Monday, October 31, 2011


In almost all urban regions of the world street hawking of fruits and vegetables are not permitted because of their pollution potential to the highly sanitized environment. With the advent of organized retailing in many countries the phenomenon of street hawking has practically disappeared and in many towns and cities separately earmarked areas are made available with necessary facilities to clean up after the assigned time of operation. The so called Farmers' Market which exit in almost all countries in the West come under such a category though the avowed purpose is to provide local foods which are supposed to be cleaner, safer and healthier with minimum carbon foot print. As the city grows the distance between such markets and the dwelling points gets longer and longer making it difficult for many citizens to undertake such travels due to economic and other reasons. These areas are now being designated as "Food Desserts" because of non-availability of fresh and protective foods for many residents in such places. Pragmatic city administration bodies are getting increasingly sensitive to this problem and are bringing about policy changes to convert these desserts at least for a week into a "flood" through limited time sale of fresh produce in trucks in different neighbor hoods. Here is a take on this emerging trend which is interesting to watch for its impact   

"Once a week, in a neighbourhood of high rises in North York, a van pulls up at a specified time and opens its back doors. The people who live in the towers quickly make their way to the vehicle, where they buy foods such as potatoes and coriander, bananas and carrots before whisking their groceries back to their apartments. Within minutes, the van pulls away, leaving no trace of what just happened. It might sound like something more shady than vegetables is on offer, but it's a scene that gets repeated across our city for one simple reason: In many Toronto neighbourhoods, it's illegal to sell produce from a vehicle on the street. It's forbidden in Scarborough and, for most of the year, in Etobicoke. If you want to sell from the back of your truck in North York, you'll need $2-million in liability insurance. Yet these are the same areas that the city's own research has identified as "food deserts" – predominantly low-income neighbourhoods in the inner suburbs where people live farther than 1,500 metres from a supermarket and typically don't own a car, and where there is below average public transit access, making lugging groceries home an arduous task. In Toronto, parts of Scarborough, North Etobicoke and North York fall under the "food desert" designation, and many residents procure more accessible produce on the street from less-than-legal purveyors".

It may be worth recalling the changes that is taking place all over the world regarding street hawking of various consumer products including food products and the Food Truck phenomenon in the US and the Hawkers Center in Singapore are prime examples of renewed thinking on the part of the urban planners  to recognize the relevance of street vending and its social impact. In India NDDB was vested with the responsibility of distributing milk, edible oil and horticulture produce through the cooperative organizational mode linking the farmers and consumers for mutual benefit. It is another matter that this body succeeded with milk but has not made ant impact in the other two fronts. It is time NDDB reworks its strategies to set up centrally operated "handling" centers in the vicinity of all important urban conglomerates and offer to the hapless consumers fruits and vegetables of prime quality at affordable prices. Of course urban real estate situation is very bad and setting up kiosks with modern facilities for vending these perishables is out of question. It is here that NDDB must use mobile facilities for delivery at strategic places in a city at scheduled timings. This will be a great boon to the citizens who is suffering from the unbearable burden of food inflation largely contributed by the galloping prices of fruits and vegetables!  


Sunday, October 30, 2011


Can any one believe that "eating" Apple is dangerous to the dental system? Well, this is what a new finding has concluded! It is some what unbelievable that drinking a cola beverage is safer than eating an apple but that is what some scientists want the consumers to be aware of. According to them the 2 mm enamel coating of the teeth can get eroded by the acidity and high sugar content of the fruit. If sufficient care is taken to brush the teeth immediately after eating apple or if the mouth is washed thoroughly, the extent of damage can be significantly reduced. Also recommended is to take milk while eating an apple which can achieve neutralization of the fruit acids by the calcium present in the milk. The old saying that an apple a day can keep doctor away may have to be modified to "an apple a day can invite a dentist"! Here is a take on this interesting development.

"People who ate apples were 3.7 times more likely to have dentine damage, while carbonated drink consumers had no additional risk. Fruit juice increased the likelihood of damage to the enamel around the top of the teeth near the gums fourfold, while lager, which is acidic, raised the chances of dentine damage threefold. Some apples contain as much as four teaspoons of sugar which contributes to raised acid levels in the mouth. Dr Glenys Jones, nutritionist at the Medical Research Council's Human Nutrition Research unit, says: 'Fruit can be acidic and obviously does have a sugar content but I would not want anyone to be discouraged from consuming fruit and fruit juices.' One suggestion is to eat your apple with milk or a piece of cheese as both contain calcium, which neutralises acid. Drinking water immediately after eating an apple will also help, washing away harmful effects. Dr Jones adds: 'Drinking fruit juice and smoothies with a straw is a way of protecting your teeth. 'Brushing your teeth before eating acidic foods can also help because it provides a barrier between the food and the teeth."'

One wonders where the science is taking the common man, innocent of any deep knowledge about food, nutrition and health, through such confusing reports and in this case if apple consumption is being discouraged due to dental damage, what will happen to the oft repeated slogan of nutrition experts that fruits and vegetables must be consumed in large quantities to maintain good health?. If such brief contact of acidic foods like apple can do damage to the teeth what will happen to people who consume a variety of foods containing acidulants like Tamarind, Amchur, Kokum, Lemon juice etc,especially in countries like India? Food preservation is often achieved through reducing the pH of the food to a level that is considered very acidic for preventing proliferation of bacteria and the new findings may discourage this ancient practice due to fear from dental decay!


Monday, October 24, 2011


The food safety management calls for strict licensing protocols and it is not that every body can start making a food for selling in the market because of the possibility of food based poisoning episodes affecting the health of the citizens. Generally large, medium and small scale food processors do come under the licensing procedures while the so called cottage scale processors are normally exempt from any such procedures. Of course in a country like the US there are strict norms that govern cottage scale producers also with severe restrictions on their area of operation. Farmers markets and trade fairs are locally confined events and any one is free to sell home prepared foods provided they are safe and free from any health risks. There are chefs and other culinary artisans with wealth of experience and their lack of capital to start a full fledged production facility constrain them from starting new ventures. A modern Kitchen with varied facilities and available to such entrepreneurs, can motivate these entrepreneurs to enter the industry with minimum resources. Called an "Incubator Kitchen" a new experiment is being carried out in the US under a recognized university which allows people with interest in food line to try their luck in this type of kitchen and if successful further investment on independent facility with regular licensing can be thought of. Such kitchens can be set up in every university that can kindle interest among those with talent to make food business a success. Here is a take on this new development.   

"Local chefs and bakers looking to sell their products in grocery stores, restaurants or across state lines can now use a kitchen facility known as the Incubator Kitchen, offered at USU, instead of waiting to obtain a professional-grade kitchen of their own. Assistant professor and extension food quality and entrepreneurship specialist Karin Allen said people can produce and sell food products out of their home if they meet certain requirements, called the Cottage Food Rule. The incubator kitchen allows people who do not meet the home requirements, or who want to sell to a larger market than allowed under the rule, produce and sell food. "It allows them to sell it at grocery stores, to restaurants and also they can sell it across state lines," Allen said. "It gives them a little more opportunity to let their business grow than just trying to sell at a farmers market or a craftfair." Allen said the kitchen has been certified through the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. She said the kitchen allows businesses to produce most — but not all — food items. "Any food that would be approved for a Cottage license, there's no problem making those kinds of foods in this kitchen," Allen said. "It's not as open as a commercial kitchen would be, where any food product basically could be made." Allen said recipes are evaluated and approved on a case-by-case basis. She said meat products are never approved for the kitchen. Allen said the Incubator Kitchen, located in the Family Life Building, uses equipment no longer in use by university programs".

Food is a sensitive area and governments have special responsibility to ensure that the citizens are not exposed to public foods in the market with uncertain safety credentials. While working from home and producing excellent quality food products are possible, there is always the lurking fear that the home based industry may not have the sustaining power to maintain the required hygiene and sanitation which only can ensure food safety. The Cottage Food Rule in vogue in the US targeted at these processors to ensure food safety. But the Incubator Kitchen comes handy for new entrepreneurs to make experimentation, development and trial marketing across the country for testing the waters for the viability of the products. In India all catering training institutes must provide such facilities to home scale processing artisans for establishing their own ventures with confidence. The type of products may include pickles, preserves, sweetmeats, savories, many traditional foods which are not available readily in the market.   


Sunday, October 23, 2011


Labeling of food packets containing processed food products of different nutrient content is intended to be a transparent mechanism of communication from the processor to the consumer. Unfortunately the science of human nutrition is so vast and ever changing, even food scientists find it difficult to decipher the real meaning of figures printed on food packets regarding their nutrient content. Credit must be given to the safety agencies that the labeling details are changed some time depending on new data emanating from time to time to make them truly informative. However consumers often fail to grasp the significance of the nutrition information affecting his capacity to make the most appropriate choice and it is here that suggestions are made to present the information on a graphic mode or symbol mode which are easily grasped. The traffic signal system of using colors like red, amber and green is being experimented with by some countries and it may take some time to arrive at any decision regarding its effectiveness and drawbacks. In the latest proposal coming from the US the star system is being recommended and probably it may be superior to other systems. Here are the details as being reported.

"The Energy Star program makes it easier for consumers to pick appliances. Now the Institute of Medicine is recommending the government create a similar system for foods and drinks sold in the grocery store. In a new report, the IOM — an independent group that advises the government on health policy — recommends instituting a front-of-the-package rating system that gives foods zero to three points, depending on their levels of saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars. Those were chosen because they "are the components of diet most closely linked to chronic-disease risk," said Alice Lichtenstein, vice-chair of the IOM committee and a professor at Tufts University, at a press conference today. Foods with too-high levels of any one of those components would get no points. The ratings would be displayed using stars, check marks or some other icon. In addition, all foods would have the amount of calories per serving displayed on the front of their packages — and a serving would be a familiar household measurement, such as a slice or a cup. The familiar nutrition facts label on the back would continue to include additional information. Ellen Wartella, chair of the committee and a professor at Northwestern University, said at the press conference that while there are many factors that influence what and how Americans eat, "there's a clear disconnect" between the dietary guidelines for better health and what people actually eat. Providing raw information alone isn't enough, she said, and so the committee is recommending the FDA and USDA consider a "shift in strategy" that encourages consumers "to purchase healthy foods and beverages."

The traffic light system seems to have run into some incongruities with some bad products being given the green signal while a few good foods are branded as red ones. The star system of grading foods has the added advantage that similar categorization exists in regard to electrical energy efficiency grading and people are already familiar with it. It does not require much of an education to understand that higher the number of stars a product gets better it is supposed to be. Probably the nutrient content presently in vogue can be dispensed with and replaced with simple iconic classification like "starring" the product based on its nutrition and health value. There will be some problems with some products and such discrepancies can be sorted out through consensus. Fact still remains that such quality and safety grading will be much better than abstract figures contained in the nutrition labels, making no sense to most consumers. A moot question is whether industry will adopt such a system voluntarily or it should be made mandatory. If it comes into vogue as an option, there will be lot of confusion in the market with some adopting it and others not serious about putting the same into practice. On the other hand a mandatory enforcement will automatically weed out manufacturers peddling junk foods while those making good foods have better chance of success.



An aspect that has been ignored while debating on the issue of GM foods, is its impact on organic foods movement which provides people with an alternative life style with reasonable assurance of quality and safety of food they consume every day. Whether the GM foods are safe or not, their cultivation is fraught with dangers for farmers engaged in organic food production. The rigorous standards universally accepted for organic foods necessitate utmost care on the part of organic farms to ensure the crops they market are as natural as possible and no GM food can ever qualify to be called an organic food. It is in this context that alarms are being raised by protagonists of organic foods regarding real chances of their unique products getting contaminated with GM ingredients from fields growing GM crops. How this problem can be resolved is the million dollar question that defies any satisfactory answer. This issue has assumed serious dimension in a country like the US where cultivation of GM corn and soybean spans the entire country. It will be interesting to watch the development further to get a clue as to the best way to resolve the on-going confrontation between these two systems of food production, both playing their roles in meeting the food needs of American consumers.

It started last fall when a small group of CEOs from companies like Whole Foods and Stonyfield sat down for a private chat with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. They had come to personally plead their case: genetically engineered crops and their capacity to drift into and taint organic crops were no longer a small-scale problem. One fact was indisputable: genetically engineered crops are having a heyday. Since 1996, the U.S. acreage in GMO (for "genetically modified organism") soybeans has grown from 7 to 94 percent, with GMO corn skyrocketing from 1 to 88 percent of cultivation. Now the USDA was considering a petition for approval of "Roundup Ready" alfalfa, engineered by Monsanto to be herbicide- and pesticide-tolerant. Alfalfa holds a special status in the organic community. As a key feed for cows, it's inextricably linked to milk, often considered the gateway product for families new to organic foods. "We were not there to cry out our baby-blue eyes over ethics," says Stonyfield's Gary Hirshberg. After all, the $29 billion-a-year organic industry is now one of the fastest-growing sectors of U.S. agriculture and a rising source of jobs; its failure could have a real impact on food, farmers, and rural communities as well as consumers nationwide. "We were there to talk about money." Inside the Beltway, a new term in the national agricultural debate was catching on: "coexistence." Vilsack, a former Iowa governor and farmer advocate, was its champion, trying to find common ground between what have become the two fastest-growing—and incompatible—trends in food. "It's emotional for the organic guys, it's emotional for the agriculture-production guys, and it's emotional for me," Vilsack confided to The Daily Beast. "They should work together instead of trying to beat each other up. It's nuts." But the chance of yet another GMO crop drifting into and tainting the heart of their industry was too much for the organics leaders. "This is a pivotal issue for the 21st century," says Hirshberg, who has to buy soy for his yogurts from Canada, now that 92 percent of soy in the U.S. is genetically modified. "It's about an explosion of toxic chemicals accompanied by the deregulation of these crops, and there are many more crops in the pipeline."

How these two incompatible system can flourish in the same country is difficult to predict and whether one of them has to be annihilated for the other to grow is also a critical question. That GM foods are not accepted world wide is well known and almost all countries, even when safety clearances are given mandate the industry to differentiate GM foods through appropriate label declaration. The US may be an exception for the time being but this country whose president promised more transparency in food labeling during his campaign has gone back on his words, possibly under pressure from the GM food lobby! Public outrage on this score is being manifested by massive consumer rage and it is a question of time before this country succumbs to people's wishes.


Saturday, October 22, 2011


PDS in India, which is more talked about and less acted upon to bring about the required improvements during the last 5 decades, Conceived as a food security program by the GOI for helping the poor people to have their minimum needs of staple food grains at low prices, PDS has degenerated into a gigantic system with practically no accountability and except for a small portion of the food grains reaching some of the beneficiaries, bulk of the people are left high and dry thanks to a scam that is a blot on this country. Here is a typical situation in a state like Karnataka as reflected by a study report prepared for the Karnataka Lokayukta which is reproduced verbatim below:

"There has been so much excitement about the recent 'Mining report' submitted by the former Lokayukta Justice Santosh Hegde that very few noticed another significant report that he had turned in a day earlier (i.e. on Tuesday, July 26, 2011). This was the report on the investigation of Public Distribution System (PDS) in Karnataka that he commissioned me to investigate using his suo moto powers in September 2010. While the mining report identified cumulative losses of around Rs.16,000 crore over the last few years and Rs. 1,800 over the last one year, the report on the PDS identified an annual economic loss of Rs. 1,737 crore. For all the noise that many are now creating about the Lokpal Bill and mining report, it is indeed puzzling why no one has expressed concern over this large scale looting of the money meant for the poor. This article is an attempt to familiarise the readers about the PDS in India and Karnataka and the leakages and inefficiencies that I identified in my 10-month investigation. The PDS is the largest food distribution network in the world. It is the government's major economic policy for ensuring food security to the poor. It has a network of more than four lakh Fair Price Shops (FPS) that distribute commodities at a cost of more than Rs. 15,000 crore to 16 crore households. The PDS infrastructure is such that the Central government is responsible for storage, transportation and bulk allocation of food grains, while the State is responsible for implementation / monitoring of FPSs and the identification of Below Poverty Line (BPL) population. Until 1997, PDS provided food subsidies to all consumers without any economic guidelines. Financial cut-off was introduced in 1997 by the Central government. In order to target the consumers that need the food subsidies the most, the population was divided into two primary categories: Above Poverty Line (APL) and BPL, based on the poverty line defined by the Planning Commission. The BPL population receives food grains at highly subsidised prices in comparison to APL that receives food grains at prices closer to open market prices. Another scheme was later introduced by the Central government: Antyodaya Anna Yojana Scheme (AAYS)-1, which provides even more highly subsidised commodities to the extremely poor and disadvantaged; six such disadvantaged groups or communities are given high priority under this scheme.

The truth is today, 57% of the PDS food grain does not reach the intended people. The Planning Commission has itself identified that for every Rs. 4 spent on PDS, only Re. 1 reaches the poor; which means 75% never reaches the poor. The Food Subsidy Bill for 2006-07 for the Government of India was Rs. 242 billion; 36 million tons of grain was procured that year, and 31.6 million tons was distributed through ration shops. With such huge quantities of grain and large sums of money involved, it is natural that our political and bureaucratic class conspires to keep the system inefficient and easy to manipulate. As per the Planning Commission, the total number of BPL families in Karnataka is 31.29 lakh whereas the Government of Karnataka claims that there are 96 lakh BPL families! Keeping the State's own poverty assessment criteria as the base, I found 44 lakh families who could be genuinely categorised as BPL. How was this mess created? Between the months of December 2008 and March 2009, the Government of Karnataka under the directions of the highest political office mandated that any family could be called BPL, provided a self-declared affidavit saying that they were poor was given. Nowhere else in the world is poverty determined by a self-declared affidavit, but then Karnataka does have many firsts. This was done keeping the May 2009 Parliament elections in mind. After reaping the benefits of such an overtly political but clearly shortsighted decision, the public exchequer and the citizenry are now left to grapple with the mess. Today the Government has managed to distribute 1.6 crore ration cards whereas the total population of the State is itself only 1.2 crore families ! (Please note its families' population not individual population numbers) This means there are nearly 40 lakh ghost and ineligible cards. After creating this mess, the department cleverly transferred the responsibility of cleaning it up to the citizens. They are now trying to cross-verify it by asking people to produce their ration cards along with electricity bills in urban areas and copy of the taxes paid on their property in rural areas.

Since the State claims it has 65 lakh more BPL families (it calls it extra BPL), it must dip into its own funds to meet the excess food security it wants to extend. So when the Centre gives rice at Rs. 5.40 per kg to the State, Karnataka further subsidises this by Rs. 2.40, so that it can sell rice to the BPL cardholders at Rs. 3 per kg. The Centre also gives rice at Rs. 8.30 a kg to APL families, but since Karnataka has slotted most of the APL families also as BPL, it is bound to give them rice at Rs. 3 a kg too. It does this by spending another Rs. 5.30 a kg for APL families. In other words, Karnataka subsidises the rich far more than it does its really poor ! The takeaway from PDS irregularities report is not only that undeserving people are accessing subsidies, but also that the really poor are being short-changed. Since there is only a constant amount of ration (rice, wheat, sugar, kerosene) from the Central PDS, the Karnataka government devised a new system to be able to distribute ration to about 80% of its population it had declared BPL. Instead of the per family norm followed in every State, Karnataka introduced a new unit system. One unit is any person who is above 10 years of age. Every unit was entitled to four kgs of rice, and no family was allowed to claim rice for more than five units, or five family members. This meant the government never gave more than 20 kgs per month to a family, even though Central law stipulates that every family should get 29 kgs rice per month, whether it has five or two members. The Karnataka chapter of the Right to Food Campaign has challenged this in the Karnataka High Court. Last year, the court declared the unit system illegal. The two big sources of loss are "over-allotment loss" and "distribution leakage loss". Over-allotment losses that occur due to the Government not knowing how many families are currently active, this accounts for about 38% (Rs. 54.4 crore) of total losses every month. Distribution or leakage losses account for 39% (Rs. 56.6 crore), which occurs during wholesale transport. The rest is attributed to "active suspect loss," which occurs due to families suspected to be ineligible drawing rations, transport cost losses and stolen subsidy loss. Total loss is Rs. 144.8 cr. every month.

One of the reasons why such leaks occur is because the entire system is deliberately allowed to be opaque and most documentation is manual, leaving huge room for manipulation. The State Government, sometime ago, said that it would usher in a "point of sale system", which computerises the process. The process was mysteriously suspended six months ago. Apart from various issues that the investigation went into, I found that at field level, most FPSs were open only for 4-6 days a month. Few followed the timings prescribed by the State. Giving bills for the transactions undertaken was more the exception rather than rule. Most FPS owners spoke about the 'mamool' that they had to dole out each month. If the Government makes up its mind, setting right the system can be done within 6 months. My fear is that in the context of such large scale inefficiency, the proposed Food Security Bill will only widen the system of corruption and maladministration and give our corrupt officials and politicians further fodder to chew on".

It is surprising that such a serious matter involving the health of millions of families does not elicit any response from the governments, both at the Center and the State and things continue the same way. Is it not tragic that with practically no will on the part of these governments to set things right, this country is slipping into anarchy of an unprecedented nature? Reforming the PDS should have been the top priority as it affects the very survival of poor people and it is high time that looters, criminals, pilferers and their patrons who are behind this distortion of the system should be tried by special courts for awarding severe punishment including capital punishment.



It is the festival time in India and traditional sweetmeats form an integral part of the celebrations. Unlike X'mas festivities when cakes and pastries with reasonably good shelf life are liberally consumed, Indian sweets do not stay long without getting spoiled and therefore high precaution is needed in making, storing and distribution in the market. Though there are guidelines mandated by the Safety Agencies to maintain good hygiene in the kitchens where they are prepared, very few manufacturers heed to such restrictions. One is amused to read the grand declaration by the Babu who goes by the designation of Food Safety Commissioner in Delhi that people must buy sweets only from shops exhibiting the FDA certificate as if it is a guarantee for the safety of these products. As per the latest rules all shops with an annual turn over of 12 lakh need a licence from the FDA of Delhi but there hundreds of small shops selling different sweets which are unregulated. Does it mean that they are unsafe? Does the "Commissioner" give guarantee that if the products in shops exhibiting the "Certificate" is bought, nothing untoward will happen to consumers? What infrastructure FDA has to regulate this unorganized industry effectively? What about those shops who are exempted from licensing and the safety of their products? Proclamation and Declarations are good but they must be followed with result oriented action!

"If you wait a whole year to indulge your sweet tooth around Diwali, we'd suggest you check if your vision is 20/20. Make sure that you can see the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) certificate on display at the stores from where you buy your sweets. According to the recently enforced Food Safety Act (FSA), any manufacturer, retailer, wholesaler or distributor of any perishable commodity needs to have a licence or has to be registered with the state wing of the FDA. And s/he will have to mandatorily display the FDA's certificate for all consumers. Warning against poor quality products, FDA commissioner Mahesh Zhagade said, "If the manufacturer, retailer or wholesaler has a business of more than Rs12 lakh per annum, he has to register himself with the state FDA. If the annual business is less than Rs12 lakh, then he has to register himself with us. Earlier, as per the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, urban local bodies had the power to issue licences. Now, as per the FSA, only the state FDA can issue them." The state FDA, he added, is already in touch with various stakeholders involved in preventing food adulteration and contamination. The products on the radar include mawa, sweets, chocolates, ghee, refined oil, aata and maida. "We have also prepared an end-to-end checklist, which will be circulated, to ensure that there are no loopholes in the system, right from the time of manufacture till it reaches the consumer," added Zhagade. Senior FDA officials indicated that those manufacturing commodities, especially sweets, in unhygienic conditions have been identified. The FDA has also stepped up vigilance on landing sites, such as railway stations, ST depots and market yards, where the raw material is delivered. "Even on district-levels, our officials will be checking vulnerable spots and sending us reports," said Zhagade. Officials, however, claimed that figuring out the purity of commodities like mawa can be difficult. "As per the standard, mawa needs to have 30% milk fats. However, it is difficult to just recognise pure mawa. It can be adulterated using sugar and even substances like starch. This is why the registration or licensing of mawa shops has been made mandatory," added Zhagade.

Some how an impression is being created that the new monolith agency going by the acronym "FSSAI, has the answers to every problem this country is facing as far as food safety is concerned. It is forgotten that those who are affected by food poisoning of minor nature, probably millions in number, rarely "report" to the Babu sitting in the air conditioned offices in Delhi boasting of his "Authority" because they have no confidence that there will be any solution to their day to day problems, forced to consume adulterated and sub standard foods every day sold under the very "nose" of the Babus who are vested with the responsibility! One often wonders where is the need for an organization like this which is more concerned with its "Authority" than the responsibility which comes along with it. There is no dispute that food safety in India is in shambles, incapable of solving even a fraction of the problem being faced by the citizens and as a cruel joke the charade continues! If the Commissioner is to be believed all Indian citizens must go to Delhi to buy safe sweets during forthcoming Deepawali from shops carrying his certificate!


Friday, October 21, 2011


The role played by vitamins in various body functions is well understood and increased awareness about human nutrition among the people has opened up a new opportunity for "business" for the Pharmaceutical industry in offering preparations based on these vitamins in varying combinations to health conscious population. It is undisputed that each vitamin serves a purpose when ingested through the daily diet in adequate amounts and the probability of "overdose" is practically nil. Nutritionists recommend that a balanced food must be consumed made of a combination of cereals, pulses, fruits and vegetables each of the group contributing different vitamins in different concentration. Deficiency of vitamin is never a possibility among consumers eating a balanced food but the tendency of the food industry to use over refined food ingredient like cereals, fat, legumes and others has precipitated a situation for inadequate availability of these micro nutrients. Here again the industry invariably tries to make up for the lost nutrients through fortification and enrichment with them to varying extent. If this is so where is the necessity for taking synthetic vitamins regularly? Why is that in many affluent countries regular popping in of multivitamin products has become a part of daily life? Here is a critique on this issue which is based on a rational analysis of this phenomenon.

As many as one-third of Americans take vitamins and nearly half of people 50 and older take multivitamins, surveys suggest. Americans spent $9.6 billion on vitamins last year, up from $7.2 billion in 2005, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. Multivitamins top the list, at nearly $5 billion in sales. Yet there is no clear evidence that multivitamins lower the risk of cancer, heart disease or any other chronic health problems. No government agency recommends them "regardless of the quality of a person's diet," says a fact sheet from the federal Office of Dietary Supplements. And vitamins aren't required to undergo the strict testing required of U.S.-approved prescription medicines. Some fads, such as the antioxidant craze over vitamins A and E and beta-carotene, backfired when studies found more health risk, not less. And studies that find more disease in people with too little of a certain vitamin can be misleading: Correcting a deficiency so you have the right daily amount is different from supplementing beyond recommended levels. The best way to get vitamins is to eat foods that naturally contain them, said Jody Engel, a nutritionist with Office of Dietary Supplements. "Foods provide more than just vitamins and minerals, such as fiber and other ingredients that may have positive health effects." Schardt adds: "It's virtually impossible to overdose on the nutrients in food." Some folks may need more of certain nutrients and should talk with their doctors about supplements:
— Postmenopausal women regarding calcium and vitamin D to protect bones.
— Women planning on pregnancy regarding folate, or folic acid, to prevent birth defects.
— People over age 50 and vegans who may need vitamin B12. "As we get older, a number of us no longer produce enough acid in the stomach to extract the B12 in food," Schardt explained.
— Pregnant women, who may need extra iron.
— Breastfed infants and possibly other infants concerning vitamin D.
Vitamin D is a nutrient many of us may need to supplement. Last fall, the Institute of Medicine, a panel of scientists who advise the government, raised the recommended amount but also warned against overdoing it. People ages 1 to 70 should get 600 international units a day, older folks 800 units. If you do need a supplement, beware: Quality varies., a company that tests supplements and publishes ratings for subscribers, has found a high rate of problems in the 3,000 products it has tested since 1999. "One out of 4 either doesn't contain what it claims or has some other problems such as contamination or the pills won't break apart properly," said company president Dr. Tod Cooperman. For example, one gummy bear calcium product had 250 percent of the amount of vitamin D claimed on the label. Another liquid product made with rose hips had just over half the amount of vitamin C listed. "You don't have to pay a lot. Price is not necessarily linked to quality," he said. "The quality doesn't really relate to where you're buying it. I know many people are surprised by that or don't want to believe it, but that is the case. We find good and bad products in every venue."

It is true that one cannot decry consumption of vitamin preparation in all cases and there are specific target groups which need external supply of these nutrients at appropriate levels for maintaining their health. The danger of over consumption lurks in countries like the US where practically every food sold in the market is fortified or enriched with vitamins and minerals and regular consumption of pills containing them at high levels may be fraught with some risk. Besides the quality and bio-availability of the synthetic nutrients delivered through these preparations are always uncertain. The lesson one has to learn is that taking any so called health "improving" supplements must only be at doctors' advice. There is some substance in the statement often seen in the reception area of a physician that "self medication is a crime"!



The term "subsidy" is a dirty word for many countries in the developing world because huge agricultural subsidies being doled out by the affluent countries in Europe and American continent are pushing the farmers of the developing world into a quagmire because of artificially low prices in the global market for many commodities. As far as the consumers in these wealthy countries are concerned, the subsidies enable them to have access to cheap foods while the farmers, mostly large players enjoy "free" money without toiling for it! The trade negotiations under the umbrella of WTO are going no where as the developed world stubbornly refuse to eliminate these irksome subsidies for fear of hurting the powerful farm lobby. It is not comprehensible why rich farmers need subsidies when their large firms, employing most modern farming technologies and with favorable scale of viable economic operations while their counterparts in poor countries are highly handicapped with their low technological base, limited resources and tiny land holdings. Any hope that better sense will prevail among the rich nations is dashed by the current subsidy proposal under the EU budget which constitutes a major share of the budget! Here is a take on this troubling news coming from Europe.

"The EU has also come under criticism by lobby groups who say corporate mega farms are getting too much support. A quarter of the largest farms receive 74% of the money. With the new proposals, which will be the basis for wrangling to shape reforms that will be implemented after 2013, the EU is trying to address some complaints. Figuring prominently is a proposal to cap payments at €300,000 ($409,170) a year for each farm, which would save €2.5 billion a year on direct subsidies. Farm subsidies are paid out of the European Union's budget but managed by its 27 member states. The subsidies make up two-fifths of the EU annual budget and are hotly debated when the EU writes its budget every seven years. The tenuous state of the region's economy has heightened those tensions.
The priorities in the plan are "food security, sustainable use of natural resources and growth," said Dacian Ciolos, the EU's agriculture commissioner. Mr. Ciolos's proposal will raise CAP spending by about €15 billion overall in 2014-2020, a move lawmakers say represents a cut of up to 15% in real terms. The commission also wants to make a third of direct payments contingent on farmers following new rules on protecting the environment. Among them are proposed obligations to set aside at least 7% of arable land to "ecological focus areas," such as forests or buffer strips, and to grow at least three different crops at any one time. Some critics said the 7% rule risked being largely symbolic because it would keep subsidy money flowing to farmers. "They're dressed up in green," but they're still farm subsidies, said Charlotte Hedebrand of the International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council.. The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development made a similar point in a recent report, amid public discussions held by the commission leading to the release of the proposals on Wednesday. Farmers criticize any rules limiting how they can use their land. "It's a recipe for making sure that European agriculture gets stuck in a siding rather than being one of the most productive regions in the world," says William Martin, a 50-year-old who farms wheat, sugar beet, potatoes and beans near Littleport, U.K. Mr. Martin, who receives £100,000 ($158,000) a year in EU subsidies, says direct payments, with as few conditions and little paperwork as possible, help farmers fulfill a "moral responsibility as the world is short of food."

What is reprehensible is the argument by the consumer group and the farm industry that such subsidies help increase food production to meet "world's" needs in the coming years! It may be true that Europe has exceptionally high productivity in the farm sector but the output from these farms are dumped in the global market at low prices, uneconomical for any other country to compete with. Does this serve the real purpose of achieving consensus on free trade? It is synonymous with the argument that a high GDP of a country ensures high quality life for every body while the truth is that the proportion of poor people is still significant in these countries also. Figures like total production, average consumption, per capita availability etc do not mean much and the fact still remains that there will be many people outside the food safety net. If there has to be a world free from inequities and poverty, rich countries must abolish such subsidies and allow developing countries to compete with them on a level playing field.


Thursday, October 20, 2011


Food safety, no doubt, is a priority area for every responsible government and if adequate safeguards are not built into the legal implementation protocols, the consequences can be devastating. Look at a country like the US or European Union where food poisoning episodes are killing and maiming thousands of people because of inadequate oversight by the governments and indifferent handling practices by the industry. FDA and the USDA responsible for food safety in the US have an "unenviable" record in looking after the consumer well being and there are serious insinuations that these agencies are more concerned about the health of the industry rather than that of the citizen! Whether such sweeping allegations are true or not, fact still remains that many developing country with practically no infrastructure for implementing international protocols of safety have a better record as far as avoidance food poisoning is concerned! Latest "attempt" by the safety agencies in the US to insist on compulsory deployment of certified safety manager in each and every food service establishment, if rigorously implemented may still provide a better chance to provide reasonable safety coverage to its citizens. Here is a take on this recent development which may have positive implications for future

A new action plan from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends there be a certified food protection manager in every retail or foodservice operation — encompassing everything from vending machine companies and independent restaurants to prison cafeterias and farmers markets. FDA officials unveiled the Retail Food Safety Initiative Action Plan Sept. 29 through its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. The plan's four goals came from analysis of a 10-year study of 800 retail food establishments, said Glenda Lewis, team leader for the retail food protection team in the FDA's Office of Food Safety. Along with the action plan, FDA officials also announced a cooperative agreement with the National Association of County and City Health Officials. The agreement includes a $400,000 grant for the association to use for programs to help attain the goals of the action plan, including the push for more certified food protection managers. The grant can be renewed for up to four years, depending on funding availability, Lewis said. Many foodservice operations and restaurants already have certified food protection managers on staff, said Sue Hensley, senior vice president for public affairs at the National Restaurant Association. "We believe this recommendation is a positive step in the movement to increase food safety," Hensley said. However, she said, some small, independent operations may not want to devote the money and time necessary for staff to obtain and maintain certification. Joe Russell, chairman of the health officials association's Food Safety Working Group, said the accredited certification programs he is familiar with, such as the National Restaurant Association's ServSafe, take about two days to complete. He also said some states, such as Washington, already require all food handlers to carry a certification card. Both Russell and Lewis said research has shown that merely having a certified food safety manager on staff increases the use of best practices and reduces risks in foodservice and restaurant operations. In the FDA's 10-year study, which concluded last year, statistics from 2009 showed overall compliance in full-service restaurants with a certified manager was 70%, compared to 58% compliance in restaurants that did not have a certified food protection manager on staff. In produce markets with certified managers, the study showed overall compliance was 86%, versus a 79% compliance rate in markets that didn't have certified managers.

Right now the proposal is still at the recommendatory level and there appears to be some resistance from the industry because of the possible financial burden on small enterprises if implementation is made mandatory. There may be some truth in this claim and government will have to find a solution to this logistical issue. In a country like India, currently the pharmacy sector is covered by such mandatory regulation under which licencing is given only if a qualified pharmacist is employed by the dealer. Since food is equally important and lack of adequate precautionary measures by workers, not aware of good handling practices, can have the potential to cause food related health problems to millions of consumers. The proposal for compulsory employment of qualified personnel for ensuring food safety by all players in the field must be implemented ruthlessly with no exception to any one!


Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Karnataka seems to be over obsessed with the IT industry, relegating every thing else to the background. Otherwise why is that the required enabling infrastructure for implementation of the brand new food safety act of the Central Government is yet to be put in place?. Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) with a heavy bureaucratic, top heavy organization at Delhi seems to be sitting back happily after taking 5 years to enact the Act but no one at the state level has any idea as to how to go about fulfilling their obligations. While the old PFA is legally not valid any more to book food fraudsters, new dispensation is yet to take shape! In the mean time adulterators and peddlers of unsafe foods are having a field day. Look at the situation in Bangalore, proudly called Silicon Valley of India, as reported by the media recently.

The city is a veritable gastronome's paradise, serving up cuisines for every palate and pocket. At every corner, one can get a whiff of a favourite dish being cooked. The large clientele of these fast food joints, however, can never be sure if the food served is safe and prepared hygienically. And that is certainly a cause for worry. According to the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike's (BBMP) modest estimate, there are around 25,000 food outlets, excluding pushcarts, tea stalls, roadside eateries and a small percentage of darshinis. However, this is just in the core area (old Bangalore Mahanagara Palike). With the city limits extending to around 800 sq. km, BBMP sources say there could be over one lakh food outlets. The BBMP's food inspectors are supposed to collect samples from the eateries and provision stores regularly and test them to ensure that they are safe and fit for human consumption. So, how often is the food from these outlets checked? Almost never, say BBMP sources. Why? Because there are only six food inspectors in the BBMP, with one invariably on VVIP duty.

Is it not a shame that the Karnataka Health and Family Welfare Service has not been able to issue the necessary guidelines on the implementation of the Food Safety and Standards Act so far? Such an inertia seems to be preventing the body from taking any action against retail outlets in the state selling unsafe, sub-standard and date-expired products. Recently, a leading shopping mall in the city was found to sell products, which were well past the expiry date. Prior to the Act, the food inspectors in Bangalore came under the purview of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the city's municipal corporation. Already GOI took more than 5 years to pass the FSSA Bill after taking it up in the year 2006. Besides even if the rules are framed and the state begins to implement the Act, the lack of food inspectors will continue to hamper its efficient execution. Currently, there are 6 food inspectors on deputation from the health department as BBMP has only 27 inspectors for food safety. Even by its own estimate the BBMP wants 40 inspectors from the state government to oversee its 100 wards but how is it possible to cover the entire sprawling city with such meager personnel resources is not clear. One gets the unavoidable impression that neither the state government nor the BBMP is serious about tackling the menace of food adulteration and it should not come as a surprise if Bangalore's "Silicon Valley" tag is replaced by "Capital of Unsafe Foods" within a short period of time!



True Islamic followers consume only "Halal" foods which are raised and processed as per the norms prevalent among the followers of this faith for centuries. Halal Food Industry has acquired a stature beyond religion because of wide skepticism regarding the safety of modern industrial foods and its growth has been phenomenal during the last one decade. Many consumers seem to prefer Halal foods if organic alternatives are not readily available because of their belief that Halal foods are safer to consume. Halal system mainly refers to foods, especially meat products, food contact materials and pharma products which are permissible under Islamic law. Other products are either Haram (forbidden) or Mashbooh (questionable). Many countries insist on clear labeling of Halal foods to enable consumers make a willful choice. Halal system of processing meat animals is not universally accepted because of the bleeding method during slaughtering and hence the requirement for specific labeling. As Halal foods gain increasing acceptance efforts are on to standardize different products and evolve universal certification procedures. Recent developments in Halal foods are highlighted in the following report.

"From farm to fork, Halal is simply the better meat and its major health and business benefits help growth in the market, according to industry specialists. The worldwide Halal food industry is estimated to be over $650 billion, and this segment currently accounts for approximately 16 per cent of the global food market. Speakers at a recent forum agreed that the immediate potentials for investors of Halal food market are in acquiring high net worth Halal food producers, slaughterhouses, ingredients production, Halal livestock, Halal raw meat and Halal industrial parks. The forum was jointly organised by Al Islami Foods and CNBC Arabia. Industry experts who were invited to the forum include Al Islami Foods deputy chief executive officer Hamid Badawi, sales and marketing head Alaa Kamal of US-based Midamar Middle East and general manager Wahid Kandil of Canada-based Prairie Halal Foods Middle East. "From a business point of view, Halal has some major health and business benefits. That is why the market is developing. Attractive growth numbers are grabbing attention of investors," Badawi said on the fast growth of the market. "A Global Halal Standard and Global Halal Certification," Hamid asserted, "is key to resolve the sensitive issues faced by the industry, otherwise the market will remain fragmented and in regional hubs." Legislations for Halal certification vary from one Islamic school of thought, called Madhab in Arabic, to another. Each school of thought and country has its own legislations for Halal certification. Malaysia is one of the key players in the global Halal sector, the others being Australia, Brazil, Thailand, Indonesia and Brunei, with China, France and Japan planning to enter soon. Currently, the market is in its natural evolution process. However, regions and countries differ on Shariah rules of standards and certifications. At present, the Halal market is in the brain-storming phase of developing Common Halal Standard and Common Halal Certification that are acceptable to all four Madahib of Islamic world".

There are lot of similarities between "Kashrut" foods of Jews and Halal foods of Muslims and both sectors are attracting consumers from outside their faith. During the last few years lot of scientific research has gone into these food systems and it is wrong to believe that they are not science based. The root for evolution of such distinct food systems can be traced to the early phase of the religions when there were limited followers and the need to protect them from food poisoning. With the advent of modern science, both Halal foods and Kosher foods have evolved keeping in view the safety of their followers. One advantage for a general consumer belonging to other faiths is that they can choose what they want from among the products in the market without following the diktats from respective religions while followers of the religions have to compulsorily take these products as part of life. The fact that established food industry players are entering Halal food sector reflects the inherent strength of these foods though market considerations do play a part in such investment decisions.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Lot has been said and written about mid-day meal programs running in schools in many countries including India. While there is a universal perception that these meals attract poor students to the school and improve attendance, the role such programs play in "food literacy" is not well known. The routine feeding programs are run based on preparation of the food in the school premises and serving them hot but infrastructure limitations, funding constraints, a bloated teaching syllabus and inadequate personnel invariably make the program ineffective and inefficient. Involvement of voluntary non-government organizations like ISKCON in school feeding program possibly may be a wise move but such an approach is devoid of any involvement by the staff and student community in this endeavor. It is now being realized that besides providing food, such programs if taken up within the school premises involving teachers and the students, can be a very effective tool in imparting many desirable traits in students like good eating habits, understanding cooking in a better way, logic of nutrition, better appreciation of health related information and rudimentary aspects of hygiene and sanitation. While such lofty aspirations can be understood as practical in rich countries with vast resources, can it be thought of in a developing country like India?

"Outside North America, school meals are viewed more as an investment than a cost. In France, students are fed a fresh, multi-course meal each day and taught table manners; school administrators even send suggestions for dinner recipes home as part of the effort to train young taste buds. In Sweden, children between the ages of 6 and 16 receive a hot meal each day under laws set by the National Food Administration. Pupils choose from three entrees, a vegetarian dish and a salad bar with at least five fresh choices; milk and bread are also served. In Brazil, where food is a constitutional right, a massive national program feeds 47 million students at 190,000 schools each day; it is championed not only for improving student nutrition, health and social development, but for providing wider employment, feeding the agricultural economy, local food system and regional economic development. In Italy, school meals are seen as a central part of education about national culture and health. Low-income families receive a 25 per cent discount on food; for the poorest, meals are free. More than half of the meals consist of organic food. In Japan, children aged 6 to 15 receive school meals. A government initiative aims to ensure 50 per cent of the meals are made with local ingredients".

There are many reports concerning the deficiency in the Indian school meal program, most crucial being limitation of funds provided to each beneficiary. Added to this is the gross organizational deficiency as the operations are based on bureaucratic meddling and improper supervision. Pilferage is very common while quality of ingredients procured locally is considered very low. With participation limited to poor and low income children because of lack of faith in the safety of these foods among many well to do families, it serves the limited purpose of attracting only those who are impoverished. Most government schools have practically no facilities considered essential to store, cook and serve foods. Dirty environment, lack of safe water supply, unclean utensils and plates and monotony of the fare served make the program unattractive and only those with very poor financial background consume the foods. Unless there is a major program to "reinvent" the school system by setting up dedicated facilities that can turn out good quality food with variety it may not be possible to make all children participate in the program. Those who run these programs with managerial responsibility must learn from the experience of countries like Japan, Canada and others to convert it from an expenditure based one to an investment mode with clear perception about its potential to bring in returns in the form of better and more enlightened students emerging out of the schools.


Monday, October 17, 2011


That scientific research in India has become "directionless" is a known fact and recent "stories" about the integrity or lack of it with two Directors of IITs only reinforce this impression further. Same is true with many scientific institutions under CSIR, DRDO and other public funded R & D agencies in the country. Existence of true scientists with high credibility is also a fact though they are in a microscopic minority. Whether individuals or the scientific environment will have to be blamed for this unfortunate phenomenon is an issue on which the jury is still out. One of the undisputed and bitter truths of industrial research in India is that many R & D institutions set up for helping industry or targeted users are not wanted by the very users for whom they are intended with vast sums of money invested by GOI! Scientists, science administrators and GOI must introspect regarding this sad state of affairs and do some thing drastic to reverse this trend. Here is a typical case of a research institution proclaiming about its "intention" to develop a technology for an obscure product which has never established itself in the country reflecting the poor direction of R & D in this sector.

The growing health concern in consumers is prompting scientists to formulate not only new food products but also newer technologies for obtaining maximum health gains. Keeping these concerns in the backdrop, the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), Mysore, is contemplating a technology for fortified sugarcane juice, a product obtained form sugarcane juice through fortification.
This was informed to Fnb News in a chat over telephone by Dr P Srinivas, chief scientist , head- plantation products, spices, flavour technology department, CFTRI, Mysore. Dr Srinivas said that beverages were an important source of nutrients and also an easy medium to deliver the nutrients to human body. "We have recently developed sugarcane juice in Tetrapak, and now we are contemplating the same for fortified sugarcane juice," he said. Explaining further, Dr Srinivas said that with food fortification becoming the need of the hour, there was an impetus to developing such technology for nutrient-based beverages in the market. Prior to developing sugarcane juice in Tetrapak, the CFTRI had developed sugarcane juice in glass bottle and the technology for the same had already been transferred to around 1500 entrepreneurs in the industry. According to Dr Srinivas, conditions for processing sugarcane differed in both—glass bottles and Tetrapak. He claimed that Tetrapaks were safer than the bottled juices

It is true that sugarcane juice is taken by Indian consumers from road side vendors and in summer this is considered a refreshing drink. Efforts made earlier by many research organizations have failed to deliver a product even remotely resembling the fresh juice. The claim that earlier bottling technology has been "sold" to 1500 "entrepreneurs" appears ridiculous and laughable in the face of the reality that the product is not "visible" in any market in the country! The vice like grip soft drink industry has on the Indian consumers, with cola beverages and sugar based drinks dominating the market, there is very little chance for any other product gaining a viable foothold. Similar attempts earlier to pack tender coconut water were also a failure. To day fresh sugarcane juice and tender coconut water are sold in the original form without undergoing any processing by food industry in a scientific way through dedicated outlets, implying that consumers prefer "fresh" drinks to processed ones. Also to be borne in mind is the fact Tetrapack company, a technology and equipment driven company offers plants for any liquid products including the required process details. If a GOI institution wants to waste its funds on such frivolous technology with doubtful viability and demand, it can be termed only as "directionless" research! It is unfortunate that there are "journalists" ready to print such claims without critically analyzing them for their veracity.



These are the days when every food ingredient that goes into a food product is extensively debated regarding its safety or usefulness. Even salt, consumed for centuries by humans is not spared! Of course no one has quarrel regarding consumption of salt "moderately" but the million dollar question is what can be construed as moderate? Opinions differ from expert to expert and country to country but WHO with a global canvas recommends levels of daily consumption which it considers safe. Here again many do not agree with its recommendation. Here is a very exhaustive commentary on this vexed issue, though after going through it, it will still be difficult to come to any conclusion!

Salt has been taxed, monopolized, treasured and fought over for thousands of years. Today's scientists are waging a modern-day salt war. In the 1970s, American researchers experimenting on rats found very high doses of salt raised blood pressure. Some of the most-cited evidence on salt and health came in a 1988 international study called InterSalt, which surveyed more than 10,000 men and women in scores of populations across the world. The study included four remote tribes in Brazil, Kenya and New Guinea whose people had the lowest salt intake and were also found to have the lowest blood pressure and very few, if any, cases of hypertension. Although these findings were disputed by parties including the Salt Institute, it wasn't long before a scientific consensus emerged that too much salt is bad for you. A 2005 study in the PubMed journal found almost 1 billion people around the world have high blood pressure, which makes the heart work too hard, hardens the walls of the arteries and can cause other problems such as heart failure, kidney disease, and blindness. Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death globally, claiming 17.1 million lives a year. A substantial number of these deaths are put down to smoking, which raises the risk of hypertension, strokes and heart attacks. In the past few years, governments have begun to act. Under its health-promoting mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City pledged in 2010 to coordinate a U.S.-wide effort to cut salt in restaurant and packaged foods by 25 percent. National sodium reduction strategies have been adopted across Europe and inAustralia, China and India. Scores of health authorities around the world advise that we should aim to reduce our salt intake from the roughly 9 to 12 grams a day we eat now down to around 6 grams, about a teaspoonful a day. Since around 75 percent of all the salt we consume comes from packaged and processed
food, rather than from what we sprinkle on top of it, food manufacturers have been in the firing line. Under pressure from health authorities and the WHO, the food industry, which stands accused of using salt to boost the flavor, shelf-life and profit of what would otherwise be bland ingredients, has taken action. Big brands like Heinz, Kellogg's, Nestle, Pepsico, General Mills and others have been steadily reducing sodium levels in their foods. According to Susan Jebb, a nutrition adviser to the UK government, Britain is leading the way, forcing foodmakers to make some "impressive" reductions including a 30 percent reduction in salt in bread, about a 50 percent cut in branded breakfast cereals and around 25 percent in pasta sauces. Among the health-conscious at least, a salt-shaker on the dining table is becoming almost as frowned on as an ashtray.

But the findings that policy-makers have accepted as settled are not as clear-cut among scientists. A study in July by the much-respected Cochrane Library, which conducts meta-analyses of scientific data by grouping together the best studies on a subject and pooling the results,found no evidence that reducing salt intake cuts the risk of developing heart disease or dying before your time. In that study Rod Taylor, a professor of health services research at Exeter University, analyzed seven randomized controlled trials covering more than 6,500 people and found that although cutting down did appear to lead to slight reductions in blood pressure this did not translate into lower risk of heart disease or premature death. In one group of people, those with pre-existing heart conditions, reducing salt was actually associated with an increase in the likelihood of premature death. Taylor said he did not receive payment from, or have links to, the salt industry. His study was funded by a grant from the UK government's National Institute for Health Research. Taylor's study came hot on the heels of another, by Belgian scientists, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). That found people who ate lots of salt were no more likely to get high blood pressure, and were statistically less likely to die of heart disease, than those with low salt intake.

Against the above background, what should be the attitude of the consumer? Is reducing salt is really beneficial? Will the present level of salt consumption lead to premature death? If reduced salt intake can lower blood pressure (BP), especially in high BP consumers, why not adopt such a diet regime? What about the salt "balancing" system human body has which is supposed to excrete excess salt? Can there be a universal salt intake standard when it is known that those living in hot, humid, tropical climates excrete lot of salt through perspiration? Probably normal and healthy consumers must take their own decision regarding what is best for them till a universal consensus emerges on this issue while high BP patients may reduce salt intake to get the supposed benefit of low salt ingestion.


Sunday, October 16, 2011


The GM controversy has a checkered history ever since the technology bursted on the scene about two decades ago. The million dollar question being asked to day is whether foods created through GMO are really safe for long term consumption by human beings. At least one country and its government, seem to be believing that they are safe and had the audacity to clear many GM foods which have entered the main stream industry surreptitiously without the consumer being aware of it. It is appalling that more than 80% of the processed foods in the US contain GM food ingredient without carrying any label declaration to inform the consumers under the "Right to Know" principle enshrined in the Constitution. A new awareness seems to be emerging among the population there that they are being "defrauded" through concealment of the fact about GM foods in different processed products and one can expect more fierce campaigns in future by the people to force the hands of the government there. Here is a take on this latest development in the GM food front from the country which will have to answer to the world if there are any serious long term consequences arising out of thousands of GM crops being popularized by its Transnational companies with vested interest!

"In a February 1992 memo, Louis J. Pribyl, Ph.D., a scientist in the FDA's Microbiology Group, critiqued a draft of the policy by writing, "There is a profound difference between the types of unexpected effects from traditional breeding and genetic engineering which is just glanced over in this document." Dr. Pribyl added that "several aspects of gene insertion may be more hazardous than traditional plant crossbreeding." In a January 1992 memo, Linda Kahl, Ph.D., an FDA compliance officer, emphasized the lack of scientific data to recognize the safety of GM foods. "Are we asking the scientific experts to generate the basis for this policy statement in the absence of any data?" she asked. "There is no data that could quantify risk." E.J. Matthews, Ph.D., of the FDA's Toxicology group, warned in an October 1991 memo, "genetically modified plants could also contain unexpected high concentrations of plant toxicants." According to Steven M. Druker, J.D., executive director of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity, "Numerous agency experts protested that drafts of the statement of policy were ignoring the recognized potential for genetic engineering to produce unexpected toxins and allergens. But the policy was put into effect despite their scientific judgment that no GM foods can be presumed safe."

There are three aspects of GM foods which continue to be ignored by those who promote them. First about the right to know if the food is made differently. Second about safety of these foods for consumption in the long term. Third about environmental impact due to uncontrolled propagation of these products evolved through genetic engineering. Even if the two latter aspects about safety and environment are not clearly brought out through unanimous scientific evidence, still the first one regarding labeling should be insisted on leaving the choice to the consumer based on individual consumer perception. If irradiated foods are forced to declare the process on the label, why not the GM foods? A valid and relevant question indeed and the safety agency in the US must give a credible answer before long if the current campaigns assume a mass flavor in the coming years!



The Type I and Type II diabetes that afflict millions of people across the Globe is a scourge on humanity which if not checked in time can create a society of "half sick" people. While reason for Type I diabetes is attributed to genetic inheritance, Type II diabetes is an "invited guest" unwittingly self inflicted due to wrong diets and improper life style. Now comes the news that the incidence of Gestational Diabetes that affects pregnant women is posing serious concern because of its likely impact on the mother as well as the child to develop Type II diabetes eventually. It is felt that this version of the metabolic aberration is due to over eating by the pregnant women at early stages of gestation under the wrong impression that the child born to them would be very healthy and robust. On the contrary development of such diabetic incidence needs to be avoided by strictly moderating the diet of those intending to deliver a healthy child. Here is a take on the subject which throws much clarity on the issue.

"Luo Ting is snacking on a salt-free cracker in a Beijing maternity ward, part of a regimen to curb the glucose in her blood that threatens to cause lifelong harm to the baby she's due to deliver this week. Luo, a 29-year-old sales clerk, says she din't know pregnancy could trigger gestational diabetes until a test in April. Now she's among 15 percent of expecting mothers in Beijing who develop the condition, which can spur excessive fetal growth and raises the diabetes risk for them both. As China's population of diabetes sufferers approaches 100 million, health officials are trying to arrest an obesity-driven explosion in cases that's stretching hospitals and striking down working age men and women. The disease afflicts 1 in 10 adults in China, making it almost as common as in the U.S., and costs about $26 billion a year in medical bills, according to the International Diabetes Federation. "Their health system in the big cities is completely overwhelmed now by diabetes," said Ann Keeling, chief executive officer of the Brussels-based federation, in an interview. "They can't deal with the numbers that they've got coming through." The global burden of diabetes and other so-called non- communicable diseases may hinder development, according to the United Nations, which will discuss the issue at a meeting in New York Sept. 19-20. The talks will address research showing how maternal nutrition influences the risk of obesity and heart disease for both the mother and child in later life".

It is shocking that in a country like China prevalence of gestational diabetes is causing serious concern among the planners. The fact that more than10% of the indigenous population is under the influence of the disease cannot be wished away easily, calling for coherent action on the part of the government to arrest the trend. According to warnings by Diabetes experts, countries like India and China where extra ordinary economic growth has enabled people to have higher income for spending on foods, the diabetes incidence is likely to be high because their metabolic system used to low levels of food intake for centuries can have tendency to store fat at a higher rate with devastating consequences. Interestingly the pregnant women are put on a diet considered very rich by the nutritionists as a part of the traditional practices and naturally this triggers the symptoms of diabetes in these sub-optimally fed women through their life time. Many believe that these two countries will become joint capital of diabetes within a short period of time because of economic factors. Just like the family planning programs taken up in these countries earlier, which were able to check the population growth reasonably well, same approach is needed for tackling diabetes scourge also through state policy orchestration.


Saturday, October 15, 2011


To day's house wife must be eternally grateful to that smart kitchen appliance going by the name "Fridge" because it gives her tremendous freedom to buy and stock foods that will remain safe for days together if not for weeks. The Freezer chest that is an integral part of a Refrigerator helps her further to keep some foods for several months without getting spoiled. It is another matter that with the advent of Fridge the proportion of foods wasted has gone up because of the difficulty in keeping track of the "stock" of different foods that has been pushed into the "Box"! A common feature of all kitchens is that bigger the Fridge more difficult it becomes to use all that is stocked leading to periodic cleaning to throw out unused materials not edible any more. Here comes a savior for the humble house wife in the form of a "smart fridge" with features that can delight any one because it spares the house wife the need to be eternally alert about foods going waste due to difficulties in keeping track of the stock.

"One appliance creating quite a buzz in the industry is the smart fridge. With Wi-Fi-enabled computer screens built right into the refrigerator door, these appliances are so smart they can tell users when their carton of milk is set to expire or how much butter to buy at the store. The fridge can send recipe lists to smartphones or even activate an alarm if the door is left open. Touch screen apps provide weather information, headline news, photo slideshows and Pandora radio stations. Since the kitchen is a central location for most families, these computers can even organize calendars and notes, all available on smartphones, tablets and computers to keep the family connected. Technology like this is not going to be accessible to everyone, pointed out Cogburn. Don't throw away cookbooks and refrigerator magnets yet. The price tag on these smart appliances are going to deter most buyers. However, fridges on the lower end are still making advances in technology, with LCD touch screens that can set the temperature inside the fridge as well as determine how much ice and water are needed for a single glass, allowing for hands-free filling. New fridges, equal in total space to old fridges, now have more storage space as new technology has made the insulated sides narrower and the ice maker more efficient. Cogburn said some of the higher-end technology might come to Northeast Colorado eventually, but right now it's very limited in certain areas. While smart refrigerators use convenient computer systems as their selling point, other appliances focus on energy efficiency. Some products come with the Energy Star label, a program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy. These appliances have met strict energy efficiency guidelines to help Americans save on their energy bill as well as greenhouse gas emissions".

Of course what is not told about this appliance is that one has to be computer savvy to operate them and their cost can be foreboding to most families, at least for now. But imagine the advantages of owning such a fridge which can even convert the kitchen into a mini office that can run many chores! The million dollar question that can befuddle any one is whether these appliances will eventually affect the quality of foods cooked, at least from the taste and flavor angles because of too much pre-occupation of the house wife with the new Gizmo! While computer applications in general can improve the quality of life in many ways, the quality of results will depend ultimately on the operator and in this case also, human element in programming the fridge and equipping it with data can be a tough job and how many house wives will have the skill and patience remains to be seen. For those house wives who are familiar with latest developments in chip applications, the Smart Fridge will indeed be a boon!