Thursday, September 29, 2011


It is a common knowledge that overuse of antibiotics can be harmful to the human beings and if penicillin the earliest discovered antibiotic is more or less useless to day, it is attributed to development of resistance by bacteria to its destructive potential through adaptation over a long period. Of course to day there are many so called broad spectrum antibiotics discovered during the last five decades with much more "fire power" than Penicillin and the need to evolve more of such drugs is necessitated by emergence through mutation strain variants that can adapt to many antibiotics in common use. Use of antibiotics by the meat and poultry industry in the US and other industrially advanced countries is frowned upon by consumer activists as well as pathologists because of the potential for many of the meat pathogens to develop resistance against these antibiotics through continuous use. Another aspect of this practice is the question regarding the necessity to use any antibiotics by the industry if adequate precautions are taken to ensure high degree of sanitation and hygiene during handling. The recent argument by the industry questioning the scientific basis of antibiotic resistance is unfortunate and flies against truth.

"Can you can stuff farm animals together by the thousands and dose them daily with antibiotics, without creating resistant pathogens that affect humans? Yes, of course you can, insists the meat industry. "Not only is there no scientific study linking antibiotic use in food animals to antibiotic resistance in humans, as the US pork industry has continually pointed out, but there isn't even adequate data to conduct a study," the National Pork Producers Council declared in a statement last week. According to the Pork Producers, a recent report from the Government Accounting Office confirms their view. But as Helena Bottemiller in Food Safety News and Tom Laskway on Gristshow, what the GAO is really saying is that regulators like the USDA meat-inspection service have done a lousy job of collecting data on factory-farm antibiotic use. The report states the case bluntly, right in the opening paragraph: HHS [Health and Human Services] and USDA have collected some data on antibiotic use in food animals and on resistant bacteria in animals and retail meat. However, these data lack crucial details necessary to examine trends and understand the relationship between use and resistance. … Without detailed use data and representative resistance data, agencies cannot examine trends and understand the relationship between use and resistance. So the GAO is chastising the oversight agencies for failing to collect good data; and the industry is pretending that the lack of good data implies the lack of an underlying problem. It would be funny if real people weren't dying from what the FDA calls "treatment failure" after being infected with pathogens that antibiotics would normally wipe out. Meanwhile, the GAO makes clear that factory farm antibiotic abuse does pose a threat to public health. The report states it in plain English: Unsanitary conditions at slaughter plants and unsafe food handling practices could allow these bacteria to survive on meat products and reach a consumer. Resistant bacteria may also spread to fruits, vegetables, and fish products through soil, well water, and water runoff contaminated by fecal matter from animals harboring these bacteria. If the bacteria are disease-causing, the consumer may develop an infection that is resistant to antibiotics. While US regulators dither and the meat industry treats their incompetence as vindication, a team of Danish, Australian, and Canadian researchers have brought forth damning evidence on the link between factory farming and resistance. For a study just published in Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, the team isolated strains of antibiotic-resistant E. coli found in humans and compared them with resistant strains found in pigs, poultry, and cattle. The result: Resistance in E. coli isolates from food animals (especially poultry and pigs) was highly correlated with resistance in isolates from humans. This supports the hypothesis that a large proportion of resistant E. coli isolates causing blood stream infections in people may be derived from food sources".

One of the critical issues is whether there is any need at all for using antibiotics by the industry when good manufacturing practices are observed. The suspicion that lurks behind such practices is that the industry wants to camouflage the bad quality of its products and sell low quality meat at high prices. How far this argument is true remains to be ascertained by the monitoring agencies of the governments concerned. There is some evidence to show that use of antibiotics is resorted to for increasing the profits of the industry because antibiotics loaded feeds are known to accelerate growth of poultry birds and increase the yield of meat. What ever be the reason, consumers cannot accept such large scale use of life saving drugs like antibiotics every day putting their lives in danger. It is shocking to realize that more than 80% of antibiotics consumed in the US is used up by the meat industry which goes to show the extent of danger posed by this bad industry practice.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Many people vouchsafe for the high taste notes of street served foods but it is difficult for safety conscious individuals to accept them easily. The reasons are not far to seek. The quality and safety of water used for preparing the food and cleaning the plates and utensils always worry hygiene sensitive people though there may be a few road side eateries taking some elementary precaution to use good water. These days one can even see some vendors using bulk bottled water, at least for drinking by the customers. Added to this absence of provision for waste water disposal, unhygienic and polluted environment, uncomfortable seating arrangement etc can put off many people. From time to time some of these issues have been addressed though most street vendors continue to do what they were doing for years without realizing the risk they pose to their customers. Singapore's unique Hawker Center program, thought about decades ago and established through out the city Republic is a model concept worth emulating by other countries having thousands of street vendors hawking unsafe foods across the length and breadth of the region.

According to a recent report there are about 112 Hawker Centers in Singapore managed by the government agency which has the responsibility to maintain the facilities to ensure safety to the customers who flock such places. While most of them attract plenty of customers who even have to queue up for their "fill", some does not attract sufficient number of clients threatening their very viability. Since heavy investments have been made by the State and the rents are mostly subsidized because of the rehabilitation tag this program carries with it, Government is in a dilemma regarding their future. The clamor for opening more Hawker Centers is growing as the population is expanding and new dwelling settlements have been established, away from the existing Centers. Since the last Center was opened in 1981, it is almost 3 decades after which the possibility of setting up new centers is under consideration.

Though the Hawker Center program was completed in 1981, taking into consideration advances in knowledge and technology Singapore government did undertake an upgradation project in 2001 to modernize some of them providing more comforts and facilities to the customers. New Centers, if going to be taken up, can be expected to be more savvy as the country is one of the fastest technology assimilators in Asia. Why Singaporeans prefer such Centers to other known eating places is attributed to the atmosphere provided inside the Hawker Centers offering better opportunity for social interaction irrespective of economic status. In contrast to food plazas and food courts Hawker Centers are known to be more spacious, well ventilated and better furnished besides having fabulous choice of foods. Another big question is why the erstwhile road side vendors are willingly shifting their business into such centers? Obviously they find the facilities too attractive besides being much cheaper to operate with minimum maintenance responsibility.

One of the reasons customers flock to street side eateries is that they yearn for authentic traditional ethnic foods which are not available in most established restaurants where "quick to assemble" standard menu is offered. With Hawker Centers offering modern facilities, will the vendors stick to their simple menu or migrate to more sophisticated product regime to include products like Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, sandwiches etc? Though such possibilities cannot be ruled out, ultimately the customers will decide if such changes are acceptable to them. This is especially true when new Centers are opened up and new entrepreneurs not belonging to the original street vending community move in for starting their business. After all the skill inherent in making traditional foods is slowly disappearing and there is no established training program that is capable of reviving this skill and imparting the same to new entrepreneurs.

Why is that Singapore does not consider food truck system that is popular in a country like the US for emulation? Obviously the small size of this nation with limited land availability and high density population cannot afford to clutter its streets with large trucks causing potential traffic jam. Already the country is tightly regulating sale of new cars and many street are designated as toll roads to pre-empt too many cars entering them causing traffic snarls. The Hawker Centers also play its part in decongesting the foot paths which otherwise would have been cluttered with hawkers. India is a country where thousands of such Centers need to be put in place in hundreds of towns across the country for the sake of uplifting the lot of poor vendors as well as protecting the health of the population. Is any one listening in Delhi? Unlikely as this is the season for scams of all nature, with little time left for GOI to worry about real governing!



Policies on farm subsidies in a few developed countries are holding up any agreement on evolving universal trade regimes with minimum distortion and such subsidies are supposed to help the domestic farmers to ensure growth of the agriculture sector. It is however known that these subsidies are not reaching the intended beneficiaries viz small farmers and are mostly conferred on a few big farms cultivating thousands of hectares. Added to this it has been brought out recently that such subsidies are harming the health of the consumers by driving the junk food industry offering calorie rich food products at low prices. In contrast nutrient dense foods like fruits and vegetables are ignored making them relatively costlier. A country like the US cannot wish away the above irrefutable fact and must address this issue on a priority basis before it assumes monstrous dimension. Here are the facts brought out recently by a study in that country.

"It's a well known fact that most farm subsidies go to crops, like feed corn, that aren't exactly healthy. They're crops that are easy to grown en masse and in the heartland. But a new study from the US Public Interest Research Group, called "Apples To Twinkies," shows just how unhealthy most subsidized food is. According to the report, the vast majority of produce subsidized by the USDA ends up in junk food. According to the study, a whopping $17 billion of the total $260 billion the government spent subsidizing agriculture went to just four common food additives: corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils. By comparison, the government spent just $261 million subsidizing apples, and far less still supporting fruits and vegetables, like spinach, broccoli and blueberries, that public health experts say encourage better health. To put things in perspective, the PIRG study said that, if the government had given taxpayers the subsidies instead of the farmers, each one would have been given $7.36 to spend on junk food and just 11 cents to spend on apples a year. This is a key factor that makes junk food more expensive than healthy food — and, by extension, that makes many Americans obese. It's possible, though, that the era of huge farm subsidies may be coming to a close. Food Safety News notes that Obama called for a massive cut to farm subsidies for the 2012 budget. The cuts were proposed as a part of his deficit reduction plan — but this new study shows how far subsidy changes could go towards cutting obesity rates as well. Mark Bittman, for his part, has repeatedly called for farm subsidy reform rather than elimination, in the hopes that the government will make it easier for Americans to afford healthy food".

The recent UN meeting on the emerging non-communicable diseases points out clearly that Tobacco, Alcohol and unhealthy processed foods are responsible for most of these diseases reaching crisis proportion and all countries must address this problem urgently without further prevarication. In fact serious suggestions are being made to make the unhealthy foods costlier through imposition of high taxes with a hope such fiscal measures would reduce consumption of these foods significantly. In spite of years of appealing to the food industry to moderate their food processing regime shifting the product mix to healthier ones, the ground reality is that no measurable achievement is still perceptible calling for mandatory action by the governments. Against such a background how can one justify the prevalent farm subsidies with devastating impact on the health of the citizens? The bad politics of farming being followed are causing harm both nationally and globally!


Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Most foods are perishable in nature and therefore need to be protected from many diverse vectors before delivering to the consumer in sound condition. It is known that the rate of deterioration of a food is determined by the storage temperature to a large extent though exposure to air can also be some time critical. Since most food spoilage takes place either due to chemical, biochemical or microbiological action which is again a function of environmental temperature, lower the temperature longer could be the effective life of the product. Refrigerated, frozen and modified atmospheric storage technologies are based on these basic facts. In the modern food industry system, cold chain plays a critical role in delivering perishable products like fresh fruits, vegetables and other high moisture foods in prime condition with minimum deterioration in quality and ensuring absolute safety. World has traveled a lot from the old style cooling using ice blocks to the modern system using sophisticated systems involving most efficient cooling with high degree of control in maintaining the temperature, humidity and storage environment. The progress achieved in a country like the US is phenomenal compared to what is happening in India where least care is taken in handling perishable foods.

"U.S. Foodservice, one of America's leading foodservice distributors, affirms its commitment to food safety and reminds restaurant operators and distributors that temperature management throughout the food distribution process is one of the most effective ways to reduce food-borne illnesses. This announcement comes after recent highly-publicized investigations have proven that maintaining proper temperatures throughout distribution continues to be a major issue in the food industry. "Not everyone with a truck can be a food distributor," said Jorge Hernandez, senior vice president of food safety and quality assurance, U.S. Foodservice. "Maintaining the cold chain is one of the most effective ways to ensure safe, quality food. And not every distributor is the same when it comes to the level of sophisticated temperature-controlled transportation and technology required to ensure food gets safely from point A to point B." U.S. Foodservice uses a variety of thermometers and time-temperature recorders in distribution vehicles to gather data that can be merged with GPS and IT systems to not only regulate temperatures of products in transit, but to also manage the cold chain during loading, unloading and delivering. The company tested these processes with different food products, in various geographies and during all seasons to develop best practices that have been applied across the company's fleet of food transport vehicles. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) will require the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to establish safety standards for food transportation. Until those standards are written, suppliers and distributors are responsible for managing themselves. "At U.S. Foodservice, we take detailed steps to help prevent contamination during transport -- ranging from cold storage in trucks to food safety training for all employees -- and encourage other distributors, regardless of size, to adopt verifiably safe transportation practices under the FSMA," said Hernandez. "While a large portion of the responsibility rests with food distributors, operators should make sure that they buy from distributors with strong food safety programs and then make temperature management a part of their business." The faster products are stored in the freezer or cooler, the less potential for bacteria growth. In fact, any food that requires refrigeration and is left above 41 degrees for more than four hours is at a high risk of causing food-borne illness".

Patriotically speaking India may be the best country for Indians but from scientific angle it is one of the most backward countries in the world when it comes to deployment of modern refrigeration technology. Even to day fish is transported from Karnataka to West Bengal in ice cooled rail wagons while the cold chain facilities are not considered to be reliable. Even in cold stores the temperature and humidity controls are not dependable with some operators willfully switching off the power during night times to save on energy cost! Probably one of the reasons for frozen foods failing to take off in the country may be due to this factor. Opening of the retail sector for FDI may not have much impact in the near future and long term backward integration with production sector needs to be achieved for that to happen. Though Indians can build sophisticated Satellites and Rockets, when it comes to maintenance it is notorious for the negligence indulged in sustaining the achievement. Looking at the remarkable track record of the low temperature engineering credentials of the US refrigeration industry, it is time GOI gives priority in building up cooperation with them to bring about radical improvements in the field. This will serve the consumers as well as the industry admirably well.


Protagonists of Organic foods make some claims which are difficult to be sustained based on science. One such claim is regarding yield of crops from normal soil when organic farming system is deployed. But the latest studies carried out in the US do indicate that yields can be equal to or greater than under traditional agriculture using chemical fertilizers, high levels of water and application of pesticides. This long term study spread over 30 years deserves attention by planners and farmers while deciding about any strategy to evolve sustainable agriculture in the coming years. Here is a report about the significance of this study for the long term future of the planet.

"Rodale Institute today announces the latest results of the Farming Systems Trial, America's longest running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional farming practices. Originally created to study the transition from conventional to organic production, this 30-year study also examined productivity, soil quality, energy and economics. Key findings show:

-- Organic yields match or surpass conventional yields.
-- Organic yields outperform conventional yields in years of drought.
-- Organic farming systems build rather than deplete soil organic matter, making it a more sustainable system.
-- Organic farming uses 45 percent less energy and is more efficient.
-- Conventional agricultural systems produce 40 percent more greenhouse gases.
-- Organic farming systems are more profitable than conventional farming systems.

After 30 years of a rigorous side-by-side comparison, the Rodale Institute confidently concludes that organic methods are improving the quality of our food, the health of our soils and water, and the conditions of our nation's rural areas. Organic agriculture creates more jobs, provides a livable income for farmers, and can restore America's confidence in our farming community and food system. "America's farming techniques affect the health of our families, our communities, and our planet. The Farming Systems Trial shows that organic farming is the healthiest and safest way to feed the world, provide much-needed jobs, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and protect precious natural resources," says Mark "Coach" Smallwood, Executive Director of Rodale Institute. "The Farming Systems Trial clearly documents in a replicated, scientific fashion, that many of the current myths are not true. Organic agriculture does not result in the grower losing money, does not result in lower yields, or more expensive management practices," says Dr. Elaine Ingham, Chief Scientist at Rodale Institute. "The next step forward is to educate growers, whether they are conventional or organic, in the methods used in the Farming Systems Trial to assure equal or better yields through farming practices that do not harm the environment." The trial is slated to continue with a new focus on nutrition and human health. "We have shown that organic can feed the world. Now it is time to take on the matter of feeding the world well," said Smallwood".

One of the significant findings is that unlike the input intensive conventional agriculture, organic system does not destroy the soil health that enables the farmer to continuously use the land for many many years. Also notable is the relatively less carbon emission reported under organic cultivation mode. While it is agreed that farmers are well advised to replace their conventional practices with organic production system, what is not clear is the logistics involved in such switch over. Input materials like organic manure, safe natural crop protectants and cover crops are scarce resources while the actual practical methodology needs to be popularized through training under experienced practitioners. Though the studies have shown that organic food production can ensure increased production there has to be a coordinated effort at global level to put into practice what is already known and achieve the desired results. Like the recent UNO meeting on junk foods, a similar international consultation is called for to take appropriate action and evolve strategy to transform the current farming practices into organic system.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Weight watching and cholesterol reduction are two of the most discussed health issues world over and the multi billion dollar food supplement industry strives on them. While Statin drugs have created a gigantic industry offering hope for millions of people suffering from hypercholestremic symptoms, there are hundreds of other edible food supplements not going through the medicinal route claiming super performance for improving health. One such supplement, if one may call it so, has hit the headline recently with a claim that it is a "bullet' for weight reduction and no one is really sure whether it is really effective at all. African mango, also commonly known as bush mango is spawning a new line of products which is claimed to reduce weight as well as cholesterol dramatically. Here is a report on its emergence as a miracle fruit for those afflicted by obesity and high blood cholesterol levels.

"A short search for African mango tablets reveals hundreds of sales sites in the U.S. and beyond brashly extolling the virtues of the supplement, which costs around $40 per bottle. But is there any truth behind its miraculous claims? Two studies by Judith L Ngondi and colleagues at the University of Yaounde in Cameroon, published in the Journal of Lipids in Health, support the hype, their data apparently showing the seeds to cause significant weight loss and improve blood flat levels. In a 2005 study, the team studied 28 volunteers, comparing weight loss over four weeks between a group who were given a placebo and a group who were given African mango supplements. Taken before meals, three times a day, the study reported that those who took the African mango supplement lost 5.3% of their body weight, while the control group only lost 1.3%. According to Dr IV van Heerden at 'Considerable reductions in total blood cholesterol (39.2 per cent), triglycerides (44.9 per cent) and "bad" LDL cholesterol (45.6 per cent), were obtained in the treatment group. At the same time, "good" HDL cholesterol levels in the group receiving African mango, increased by 46.9 per cent.' A repeated experiment in 2009 used a more highly developed extract from the African mango seed, IGOB131, and studied its effects on 102 individuals over 10 weeks. Dr can Heerden said: 'The treatment group lost more weight, had improved blood fat and glucose values, lower blood pressure, and other markers of the metabolic syndrome (e.g. lower leptin levels)."

Though there is much hype about this fruit, still there does not appear to be adequate evidence either on its efficacy or safety. Of course as a traditional food supplement consumed by folks in Cameroon there can be some leeway in assessing its safety. But it is necessary that large scale clinical trials are carried out to confirm its credentials as an anti-obesity food supplement. Scientific assessment should also bring out, if it is really effective as claimed, regarding the mechanism of its functioning in the body. "Scavenging" the cholesterol from the body is a property associated with almost all dietary fibers and in what way the fiber from this fruit functions differently needs to be elucidated. Also not clear is the role of many other components in the fruit in bringing out the beneficial functions, if at all there is any.


Saturday, September 24, 2011


Sugar, currently under focus for wrong reasons, is again gaining attention in India as the new crushing season is about to start. Though it is often denigrated by nutritionists and health experts, calling it the "white poison" because of its association with some of the human ailments in vogue all over the world. Dental decay caused by sugar is a relatively minor ailment which can be pre-empted by regular dental hygiene practices but more serious disorders like obesity, CVD, Diabetes etc can be controlled only by limiting sugar consumption as far as possible. Politically sugar is a sensitive commodity, especially in India where it is felt that shortages and high prices can rock the government in power due to consumer back lash. One can understand the dilemma of the government which is supposed to lift the sugar controls giving a free hand to the industry to respond to market forces and presently levy sugar under which the industry has to surrender a portion of its production to the government for PDS is just 10%. Under these circumstances is it wiser to allow export of sugar which may have an impact on domestic prices? If GOI can take a bold decision to allow exports, it should have the courage to face some hiccups in the market through rise in prices but in the long run such a policy will be good for the country through decreased consumption and reduced incidences of diseases associated with sugar.

"Sugar output is likely to rise 300,000 tonne in the year starting October to 24.60 million tonne due to higher cane output, food minister K V Thomas said on Wednesday, keeping domestic supplies steady during the festival season beginning late September. "The cane commissioners of 10 producing states met on Tuesday, and based on their assessments, the production figure has been reached," Thomas said. India, the world's second-largest sugar producer, expects to consume close to 22 million tonne in 2011-12, leaving surplus stocks for a second successive year, but the food ministry's output projection is sharply lower than the industry's forecast of 26 million tonne. The lower-than-expected official forecast may hurt the industry's demand for allowing 3 million to 4 million tonne of sugar exports during 2011-12, although domestic supplies are expected to be adequate. The government permitted sugar exports of 1.5 million tonne under the open general license in 2010-11, after two successive years of a shortage, to help mills gain from higher global prices and pay farmers on time for their produce. According to the first advanced estimate released last week, the country's sugarcane production is expected to rise marginally to 342.2 million tonne from 339.2 million tonne a year before. More production in 2011-12 will prevent any irrational surge in domestic sugar prices, which have remained subdued for around five months now, especially during the festival season. Ex-factory sugar prices in Delhi are currently ruling in the range of R2,845 to R2,945 a quintal. Higher output may also enable India to take advantage of a smaller cane crop in Brazil, the world's largest producer and exporter of the sweetener, by exporting some quantities in 2011-12. Earlier this month, Brazil's national secretary of production and agro-energy, Monoel Vicente F. Bertone, had told FE that the country expected its sugar output to fall to 37.07 million tonne in the crop year through March 2012 from 38.17 million tonne a year before. Global consultancy firm Kingsman has said India needs to take advantage of its higher production in 2011-12 and lift government curbs to emerge as a regular exporter in a global market currently dominated by Brazil and Thailand. India allowed sugar exports in 2010-11 after a gap of two years when it faced a shortage, although sugar mills said they lost out on a chance to cash in on soaring global prices in February and March due to the late decision by the government".

World over many countries are taking precautionary measures to protect their population from food related health afflictions through policy interventions and the UNO is scheduled to discuss this issue to arrive at a global consensus regarding use of fiscal measures to make high sugar foods and other unhealthy ones costlier to the consumers. Hopefully such measures may curb consumption significantly. India has an opportunity to demonstrate its resolve to toe such a line by allowing the domestic price of sugar to rise according to market forces which in the long run is likely to benefit the country. A larger and more logical question that will beg for an answer is why should the country encourage cultivation of sugarcane at all or how about diverting the land for production of more critical crops like oil seeds and legumes. In orchestrating such a drastic policy shift government needs foresight and courage of an extraordinary nature. It is doubtful whether the present government has the stomach for such an initiative.


Friday, September 23, 2011


Food safety failures leading to hundreds of cases of food related poisoning episodes all over the world are time and again focusing on the inadequacy of the existing vigilance system. While scientists are continuously improving the methodologies involved in detecting and quantifying food contaminants on a continuous basis, the efforts do not seem to be catching up with the emergence of new dangers from newer vectors. E.coli is a classical example and it is amazing how fast it has metamorphosed into more and more virulent stereotypes causing death and misery to thousands of unwary consumers across the world. One of the critical inputs in managing food safety surveillance is the infrastructure and experience needed to monitor these contaminants in time with sufficient reliability. As the Analytical chemistry and electronic instrumentation interfaced with IT are making tremendous advances, the safety enforcement personnel cannot afford to be left behind and will have to be well versed with them. The global food safety lab being promoted for skill upgrade of surveillance personnel through PPP efforts in the US deserves applause. Here are some details about this latest endeavor in the field of analytical pathology .

"The IFSTL ( ) is the world's only permanent food safety lab that provides hands-on lab training on detection methods and classroom lessons on regulatory standards, educating governments and food exporters so they can ensure food is safe before it reaches the table. This will enable food safety standards to rise globally. Food producers across the globe face an increasing challenge to ensure safe food supplies. As global food trade grows to nearly $1 trillion this year, triple what it was just 20 years ago, food safety regulations and technologies are evolving and consumer demand for safe, high-quality food continues to grow. Governments and food manufacturers around the world have sought the training the IFSTL provides, believing it is essential if we are to meet today's food safety challenge. Said Waters® Executive Vice President Art Caputo: "Waters is committed to improving the availability, quality and consistency of food safety testing capacity. We learned from our customers that there is a real need for help and support in understanding the diverse food safety technologies and standards that exist around the globe. Serving as a bridge between governments and industry, Waters approached the FDA and the university with the solution: a powerful public-private partnership that leverages the best expertise and resources to help build trust, collaboration and ensure the safety of our food." As a U.S.-based global company that delivers analytical solutions for governments and name brand companies in 150 countries, Waters understands the challenges that governments around the world face to ensure safe food supplies. The FDA has publicly identified the need for government and private industry to work together. The IFSTL will provide critical support to helping the FDA and foreign food producers meet requirements, such as the U.S. Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law earlier this year. Said Michael Landa, Director, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, FDA: "FDA looks forward to this opportunity to build global laboratory capacity. The International Food Safety Training laboratory will help to address food safety challenges world-wide through training and technical assistance." U.S. government scientists from FDA and USDA, along with university experts, will lead intensive trainings focused on detecting both chemical and microbiological contaminants, preparing and testing samples according fit-for-purpose methods that allow scientists to validate and use results to make the right decisions about whether food is safe and meets regulations. Trainees can sign up for courses that address specific issue of concern to the U.S. and global communities. The IFSTL will have the ability to teach 200 professionals per year and will be operated by JIFSAN".

Though one of the partners is a "for profit" organization, its strong expertise and experience cannot be belittled and with the fervor and commitment shown so far the project for global training can be expected to make an impact especially in third world countries where the need is felt to be highest. Though FDA regulations and product specifications mostly apply to domestic US situation, the methodologies and analytical equipment cannot be much different. Of course when products are pre-prepared for analysis, interference from the ingredients can be troublesome and assessing many ethnic food samples with complex composition may need some modification of the methodology for which adequate scope for R & D must be available, if the Global label for this unique Lab is to be justified.


Sunday, September 18, 2011


Can India afford to antagonize the World Trade Organization (WTO) and if so what will be the consequences? These are relevant questions in the context of latest salvo from WTO regarding India's faulty export policies. Historically India has been practicing highly protective trade policies with severe restrictions placed on imports and exports. The excise duty regime was used to slap high import duty on imports so that domestic products could compete with them price-wise. Similarly high export subsidies were in place to support inefficient domestic industries to gain a foot hold in the global market. The situation changed dramatically once India became a signatory to WTO regime in the nineteen nineties. Once India is part of the global trading community, there are certain handicaps for continuing with a purely domestic agenda. Government of India (GOI) cannot be blamed entirely for this situation because it has its first obligation to its citizens and others come only after this constitutional responsibility is discharged. It is here GOI is is pulled between its political compulsions and international commitments. It will be interesting to see how GOI is going to resolve this dilemma.

"The World Trade Organisation has slammed India for its protective trade policy on food items that prevents exports at a time when world is facing record food prices. In its review of India's trade and economic policies, the WTO observed that India was one of the highest user of anti-dumping and a frequent user of safeguard measures against imports from other countries. "Trade policy seems to be lacking an overall thrust and is being conducted mostly on a sector or product basis," it said. India uses trade policy to attain short-term goals such as containing inflation, although it aims to provide a stable trade policy environment to reach its long-term goals, the report said. This use of trade policy for short term non-trade-related objectives may detract from the stability sought, as it requires constant fine-tuning of policies to attain these short-term goals. Focusing on two farm products, cotton and onions, the report highlighted how the government changed its policies frequently to meet its domestic needs, restricting, canalising, prohibiting and allowing free exports of the product within a short period. "This has resulted sometimes in actions with an anti-export bias (such as setting minimum export prices or applying export taxes), in contrast with the asserted general goal of seeking export expansion," it said. The country also links the use of import restrictions and licensing, and other non-tariff measures, or NTMs, to domestic policies. For example, NTMs are relaxed when imports are necessary to alleviate inflation or shortages. State trading is also used as a policy tool, to ensure, a "fair" return to farmers, food security, the supply of fertiliser to farmers, and the functioning of domestic support price systems, the report said. Between January 2006 and December 2010, India initiated 209 anti-dumping investigations against 34 trading partners, compared with 176 reported in its last review. On December 31, 2010, 207 anti-dumping measures were in force, compared with 177 on June 30, 2006. Since its last review in 2007, India has also imposed several safeguard measures, the report notes. On the positive side, India's average applied tariff rate declined to 12% in 2010-11, from 15.1% in 2006-07. Commenting on India's FDI policy, the report said that while the economy seems to be more open to FDI as a result of the recent policy changes, even where FDI is allowed up to 100% and under the automatic route, specific conditions or permits apply, which could in some cases be more restrictive than an explicit investment cap".

India being an agriculture oriented country, the performance of farming sector depends on the rains and it is true to say that the Monsoon rains decide the performance of the economy to a large extent. Recent examples regarding onion, sugar and wheat bring out this unenviable situation sharply. One cannot forget how the sky rocketing onion prices literally brought the government to a standstill and same situation repeated itself vis-a-vis sugar and wheat exports. In spite of large quantities of wheat rotting in the open due to the failure of the government to install adequate grain storage facilities in the past, GOI was afraid of exporting the surplus for fear of increase in domestic wheat price once export is cleared. Same is rue with sugar in spite of the fact India is the second largest producer of sugar after Brazil. While it is easy for WTO to "slam" GOI's flip flop policies which have a bearing on world food prices, there is no ready solution to the dilemma of GOI facing the proverbial Hobson's choice! One wonders whether this situation is unique to India or whether other agriculture products exporting countries also face similar difficulties during times of adverse natural conditions affecting the crop yields significantly. WTO ought to come up with a strategy to deal with such extra ordinary situations having bearing on global food prices.



Street foods always had their following in many countries and no matter what steps are taken to discourage people from patronizing these foods, many of them prepared and served under some what indifferent hygienic conditions, the phenomenon is here to stay. It is very difficult to understand the precise reasons why people flock around these mobile eateries though taste and economic factors must be playing a major role. World over the focus has shifted from uprooting these vendors to rehabilitate them through training and better infrastructure. Whether it is in Thailand or in India road side vending plays a crucial role in catering to mostly low income customers while the so called Food Truck business in the US is a recent development being patronized by those requiring fast service with minimum over head cost on their fare. In the last few years the Food Truck business has been growing at a phenomenal rate in the US and naturally the policy makers are in a fix to decide whether this is just a passing fancy or there will be continued growth of this sector in the coming years. Here is a take on this developing scenario.

"It finally dawned on me that the sole reason people repeatedly ask this question is because of the rapid growth of the food truck movement over the last two years. Does rapid growth necessitate a rapid and nearly instantaneous decline in growth? That's really what I think people are asking. It could be more simply stated as "When is this ending?" which, in my opinion, is totally natural as the mind wants to reconcile any new phenomena under some form of restrictive time classification. So, in order to dissect this question, I will attempt to answer a few questions on food trucks and fads in general. First, how long must something stay in popular demand before being considered a fad? My instinct tells me that in order for a thing to pass out of fad-dom, its ascent to the top must last significantly longer than its descent into oblivion. Was MySpace a fad? Silly Bandz? Whether or not Justin Timberlake can revive the social network to its former glory is to be seen, but that's another discussion altogether. Not to say both weren't wildly successful, but they both went away nearly as quickly as they came. Eventually, hype wears off and actual value of a good or service is measured against feasible alternatives. This is truly the core of the fad question, determining the actual value versus the perceived value (layered in by hype.) With food trucks, there is an actual need being fulfilled, the convenience of quality food at an affordable price. This is probably the easiest to identify as a primary reason for frequenting food trucks and carts. The long lines and the overextended hype for certain vendors may antagonize the fad argument, but new restaurants are not immune to the same treatment of popularity at launch. Good luck getting a reservation to the newest restaurant you just read about in The New York Times this Saturday night".

Doubts about the sustainability of food trucks have arisen because new developments always face the fatigue factor due to which consumers develop disinterest over a period of time or the new players take their customers for granted affecting the quality of service. Added to this the bureaucratic procedures and controls increasingly being applied for starting new joints may discourage new entrepreneurs from venturing into this area. There is also the pressure from the established catering industry for restricting expansion of food trucks because of apprehension regarding the economic impact on their traditional type of catering business. If rules and regulations that govern food truck business are tightened further and brought on par with regular catering industry, cost of the service is bound to go up significantly. However involvement of reputed Chefs in starting food truck business can still be an attractive factor that can pull in customers who like novelties in food preparations. The biggest advantage for food trucks is their mobility and use of IT enabled Tweeter service to keep the customers informed about their whereabouts.


Saturday, September 17, 2011


The million dollar question that haunts the consumers and policy makers world over is whether the existing food labeling practices really serve the purpose for which it is intended and if not what further needs to be done. If the label declarations are meant to fulfill the "right to know" obligation by the processing industry, the present label declarations can be considered adequate and nothing more needs to be done. However the ever growing obesity epidemic that is being witnessed in may affluent countries casts a shadow regarding the "effectiveness" of communication between the consumer and the industry. Why do people continue to consume high calorie, high fat, high salt containing foods though their levels in the product are declared on front of the label in a legible manner? Could it be because many consumers, some illiterate and others inattentive, fail to understand the implications of consuming such foods? Probably the advocates promoting the graphic depiction mode to be included in the label have most of such consumers in mind and their case is that color coded safety signals may catch attention more easily than facts and figures conveyed at present. While the UK has promoted such a system, the EU did not want the same to be introduced in its member countries. Australia wants to include the traffic light system as a mandatory practice for food industry in the country though the industry is opposing it tooth and nail. Here is a report about the turmoil that is prevailing in that country on this issue.

"Food industry groups such as the Australian Food and Grocery Council and key players in the sugar industry oppose the traffic light system -- which imposes green, amber and red indicators based on fat, sugar and salt contents in food -- arguing that it could turn consumers away from some natural products such as milk, which contains fat and saturated fat, or fruit juice, which contains natural sugar. The Nationals' conference in Canberra at the weekend passed a resolution against the traffic light system after Queensland senator Ron Boswell produced examples that gave sultanas three green lights and a red light for sugar -- the same as for confectionery. The examples produced by the food and grocery council also show milk scores three amber lights -- for fat, saturated fat and sugar -- and a green light for salt. Coca-Cola scores green lights for fat, saturated fat and salt, and a red light for sugar. While sections of the food industry are opposed to the move, recommended in the January food labelling report by former federal health minister Neal Blewett, consumer group Choice and public health advocates are strongly in favour of it".

It is true that there are incongruities in the system which is based on the levels of sugar, fat, salt, fiber etc as being pointed out by its opponents and these are to be addressed before it can become universally acceptable. How can a soft drink like Coca Cola can get a green light while natural apple juice attracts the red color? If this system can be refined and some of these anomalies are rectified there is no reason why the traffic light system cannot work reasonably well to equip the consumer to make wise choices while going through the retail market isles. One may recall the red or green "dot" sign appearing in the food packets manufactured in India which has high relevance in a country like India where vegetarianism predominates and millions of Indians are grateful to the industry for introducing such a system enabling them to buy more processed foods with confidence. Same way traffic light system can also be a boon to many consumers if properly designed and practiced.


Thursday, September 15, 2011


One of the critical questions that haunt the policy makers all over the world is whether the consumers are able to get the much needed information about the products they are buying from the market and this has led to mandatory front of the pack labeling in food products manufactured and marketed by the industry. When it comes to food labeling, it is supposed to educate the consumer regarding various critical parameters like weight, price, manufacturing date, expiry date, ingredient details, nutritional content and any other information relevant to the products in side the pack. There are two constraints that restrict the real utility of labeling, especially in developing countries. First most consumers are not literate, especially in English making the declaration irrelevant to them. Second the significance of nutritional content declaration is some what blurred by the relative ignorance about their connection to good health. It is here that symbol based labeling becomes helpful. Some countries have already introduced traffic light symbols to distinguish foods which are bad from the health angle from those considered health-friendly. It is felt that such symbol based labels are much more relevant in developing countries and this has been well articulated by the premier nutrition agency, National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) in India recently.

The National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) has proposed changes to labeling regulations for food packaging in India to one that is symbol-based, to ensure the majority of the Indian population understands the product nutrition information communicated. According to NIN scientist Dr G M Subba Rao, while food labelling regulations in India are on par with that of developed countries such as the US and UK, a recent study conducted by NIN with support from WHO-India has revealed that there is still a pattern of poor label comprehension amongst Indian consumers. One of the main reasons is the low level of literacy prevalent in India. However, even amongst the better-educated consumers, the problem of low label comprehension persists due to a lack of nutrition literacy – a problem also present in developed nations. Food labelling is essential in promoting healthy eating habits and increasing consumer nutrition knowledge in a country plagued by an increase in obesity and other related diseases, says Rao. "Food labelling should be considered an important approach to help consumers make healthy food choices by providing nutrition information on the pack," he explains. "We have therefore suggested emphasis be given to exploring and experimenting with symbol-based labelling on food packs so as to provide nutrition education to all sections of the society." Indian labelling regulations were last updated in 2007, when the government decreed that all processed foods have food labelling as part of a national programme promoting cardiovascular health.

If one goes by the experience of wealthy countries where such symbol based labeling is in vogue, consumer indifference to the nutritional value of foods in preference to taste and flavor is making the labeling transparency some what ineffective. How far traffic light system of labeling has helped the western population is still uncertain as it may take some time to assess its impact. Added to this uncertainty the food industry is not playing a fair game by not willingly adopting such progressive measures. It is true as one of the top industry captains said recently that consumers must decide what type of foods they want from the industry and it is the responsibility of the former to lead a healthy life by buying only good foods. But to do this consumer needs the help of the industry to tell which foods are healthy and which ones are unhealthy and symbol based labeling is nothing but a way of communication with the consumer.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Even those consumers not well versed with food and nutrition know that colored fruits are best for their health if consumed in sufficient quantities every day as a part of a balanced diet. Scientists have known for quite some time that these colored fruits have the health protecting phytochemicals coming under the category of Anthocyanins which consist of over three hundred different and distinct chemical entities. These substances are often referred to as miracle chemicals capable of doing wonders in human body. The problem in translating the current knowledge for benefiting consumer health lies in delivering adequate quantities through daily diet as the concentration of Anthocyanins in fruits is not considered sufficient calling for high level of consumption which is not practical. Isolation of Anthocyanins is not difficult but preserving their effectiveness is handicapped by their vulnerability to decompose easily. Now comes the news that some researchers in the US have been able to make stabilized Anthocyanin concentrates that can be shelf stable for a period as long as an year. Litterarily making them into a nutraceutical ingredient for use by the food industry for enhancing the health credentials of a variety of processed food products, the innovation may spur further interest in exploiting such plant substances for the benefit of the humanity.

"From fighting cancer to fighting wrinkles, the uber-healthy compound that gives red and purple fruits and vegetables their brilliant color will hit store shelves within a year as a new ingredient in food products and cosmetics, a lead scientist at the N.C. Research Campus says. Dr. Mary Ann Lila announced Monday in Kannapolis that N.C. State University and Rutgers University scientists have figured out a way to extract and stabilize the natural substance, called anthocyanins, and sell it to food, healthcare and pharmaceutical companies. "The thing that's so exciting about anthocyanins is that they almost seem too good to be true," said Lila, director of N.C. State's Plants for Human Health Institute in Kannapolis. Anthocyanins provide a wide range of health benefits, from preventing chronic disease to improving the appearance of skin. For years, people have consumed cranberry juice to cure urinary tract infections, thanks to the anthocyanins in cranberries. Now, people who don't want the sugar in cranberry juice or don't like the tart taste instead can eat food containing the powdery, all-natural substance, Lila said".

How far this development will help the food industry is a matter of conjecture though the scientists concerned are upbeat about the prospects of their innovation becoming a major breakthrough for the growth of the well being food industry in the coming years. There is still some uncertainties regarding the bioefficacy of these preparations as no long term human trials have been performed to confirm the real impact on the health. Also to be kept in mind is the effect of artifacts that might be formed during the extraction process and the difficulty in getting products consistent in quality from batch to batch. Even if the products get the GRAS status eventually, the industry should not be allowed to make claims with out valid scientific evidence.



India is a country which is better known for its profligacy in making laws with good intention. Unfortunately most of the laws are ineffectively enforced giving encouragement to the citizens to break them with impunity! Is this not making the citizens compulsive law breakers every day? One may recall that there was a big hue and cry regarding the pollution caused to the environment by indiscriminate use of plastics, especially the ultra thin "carry bags" used commonly by the consumers to cart their purchases to their home. After debating for years about imposing a ban on the manufacture and use of such thin bags, a law was promulgated to make it "illegal" to make and use bags from films less than 40 microns. But this law is rarely enforced and thin bags are still in use in many states. The latest law is regarding banning of chewing tobacco by the FSSAI because of its supposed harmful effect on human health. Why it has taken the "Authority" so many years to impose a ban, though the deleterious effect of tobacco was known for decades, is still a mystery. Here is a take on this "development"!

"Chewing tobacco, like gutka and paan masala, has been included among banned "food products" in the government's new food safety guidelines. The move has been welcomed by health activists. Coming close on the heels of a ban on the usage of plastic pouches to package chewing tobacco and pan masala, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) under the health ministry issued a notification prohibiting tobacco to be used as an ingredient in any food product. The food safety notification which was announced in early August says: "Product not to contain any substance which may be injurious to health. Tobacco and nicotine shall not be used as ingredients in any food product." Clearing the air about terming tobacco as a food product, V.N. Gaur, director of FSSAI, said that chewing tobacco, like gutka or pan masala, can be called food because it is consumed like any other food product".

If one carefully reads the interpretation, it is easy to infer that the ban only applies to foods that contain tobacco or nicotine and whether chewing tobacco products like paan masala can be considered a food is open to differing views. What is food needs a clear understanding and normally it is understood that only substances swallowed through the oral route can be considered a food. In this case only some chewing tobacco products are swallowed while others are spit out after some chewing. One has not yet heard the last word on this "hot" issue and the multi billion rupees chewing tobacco industry is unlikely to take any such ban lying down. If GOI does not ban cigarettes and other tobacco products knowing well that they are injurious to health because of the huge "income" contributed by this industry in the form of excise duty to the exchequer, with what face it can single out the chewing tobacco industry for a ban? A valid question indeed!


Monday, September 12, 2011


Though the issue of antioxidant benefits for human health is still being debated, there appears to be near unanimity that colored juices, most of which contain polyphenolic substances have health protecting abilities in one way or the other. Fruits and vegetables in general are healthy foods viewed from any angle and no wonder the new "food plate" icon replacing the earlier food pyramid concept includes these plant foods in the plate almost to the extent of 50%. While wholesome fruits and vegetables when consumed provides a variety of nutrients, the extracted juice is devoid of some of them including fiber. But extracted juices can still be rich in antioxidant phytochemicals with some of them having very high ORAC values. One of the recent studies using juices from some of the colorful fruits like Pomegranate has further confirmed this fact.

"Oxidative stress is known to contribute to the development and progression of atherosclerosis. Early signs of the disease include macrophage cholesterol accumulation and foam cell formation, which can result from increased uptake of oxidised low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and/or a reduced rate of high-density lipoprotein (HDL)-mediated cholesterol efflux from cells. Dietary polyphenols, such as those present in some beverages, exhibit potent antioxidant and cardioprotective activity. Studies have shown that consumption of grape juice, red wine, blackcurrant and pomegranate juice can increase serum antioxidant potential, exerthypolipidaemic and anti-inflammatory effects, inhibit LDL oxidation and decrease monocyte migration. Wonderful-variety pomegranate juice (WPJ) was also found to protect atherosclerotic patients from further development of the disease".

The moot question is about the availability and affordability of these juices to people with limited income as most of these fruits are priced beyond the reach of bulk of the population. It is most unfortunate that processed foods with high calorie density, high salt content are available in the market at a fraction of a cost of nutrient dense foods like fruits and vegetables, be it in India or any where in the world. In a country like India a substantial portion of the production is lost due to pre-harvest and post-harvest mismanagement and added to this the country wide operation of pre-harvest contractors and exploitative middle men make most horticulture produce over prized in the market.
Is it not a paradox that with a wide ranging climate conditions prevailing in the country, almost all fruits and vegetables can be grown in the country but these produce still cost high to the consumers and if this is not mismanagement, what else it is? It is time India is transformed into a "doing country" from its present image as a "talking country"!