing facilities. Wastage of perishable food products due to low level of processing is estimated at Rs.30,000 crore a year. The average processing level in India is a mere 10 percent of the total agri-produce, resulting in significant quality deterioration and wastage in the supply chain. Value addition of the total agri-produce is just 20 percent and India's share in global trade in processed food is a negligible 1.5 percent. Ashok Sinha, secretary in the ministry of food processing industries, said his ministry was preparing a "master plan" for the development of the sector. The ministry will soon submit its plan to the Planning Commission for its consideration. Sinha said apart from the low level of R&D, the food processing sector was also facing other challenges, including the issues of aggregation and quality of raw materials".

Is it not a tragedy that in spite of plenty of funds floating around in the country, there is a marked leadership vacuum for zeroing in on relevant and useful research areas? The bare cup board of accomplishments speaks for itself. Pedestrian quality of research activities in multitude of universities and half a dozen government-owned institutions does not make much of a sense as far as the common man of this country is concerned. As for the industry, large scale players look after themselves vis-a-vis their technical and technological needs, it is the micro enterprises and the small scale sector which are left in the lurch for want of technical help to manufacture quality foods with assured safety. Will the consortium approach overcome this lacunae in the present system? Still it is worth debating on this option to evolve a workable solution for the inadequacy of R & D in the country.