Saturday, February 25, 2012


Big industrial groups dominating the food processing sector are invariably labeled as inimical to the interests of the consumers and the bitterness between the two is so severe that recently there was even a suggestion to bracket food industry with tobacco industry. Possibly such an attitude is gaining ground because of the presumed association of most products churned out by this industry with obesity and many health disorders common in wealthy countries where processed foods constitute more than 80% in every day diet. The so called "junk foods" with empty calories and practically no useful nutrients are becoming staple foods of many consumers because of the low price and massive promotion by their manufacturers. Against this background it is refreshing to hear about the positive role being played by a few food giants in helping to tackle the poverty and malnutrition problems in the African continent. Here is the interesting story coming out of the US with support from the government.

"For General Mills, a key way for us to have an impact [on global poverty] is by sharing our food technology expertise," said Powell. "I am honored to accept the Global Citizenship Award on behalf of General Mills, and specifically, the more than 300 volunteers who have stepped up to make this effort a reality. Through their work, and the meaningful support of our partners, we are making a measurable difference." Powell went on to highlight the passion of several employee volunteers and shared excitement about his upcoming trip to Africa to meet with food processors and small-holder farmers involved with PFS. Also in attendance at the event were several Minnesota dignitaries, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Erik Paulsen, Rep. Keith Ellison and Rep. Betty McCollum. Powell thanked each of them for their engagement in fighting hunger and addressing human rights issues in Minnesota and around the world. PFS is curren"tly working with 30 food processors on 77 projects in Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi. As these food processors grow, they are able to hire more workers and buy more raw materials from small-holder farmers. With more income, the farmers can pay school fees, access better medical care and start businesses. During his remarks, Powell thanked Cargill, DSM and TechnoServe. All work collectively with USAID and General Mills to fight hunger in Africa through PFS. Cargill and DSM joined PFS in 2011 and are critical partners that have helped expand the nonprofit's reach and depth of technical expertise. TechnoServe, a U.S. based nonprofit, helps facilitate and manage PFS projects locally in Africa".

USAID, one of the largest public supported food assistance programs in the world, has done yeoman service to bolster up the hunger fighting efforts of the developed countries and has already poured billions of dollars to make its presence felt in many poor countries in Africa, Asia and South America. Though it has been criticized for its bias in favor of American interests while carrying out these programs, the fact still remains that it has helped saving thousands of human lives through significant financial and other inputs from that country which is definitely a sacrifice measured by any yardstick. Having wealth is one thing but having the "spirit of giving" is another thing and the US deserves some appreciation from the world community for this gesture. What is surprising is the involvement of the private sector in this program under the PFS flag and financial and technical contributions from much maligned companies like Cargill, DSM, General Mills and many food processors in the US in executing several projects in Africa may give them an image make-over among consumers.    


Friday, February 24, 2012


In a desperate move to arrest the rapid spread of obesity epidemic, there appears to be a concerted move to choose a different approach in the US which is in the forefront when it comes to population with over weight and obesity. Though the major factor responsible for this undesirable development can be attributed to consumption of low quality and high quantity foods by the people, very little progress has been achieved in "persuading" the citizens to eat only healthy food, that too moderately and to be physically active. Industry, especially the Drug manufacturers, cannot be faulted if an opportunity opens up to peddle drugs that can control obesity and this is what is happening in the US. A drug like Qnexa, rejected two years ago, has made a stunning come back and with the likely of approves by the FDA soon, a multi billion industry is going to be spawned. Here is a take on this interesting development. 

"A federal advisory panel on Wednesday overwhelmingly recommended approval of what could become the first new prescription drug to treat obesity in 13 years. The advisory committee to the Food and Drug Administration voted 20 to 2 that the benefits from the weight loss provided by the drug, Qnexa, more than offset the potential risks of heart problems and birth defects. The strongly positive vote, which was not widely expected, represents a stunning comeback for Qnexa and for its developer, the drug company Vivus. In 2010, the same advisory committee, with a somewhat different membership, recommended 10 to 6 against approval, and the F.D.A. then rejected the drug. Some committee members who opposed it last time said they were reassured this time that steps would be taken to minimize the risks, such as by making it hard for pregnant women to get the drug. They also seemed persuaded by the view expressed by Vivus and by some obesity specialists who testified at the hearing that obesity itself causes health problems and that there is a pressing need for treatments. "There is an urgent need for better pharmacologic options for individual patients," said Elaine H. Morrato, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, who voted no in 2010 and yes on Wednesday. "I believe that Qnexa demonstrated a meaningful efficacy benefit and that there are consequences to nontreatment of obesity," she said. The F.D.A. is expected to decide whether to approve Qnexa by April 17. It usually follows the recommendations of its outside advisers, but not always. In 2011, it rejected a different obesity drug that had been endorsed by the advisory committee".

It is not clear why the new drug is going to be permitted now, though not much additional data has been provided by the manufacturer regarding its safety. Is it possible that the new members of the advisory committee are influenced by considerations other than consumer safety in gloating over the side effects of this drug reported in some quarters? One consolation is that this new drug will be available only on prescription and will not be accessible to most people easily. Of course one an expect the manufacturer to overwhelm the medical community with sustained promotional programs and the drug may become the most frequently prescribed one within a couple of years. What catastrophe this will bring about in the long run remains to be seen. Now Americans will have the luxury of "having the cake as well as eating it" with no worry about the consequences!


Thursday, February 23, 2012


Like a ritual every year the Finance Ministry consults various stakeholders in Indian economy for getting new ideas while formulating the annual budget though very few suggestions find they way in the eventual budget when it is presented. Besides many individuals and organizations express their unsolicited views, pleas and ideas, probably with good intention. This years budget, scheduled for placing before the Parliament in the first week of March, is also going through the same routine and what is going to come out remains to be seen. FICCI, the apex body that represents the entire manufacturing sector has sought several fiscal measures to strengthen the food processing industry, most of which seems to be reasonable and justified. Here is a take on the demands being made by this industry body to the government on the eve of budget presentation this year.   
"With regard to the food processing sector, on top of the FICCI agenda is reduction in the current 10 per cent rate of central value-added tax (CENVAT) on a number of categories of items produced by the sector. Further, FICCI wants the finance minister to put packaged drinking water, a common man's product, in the nil category, and exempt biscuits from VAT, or at least lower the rate of VAT on them. It opines that a total macro view is necessary instead of focusing on the revenue-generating potential of levying excise duty on products. But if the government is unable to do away with the excise duty completely even after taking the revenue aspect into account, it must reduce the excise duty in a calibrated manner. This, it says, should be done in two phases: it should be brought down to four per cent in the first phase and reduced to zero in the second. FICCI believes that biscuits should be treated as merit goods and therefore be secured in a more rational manner, as is done in the case of bread. After all, biscuits are a product of mass consumption across India and cut across all economic groups and geographical boundaries. They are eaten in larger quantities in the rural areas of the country and the brands that are sold at lower price points find more takers in the lower-income group". 

One of the perennial demands of food processing sector has bee to make this industry zero tax sector with the sole intention of making processed foods cheaper, affordable and acceptable to larger segment of the population. But such sensible pleas have met with stubborn refusal by the government which is more concerned with revenue generation than the welfare of the industry as well as the consuming public. Imagine the potential for the food industry to grow fast and on an exponential pace, if the price of the products is reduced dramatically through removal of all taxes! Think about the benefits the country can derive in the agri-horticulture sector and employment creating opportunities through such a fiscal measure! To some extent the government deserves applause for its progressive tax abating policies on packaging materials which contributed to dramatic expansion of small packs market in the country with thousands of foods available to low income consumers at prices as low as Re 1 to Rs 5 per pack. Same enlightened policy is necessary for bringing out the full potential of the food industry by expanding their reach into small income groups of population through reduction in prices through zero taxation.


"Indianization" of foreign foods seems to be the "mantra" of many multinational food companies who find it difficult to make any breakthrough in business in India with their otherwise successful recipes of western origin. Fusion foods, though a relatively new word in the food lexicon, brings out the reality that unless products that best suit Indian palates are launched, it is a Herculean task for the MNCs to establish sound business competing with the small scale caterers. Indian fast food outlets and road side vendors. Here is an example of such efforts by some companies as a part of their survival and growth strategy.
"Several "cross-border" cuisines seem to have emerged in the process. One such example is the 'Indo Chinese' that has items like 'gobi manchurian' on its menu. So now, preparation of chicken tikka might as well be slightly changed to marinating the chicken pieces in a 'laksa' paste, made from the Singaporean herb 'laksa' leaves, to give it a Singaporean twist before finishing on the charcoal grill. Similarly, 'laksa' might be used in the fragrant basmati -rice Indian 'pulao' preparation to make the 'laksa pulao' which its creator Chef Rajkamal Chopra of WelcomHotel Sheraton insists tastes best with 'raita' or spiced yoghurt. "It is very important for a chef to break out of routine and experiment, says Chopra. Similar views are echoed by renowned chef Sanjeev Kapoor who feels "chefs by nature are experimental". "However, today the diner has also begun experimenting, and this gives the chef more liberty and a stronger reason to do so."  Kapoor, who recently launched the Hindi version of his website to attract "new internet users" also attributed the large number of outbound as well as inbound traffic to and from the country to have helped cause the change. Global fast food players like McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), Pizza Hut and Chikking, a new entrant into the north Indian market, have also innovated with local ingredients to suit the Indian palette".
Fusion foods basically brings about rapport between Indian traditional food tastes and successful foreign products, be it from China, Europe or the US. It is remarkable that even a giant like McDonalds or Pepsico has grasped the significance of this aspect of creating new foods for marketing in this country. Sure, this is going to be the future trend whether in India or other Asian and African countries. Probably India may see many such developments in future with more and more foreign players adopting this route for success.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Being born in a rich country like the US or in Europe is considered a blessing because of high per capita income enjoyed by the population there. It is true that on PPP basis the citizens might not be as rich as thought to be because of high cost of living experienced there. A note worthy phenomenon which cannot escape notice of a discerning observer is the relatively low cost of the food as part of the family income. While in a country like India an average family in the lower middle class category may be spending almost 50% of the income on purchasing food and groceries, the same works out to less than 10% for a US family. In spite of constant inflation eating away part of the purchasing power of the citizen, still the food is considered affordable because of huge subsidies being showered on the farmer community by the government. In spite of the above recent reports suggest that there are significant pockets of poverty across that country with many families unable to muster even the minimum money required to buy essential foods for meeting the daily nutritional needs. A human tragedy of herculean dimension. Here is a take on this queer phenomenon.

"Food prices have risen in recent years due to growing demand in developing nations and speculative shenanigans in the commodities markets, but food in America is still cheap. As Michael Pollan noted in The New York Review of Books, President Richard Nixon reacted to a spike in food prices in the early 1970s by shifting policy from supporting price stability for farmers to increasing output of a few crops such as corn and soy (this explains why there's corn and soy in everything). As a result of this policy shift and technological gains that have increased productivity per acre, Americans spend less on food as a percentage of their income — slightly less than 10 percent — than at any time in modern history. Hunger persisted, however, because at the same time the cost of housing increased markedly, which left people with less money for food. Thankfully, the cost of housing in Las Vegas decreased with the housing bust. Still, hunger persists, though now it's because people can't find work or their income is swallowed up by medical costs."

The food inflation in many developing countries has witnessed alarming spurts and the condition in these places is not congenial for supporting a decent life style. It is not long ago the Prime Minister of India "lamented" about the sorry conditions in the country where majority of children are suffering from gross malnutrition and under nutrition with insufficient access to foods due to economic factors. It is not a solace that the government economists declaring that inflation for the last 4 weeks is less than zero though the food markets tell a different story. The fact is that there is no price stability practically for any food, especially the protective foods like fruits and vegetables and government does not seem to have any clue as to what needs to be done to make them available in plenty at affordable cost.


Friday, February 17, 2012


The "Law of Adulteration" operates on an economic scale and higher the cost of a food, more incentive is available to the fraudster to go for adulteration. Thus very few cases of adulteration is reported in low cost foods like cereals and others while high cost substances like edible oils, pulses, spices, etc are frequently tampered with. For example Saffron is one of the most commonly imitated or adulterated substances because its cost is almost astronomical. Similarly spices like black pepper also are attractive media for adulteration. Who ever is not familiar with milk adulteration which, according to the food safety watch dog in India has reached alarming levels crying for immediate remedial action to stem the rot. China, like India is also bedeviled by rabid food adulteration and the Melamine tainted milk which caused serious health damage to thousands of children three years ago cannot be easily forgotten. Here comes the latest"innovation in food adulteration" from China where shrimp traders are reported o be using gelatin to increase the weight of frozen shrimp!

"The follows reports that sellers in Tianjin in northern China were injecting shrimps with the additive to increase their weight and improve their appearance. Gu Zhenhua, vice director of Shanghai Food Safety Office, said food additives should only be used when necessary. "There is no need to put gelatin into shrimp," Gu said. "It is illegal to add unnecessary additives into food, even though in this case they don't harm people's health." Officials from Shanghai Industrial and Commercial Administrative Bureau said they haven't found any gelatin-injected shrimps in local wet markets. According to China National Radio, some Tianjin shoppers recently found that shrimps had been injected with gelatin. One Tianjin resident, surnamed Zhang, said she saw some good-sized shrimps with strong color and big heads in a wet market and bought 2.5 kilogram. "But when I started washing them, I found their heads fell off easily and there was a jelly-like substance inside," she said. Wet market vendors admitted frozen shrimps were injected with gelatin, a legal food additive used in making candy. This made them look fresh and bulked them up - adding 20 to 30 percent to their weight. Sellers defended the practice, claiming it was completely safe as gelatin is a legal food additive. But Ye Jiannong, a national political adviser and chemistry professor in Shanghai, said vendors were wrong to do this. "They just want to earn more money by adding unnecessary additives," Ye said.

The attraction for easy money is a human trait and same is understandable as long as the money is made through honest means. Those indulging in manipulating the food quality through addition of cheap extraneous substances do not think for a moment the agony and pain suffered by the consumers who eat such unsuspecting foods without ever being aware of the same and such fraudsters deserve the gallows, if the law permits such a deterrent punishment. In the above case gelatin is at least a permitted ingredient that can be used in some foods for its functional properties and after all it is also a protein, albeit of very low quality from nutritional angle. This does not condone the act because it is till an adulteration with economic dimension. In India there are thousands of instances of food adulteration, most of them go unnoticed and unpunished because of the lax attitude of the safety agencies at State as well as Central levels. NGO's and Citizen groups only can bring these fraudsters to book by being proactive and eternal vigilance.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Currently the food safety administration in India is supposed to be streamlined under the integrated regime "powered" by FSSAI. No doubt the law as it is documented in the Statute Books provides hope to the consumer that future can bode well for them with potential adulterators and fraudsters being deterred by the harsh penalty proposed and the expeditious disposal mechanism suggested to deal with   such cases. Industry also should not have any major complaint if the legal provisions are enforced honestly and unscrupulously. The real problem is the time taken to set up the necessary infrastructure to implement the law in letter and spirit considering that the implementing apparatus supposed to be under the State government is just pathetic if not ridiculous. Almost every day there are reports appearing in the news papers regarding the impotency of the state machinery to bring to books culprits caught meddling with food standards and getting away scot-free due to one reason or the other. Here is a report about the system that is being put in place to "manage" food safety in the country.

'With the much-awaited transition from a plethora of food laws and manifold control points to the single-integrated Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 (hereinafter referred to as FSSA) regime, there has been a critical shift in the process of adjudication as well envisioning expeditious disposal of cases related to food safety issues.  Special courts, summary trials and appellate tribunal have been provided for. The Food Safety and Standards Rules, 2011, deals inter alia with adjudication proceedings, procedure for appeal to tribunal, qualification of the presiding officer of the tribunal etc. Five judicial forums for trial / adjudication have been provided for under the FSSA and Rules thereunder - Adjudicating Officer, Food Safety Appellate Tribunal, Judicial Magistrate of the First Class / Metropolitan Magistrate, Special Court and the High Court".

As long as the FSSAI does not have power and capacity to prosecute food criminals it is unlikely that any one will be indicted as has been happening in the past. It is not a secret that under the corrupt system involved in "catching" safety violators, very few cases reach the corridors of the Court and when ever some culprits are hauled up they get away easily through "well heeled" tricks perpetuated by experienced lawyers.  What about the Laboratories that analyze the samples as and when they are brought before them? Here again "experienced" agents are reported to be able to "fix" the results. Of course these are not documented any where to prove these allegations as these are done  mostly through  "understanding"  and "faith" and therefore very difficult to be proved for prosecuting the "abettors of the crime". To hope that the system will change with the new Act and the new Authority may just be day dreaming! Unless honesty is restored among the officials administering the Safety Law, India will continue to plod along pretending that every thing is fine with the quality and safety of food offered to the hapless citizens of the country.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Hardly a day passes without any reports appearing about the seriousness of over weight and obesity which are spreading like wild fire, especially among the citizens in rich countries. It is indisputable that, as a scientific fact, one is bound to gain weight when input calories consumed through every day food exceeds the calorie output through physical efforts. The only disputable issue is how much a diet can contribute to the calories intake and what type of foods can be fattening. There are thousands of "advice" offered by knowledgeable as well as pseudo-experts putting the poor consumer in great dilemma regarding what should be taken or what should not be consumed. In one of the latest reports from the much respected Harward University, consumption of Potato has been linked to obesity and the massive data generated by its researchers through extensive field work seems to have clearly implicated this most liked root vegetable as enemy number one for people wishing to stay on the right side of the weighing scale!  

"In a new report published in The New England Journal of Medicine, a team of Harvard researchers has revealed the results of a study of 120,877 people showing that 10 foods were found to be especially correlated with long-term changes in weight. Potato chips Among foods promoting weight gain,  potato chips topped the list. The researchers' conclusion was that potatoes and extra kilos go together, so anyone seeking to shed weight should steer clear French fries and every other variety of the "spuds". From the study, a daily extra serving of potatoes, whether, boiled, fried, baked  or mashed, could add up to five kilos over the course of four years. An additional serving of nuts, fruit or vegetables, on the other  hand, will add up to weight loss. The scientists noted in their results that potatoes are very calorie dense, noting that it is best to cook potatoes so that the starchy goodness can be converted into glucose. A medium sized pack of potato chips contains about 300 calories, 15 grammes of fat and 45 grammes of carbohydrates. Even the relatively medium baked potato has about 160 calories, less than a gramme of fat and and about 37 grammes of carbohydrates".

A bigger question that needs to be answered is which carbohydrate-rich food can be safe if Potato is "undesirable"? Practically all cereals and tubers are rich sources of carbohydrates and how can they be safer than Potato? Of course there is lot of logic in advising against gorging on fried Potato preparations or products baked with lot of fat but to say even boiled Potato can be dangerous may be hard to swallow. Ultimately consumers must understand that any food, irrespective of its composition, if over-consumed, can definitely have the potential to add up to the body weight over a period of time and moderation should be the guiding spirit while food is consumed, in stead of getting scared of any particular food. 


Monday, February 13, 2012


Those who are embarrassed often because of sudden forgetfulness during day time know how frustrating it is to remember or recall some thing when required. Though many start worrying whether they are victims of the dreaded "Dementia" or it is the early sign of Alzheimer's disease recent reports suggest that same might not be very serious to be unduly alarmed about. Cognitive ability does decline with progress of age. For a normal individual it is a minor consequence of aging, with declining faculties like vision, hearing, taste perception, skin sensitivity, tooth decay etc, which one eventually learns to live with.. According to new studies food can cause mild cognitive impairment if consumed in quantities beyond what is really required in terms of calories. Here is a take on this important revelation that may help people to avoid over eating.   

"Older people who consumed more than 2,143 calories a day had more than double the risk of a type of memory loss called mild cognitive impairment compared to those who ate fewer than 1,500 calories a day, according to a study being released Sunday by the American Academy of Neurology on its website ( The more calories older people consumed, the more likely they were to have mild cognitive impairment, says Yonas Geda, lead author of the study and a neuropsychiatrist at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. Other investigators from Australia have shown that excessive calorie intake is associated with a greater risk of mild cognitive impairment, he says. MCI is the condition between normal forgetfulness due to aging and early Alzheimer's disease. People with MCI have problems with memory, language or thinking severe enough to be noticeable to other people and to show up on tests, but not serious enough to interfere with daily life, according to the Alzheimer's Association. People are often aware of the forgetfulness".

It is by now well established that a diet low in calories is healthful and helps extending one's life span. Distinct from a starvation diet, sub-optimal calorie load is considered perfectly in order, especially for fully grown adults and elderly persons without causing any disorders. This is an area where some more clarity is needed before fully subscribing to such an eating regime. The 1200 kc diet supposed to be ideal for longevity cannot be a universal recipe because energy requirement, beyond the need for basal metabolism, is proportional to the physical activity and an active human with heavy work style obviously cannot be expected to sustain on such a sub-optimal diet. Similarly the 1500 calories diet that is claimed to help avoid MCI also needs appropriate corrections depending on the rigorousness of daily work. Nonetheless this is an important finding warning against overeating that can be detrimental, viewed from all angles.


Sunday, February 12, 2012


Of all the non-sugar sweeteners currently in the market, Stevia derived one seems to be at the center of focus by the food industry because it has not been created in a laboratory by man, staking its claim as a natural sweetener. Though Stevia leaves were used for hundreds of years in South America for creating sweetness in various food preparations, Safety Authorities in many countries were not convinced about its safety for a long time. Subsequent to its clearance recently in Europe as well as in the US there has been a spurt of interest leading to the growth of Stevia sweetener industry almost exponentially. A troubling question often raised about Stevia is whether it is absolutely "equal" to natural sugar in taste and it now appears that there is subtle taste difference between these two that enables a sensitive consumer to differentiate the same. A good non-sugar sweetener should be equal to natural sugar in all respects and Stevia sweetener probably may fail this test. But researchers feel that this problem can be "licked" by isolating the glycoside components and blending them suitably. Here is a take on this new findings about Stevia sugar. 

"The first sip tastes sweet. But by the fifth sip, something funny happens. The sweetness somehow disappears. It's a phenomenon called adaptation, Breslin says. It doesn't happen much with sugar, but it does with all of the zero-calorie sweeteners, including stevia. Pure Circle, the big stevia processor, says it's working on ways to deal with this problem. Sidd Purkayastha, the company's vice president for global technical development, says stevia leaves actually contain a whole family of different sweet molecules, called steviol glycosides. So you can create mixtures of different molecules, tweaking the taste. "We found that, as we bring together different steviol glycoside molecules, they start performing better, in many cases, and more like sugar," he says. Maybe the perfect combination, he adds, is a mixture of stevia and regular sugar. You'd have some calories, but a lot fewer than if you used only sugar. You'd have the sweetness that people crave. And you could still put these valuable words on the label: "All-natural."

The suggestion to develop blends of natural sugar and Stevia sugar to camouflage the sensory deficiency of the latter is eminently sound and food industry must work in this direction without delay. It has further advantage of reducing sugar production, saving the land spared by sugarcane for use to raise more valuable crops like oil seeds or legumes. A blend of sugar and Stevia sweetener can also help to retain some of the functional properties of natural sugar so vital to manufacture of many products. Stevia sugar is a concentrated sweetener and mixing with sugar will help to handle the blend better besides adding a few calories making it low calorie sweetener rather than zero calorie sweetener and such blends may be acceptable to most consumers.



Frequent episodes of food contamination with pathogenic bacteria have focused the attention of the safety authorities on the vulnerability of meat industry to such tainting and the urgent need to come out with effective ways of counteracting this threat through efficient treatment techniques. While irradiation is a neat technology that can be deployed to kill bacteria, its industry wide use is restricted by the need to declare the same on the label which is not considered possible for marketing reasons by the meat industry. Besides some countries do not allow irradiation of meat to prevent low grade meat being treated with gamma radiation and passed of as premium quality product. The concept of using Plasma beams for surface decontamination by scientists may possibly offer another viable process and here is a take on this new development. 

'Concentrated plasma beams can effectively kill pathogens on raw chicken, according to a proof-of-concept study published in the January Journal of Food Protection by food safety researchers at Drexel University. In the study, plasma eliminated all or nearly all bacteria from raw chicken -- both skinless and with skin -- when the bacteria were present in low concentrations. On chicken with high concentrations of bacteria, plasma treatment resulted in "significant" reductions. Although heating chicken to safe temperatures kills all present bacteria, improperly handling raw meat can lead to infection from cross-contamination. According to the Drexel University press release, Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria are found on the surface of nearly 70 percent of raw chicken samples that gets tested. If implemented in a commercial setting, the plasma treatment would help safeguard against illnesses from cross-contamination or insufficient cooking by removing pathogens before they reach the market. The treatment works at room temperature. It does not cook the meat or alter its appearance. The study also found that plasma killed antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria just as effectively as its non-resistant counterparts. And in addition to removing pathogens from meat, plasma treatment killed large amounts of bacteria responsible for spoilage, thus potentially improving the meat's shelf life".

No doubt the process is quite attractive as it does not involve heat treatment which can change the eating quality of meat significantly but whether safety authorities will clear this process is a million dollar question because of the same argument regarding its potential misuse by the industry. Also uncertain is whether this laboratory findings will be amenable to mass processing and how costly it will be for commercial use. Food poisoning episodes are increasingly taking place in countries like the US and it is time that processes like irradiation and plasma beam are considered more favorably in coming days and with suitable overseeing these new technologies can raise the level of confidence about the safety of meat products in general among the consuming public. 


Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Is it not interesting that yesterday's villain becomes a hero all of a sudden? This is what is happening to chocolate products which are now being positioned as a health promoting food and if the EU Authorities approve this claim, it may as well as start a new trend by the industry to look for positive health conferring ingredients in each and every food it will develop in future. It is not that the antioxidant rich cocoa was not recognized as a rich source of flavonoids with properties to help fight oxy radical generation in the human body and prevent potential damages to the immunity of the body. But conversion of Cocoa into consumable chocolate products entails addition of a lot of sugar and cocoa butter diluting the flavonoid content very significantly. Most industrial products based on cocoa beans end up as carriers of sugar and saturated fat, a fatal combination to "destroy" health. The new trend in increasing cocoa solid content and producing dark chocolates is considered desirable as they contain much less sugar compared to normal products. Here is a take on this new development.    

'"A major Swiss chocolate maker is hoping to give cardiovascular patients a good excuse to reach for a chocolate bar and is asking Europe's highest food safety authority to approve a health claim linking cocoa flavonoids with improved blood flow. In an interview with online  trade publication last week, a company spokesperson for premium chocolate supplier Barry Callebaut said the company is confident that the European Food Safety Authority will approve the claim based on the results of five clinical studies conducted and finalized last year. Flavonoids are plant-based antioxidants found in brightly colored foods like blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, red beans, nuts, red wine and tea. They've been associated with a decreased risk of age-related and chronic diseases. Healthy blood flow has become an emerging trend in functional foods recently, with a spate of food manufacturers developing products that claim to help clean the arteries and reduce LDL or bad cholesterol levels. One of the pioneering artery cleaning products on the market, Fruitflow, is a tomato-based extract that was the first to win EU approval for its nutritional health claims under a section reserved for proprietary and newly emerging science. Meanwhile, other chocolate makers have also clued into the strategy of delivering powerful health benefits via the sweet confectionery".

Though flavonoids are health-friendly phytochemicals found in many colored foods like fruits and berries, nuts, vegetables, etc their actual utilization in human body is constrained by the complex chemical structure some them have and therefore any health claim needs to be supported by actual scientific data generated through clinical studies. There are very few such products which can be really called health foods if this criterion is strictly applied. It is good that the new claim about chocolate is backed by clinical studies and such scientific evaluation may become the industry standard for making health claims for newly developed food products. 



Pubs are just "watering holes" for people longing for an alcoholic drink for consumption in a relaxed atmosphere and very little focus is on the quality or variety of "accompaniments" served along with. The so called "Public Houses" so common in the UK became Pubs as an accepted synonym and these establishments were part of the culture in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. There was a time when frequent visits to Pubs, especially in the evening was a part of the living style in these countries. These pubs also served as meeting points for people as they were established even in villages. There are about 50 000 pubs in the UK alone, though their number is declining because of rapid changes in the food business and changing life style of the people. Concerned with this trend there appears to be a conscious effort to transform the face of these Pubs by dramatic improvements in foods served there that can compete with good established restaurants. Here is take on this historical change taking place in the UK.

"As pub foodservice expands, pub chains look to new growth opportunities with an extended mix of food and drink for their customers.  Consumers cite higher-quality food as the number one reason for visiting pubs more often, indicating that high-quality ingredients and premium positioning can drive traffic and sales.  Thirty-nine percent of consumers say they are visiting pubs less often than they did a year ago in the midst of a sluggish economy.  However, changes in the evolving pub sector are attracting a broader base of consumers and attracting more young consumers, 52 percent of which say they are visiting pubs more often compared to a year ago. "Consumers expect pubs to offer high-quality foods, despite the established perception of traditional pub fare," says Technomic Managing Director Darren Tristano. "Pubs aren't just a place to grab a pint anymore.  By broadening their menu items and adjusting their concept positioning, new dayparts such as breakfast, can attract couples and families choosing pubs as a viable dining option."

Probably the old concept that those who come to drink alcoholic beverages do not care for the quality of food served, due to their focus in getting "tipsy", no longer holds good and modern day "drinkers" are more "mature" and realistic in their expectations. If one has to have a decent meal after a couple of drinks, it is quite a task to go hunting for a good restaurant and as driving under the influence of alcohol is an offence there are logistical and legal problems. However when alcohol is consumed along with food it can be expected to metabolize faster and this gives the necessary opportunity to the Pub to serve good foods making the customers stay with them longer. The Pub owners in the UK seem to have grasped the significance of this realism, changing their strategy by offering high quality foods to expand their clientele. This trend is likely to emerge in other countries also and eventually the distinction between Pub and a restaurant may get blurred over a period of time.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012


It is sad to see a country like China struggling to cope up with food frauds in spite of the brutal state power available with the government to punish the culprits with even capital punishment. How far the corruption at the government level influences the attitude of adulterators is not clear. The incident of Melamine tainting of infant food that killed and maimed many children, which is not easy to erase from memory, has dented the image of this country considerably and any effort to seriously address the systemic failure is not viewed with confidence by the citizens as well as international buyers of Chinese foods. Now comes the news that Milk being produced by one of the leading dairies in that country is contaminated with the deadly Aflatoxin at levels not considered acceptable in many countries, further straining the credibility of food safety administration of there. Here is a gist of the news report which gives further insight into the episode.  

"China has discovered excessive levels of a cancer-causing toxin in milk produced by one of the nation's leading dairy companies, the firm said, in the latest in a series of food safety alarms. The government's quality watchdog found high levels of an aflatoxin, which is caused by mould, in milk produced by the Mengniu Dairy Group, the company said in a statement issued Sunday. Mengniu said the milk, produced at one of its plants in the southwestern province of Sichuan, was tested before being sold so the contaminated milk never reached the market. China is trying to crack down on product safety violations to reassure citizens and restore faith in the government after a series of high-profile scandals. Milk was at the centre of China's biggest food safety scandal in 2008 when the industrial chemical melamine was found to have been illegally added to dairy products to give the appearance of higher protein content. At least six babies died and another 300,000 became ill after drinking milk tainted with melamine. Product safety problems have been found in goods ranging from pharmaceuticals to cooking oil. In September, the government arrested 32 people over the sale of cooking oil made from leftovers taken from gutters. Aflatoxins can be found in milk after cows consume feed contaminated by mould and can increase the risk of cancer, including liver cancer, according to the World Health Organisation. Mengniu said the products had been destroyed, and apologised to consumers".

The explanation that the affected milk supply came from cattle, fed with animal feeds containing high levels of Aflatoxin which is generated due to growth of the mold Aspergillus under unsatisfactory conditions of storage or use of Aflatoxin tainted ingredients like groundnut cake, cannot be an excuse to condone such dangerous episodes. If the production of cattle feed or processing of milk is managed under HACCP regime, such an incidence could not have happened. One can only hope that adequate lessons will be learned from this unfortunate incidence of milk poisoning.  


Monday, February 6, 2012


Ever since the Ministry of Food Processing Industry(MoFPI)was established as a Special Purpose Vehicle of Government of India two decades ago, like any other government agency, this set up has been producing reams of papers, often glossy, promising many things and raising visions of a vibrant food industry in the country. It is well known that on a per unit investment food processing sector create more employment provided it is dominated by small and medium scale enterprises. If large scale mechanization is deployed in the processing, the employment content comes down drastically. A look at the past developments, the Indian food industry is increasingly being controlled by Mega companies and MNCs with huge investment and capital intensive foreign originated technologies sidelining the small and tiny sector players. Frequent "declarations" that MoFPI would increase the value addition to agricultural produce, raise the GDP contribution and substantially increase exports is turning out to be mere sloganeering and whatever the country has been able to achieve so far is in spite of the government by the enterprising private players. The latest "Plan" to set up 10 Mega food parks can materialize only if adequate industry friendly environment is provided and just offering subsidies will end up in huge tracts of land being appropriated by big fishes under the garb of establishing food processing units. Here is the grand stand posturing of MoFPI on this grandiose plans.

"The food parks will be built in Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Jharkhand, Assam, West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Bihar and Tripura. Ministry has introduced Mega Food Parks Scheme (MFPS) to accelerate the growth of food processing industry in the country through facilitating establishment of strong food processing infrastructure backed by an efficient supply chain. Ministry informed that the scheme provides for a capital grant of 50 percent of the project cost in difficult and Institute for Transportation and Development Policy(ITDP) notified areas(with a ceiling of Rs 50 crores). The government is likely to be spent a sum of Rs.488 crore by March 2012 on the scheme for technology upgradation and modernization of food processing industries. A Mega Food Park takes about 30-36 months to be completed. The working group on food processing for the XII Plan has recommended a new centrally sponsored scheme in the form of National Mission on Food Processing (NMFP) proposed with seven components".

It is true that China has achieved lot using the strategy of Mega Food Parks which helped that country as a major exporter of processed foods of all hues at relatively low cost. But this has happened because of extraordinary facilities and support provided by the government there in stead of just "passing on" the money as it is happening in India. A Mega Food Park must be "mega" in size by bringing in many diverse processors from the small and medium scale sector in stead of a few mega companies with very little employment content. In stead of Mega Parks what the country needs is hundreds of functional industrial estates with superb infrastructure and a few common facilities including marketing help. Big companies have sufficient resources to set up their own facilities and do not need any prop from the government. One can only hope better sense will prevail eventually!


Sunday, February 5, 2012


Organic foods market is on a steady climb and can be expected to become a significant player in a few years to come. The major reason for people patronizing this version of food is because of apprehensions about the risks posed by the main stream food industry which is being hauled up for a series of serious safety violations requiring massive recalls of many suspected consignments from the market. The organic food certification is a complex procedure involving frequent checking and monitoring and like any human endeavor certification agencies can be vulnerable to mismanagement and some times manipulation causing some serious concern. It is a tribute to China that it is trying to make the organic certification process as transparent as possible to infuse more confidence among consumers, especially the international buyers. If the policy orchestrated recently is implemented organic foods from China may become darling of the prospective buyers. Here is a take on this development in that country.

"A senior staff member from one of China's 23 official certification bodies, who spoke on condition of anonymity, disclosed that
a new national standard will be unveiled in March to ease the chaos. The standard will include four important changes from 
the original, in 2005. This staff member has been working in organic food certification for about eight years. He said the first two changes
will concern the transition period, akin to probation, when a farm applies for the certification of land. It lasts for 24 or 36 months, 
depending on the crops grown there, and farms must begin following organic practices three or four months before the transition period.
Under the current standard, as soon as farms enter the transition, they can obtain yellow certification, indicating their products are moving
toward organic.Green certification is granted only if the farm passes probation. "The problem with this stage is that, under the current
standard, a farm can get a transition period certificate, even if it only stopped applying chemicals on the crops three or four months
earlier,"the senior staff member said. Under revised procedures, no certificates will be issued in the first 12 months of transition.
"That is to say, the farm will have to stop using chemicals for at least 15 months before it can receive a yellow certificate," he said.
Also, farmers will not be allowed to label their products "organic transition food", which has been used to denote food that was better
than ordinary but not as good as organic.The staff member also said the new regulations will set the acceptable level of pesticide residue
at zero.The current standard allows "one-20th of that found in ordinary food".

China can do well with some image make over after a series of food adulteration episodes that has shaken the confidence on its reliability and safety and this has caused some erosion of its food export business. China has a better chance of enforcing harsh control regimes to safeguard the image of its industry and there is no reason this new initiative will not succeed though corruption and corruptible enforcement officials can still derail the program. Probably other countries may have a lesson to learn from China in initiating such new novel features in the regulatory regime.


Saturday, February 4, 2012


No matter how stringent the food safety regulations are, as long as human beings handle food there is bound to be health risks associated with such mass manufactured food products. It is a wonder that instances of food poisoning are not as alarming as it could be, considering the massive volumes handled by the food industry, especially in a high consumption country like the US. The new regulations which are supposed to be more stringent, based on past experience being enforced in that country are giving, probably, false hopes to the consumers that they can relax with no possibility of any danger from the foods they access from the market. Probably such a feeling is misplaced as there is nothing in this world which is absolutely safe, the whole life being a balance of risks and benefits associated with day to day activities. Recent food poisoning episode in the US that affected about 69 people in 10 states has been attributed to foods consumed in Mexican restaurants but it is not yet certain that those affected consumed the food from one or more restaurants belonging to established Mexican food chains. Investigation should pin point the source from where Salmonella was able to gain access to the stomach of the affected consumers so that such incidences are not repeated else where in future. 

"Food Safety News has found that six fast food "Mexican-style" restaurant chains -- Taco Bell, Chipotle, Qdoba, Del Taco, Taco John's and Taco Del Mar -- have locations in at least 7 of the 10 states reporting victims tied to the outbreak. Three chains - Chipotle, Qdoba and Taco Bell - have locations in all 10 states. Because the CDC lists outbreak victims by the state in which their illnesses were reported, it is possible that some of the victims ate contaminated food in one state and fell ill in another state -- meaning "Restaurant Chain A" does not necessarily have a franchise in each state that reported an outbreak-related case of salmonellosis. Food Safety News attempted to contact representatives from each of the six restaurant chains. Thus far, only representatives from Qdoba and Chipotle have stated their chains were not involved in the outbreak. "There is no connection to Chipotle and we have not been contacted by CDC or any other health officials regarding this incident," said a representative for Chipotle in an emailed statement to Food Safety News Monday.  "No, we have not been linked by the CDC to any Salmonella outbreaks at any of our locations," Lauren Preston of Qdoba told Food Safety News Monday. Taco Bell, Del Taco, Taco John's and Taco Del Mar did not return any of Food Safety News's requests for comment, despite repeated attempts. Last week, Food Safety News called the health departments in each of 10 states involved in the outbreak, and the CDC and FDA, and none of these public agencies would provide the name of the restaurant. The list of states where Salmonella enteriditis illnesses were reported is as follows: Texas (43), Oklahoma (16), Kansas (2) Iowa (2), Michigan (1), Missouri (1), Nebraska (1), New Mexico (1), Ohio (1) and Tennessee (1)". 

Has the above episode a lesson to offer to restaurants catering ethnic foods? It is widely known that those catering ethnic foods from China, India, Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka etc are less rigorous in their adherence to standard hygienic and sanitary practices raising the chances of contamination in the preparations made by them. While Indian customers with "strong" stomach might not react to foods marginally tainted, local population trying such foods occasionally may not have the required "immunity" to resist even mild contamination resulting in illness. The message from the above episode is that ethnic food caterers must see the writing on the wall and make their establishment truly safe for every customer who walks in for enjoying their food with no danger of falling sick.


Friday, February 3, 2012


Salt in moderate quantities enhance the appeal of those foods which are bland to taste. Any savory preparation without salt can be a disaster for any food processor as there will be few takers for it. On the other hand high salt content can be organoleptically undesirable besides setting in the satiety factor quickly. For centuries salt was valued very high in the human society and there was a time salt was even used as a currency for trade. How is that such a friendly and useful commodity has fallen off the high pedestal in a matter of 4-5 decades and to day it is being castigated as the biggest enemy of human being! While no one disputes the essentiality of salt for normal good health, what is being debated is how much can be consumed by an individual without being affected by a plethora of diseases attributed to high salt consumption. If health and nutrition pundits are to be believed a human just requires just about 220 mg of sodium a day, equivalent to half a gram of salt whereas actual consumption could be almost 5-20 times in different parts of the world. The new finding that it is not the level of salt in the diet that determines the vulnerability of humans to diseases but the ratio of sodium to potassium that influences the health, appears to answer the troubling question as to why all people consuming high salt are not affected by their diet. Probably salt in isolation may not be a true indicator for developing diseases and the whole life style also may have a role to play. Here is a take on this vital health issue confronting to day's world.

"Well, think again. A major study, based on data from more than 12,000 American adults, took into account all those risk factors for death from heart disease. The researchers found that while a diet high in sodium — salt is the main source — increases your risk, even more important is the ratio of sodium (harmful) to potassium (protective) in one's diet. When people whose meals contained little sodium relative to potassium were compared with those whose diets had a high sodium-to-potassium ratio, the latter were nearly 50 percent more likely to die from any cause and more than twice as likely to die from ischemic heart disease during a follow-up period averaging 14.8 years. Although there has been on-and-off controversy about the value of limiting dietary salt, there is no question that a high level of sodium in the diet raises blood pressure and the risk of chronic hypertension by stiffening arteries and blocking nitric oxide, which relaxes arteries. Hypertension, in turn, contributes to heart disease and stroke, leading causes of death. Potassium, on the other hand, activates nitric oxide and thus reduces pressure in the arteries, lowering the risk of hypertension. "We controlled for all the major cardiovascular risk factors and still found an association between the sodium-potassium ratio and deaths from heart disease," said Dr. Elena V. Kuklina, a nutritional epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an author of the study, published earlier this year in Archives of Internal Medicine. "With age, the risk of high blood pressure increases. The lifetime risk in this country is 90 percent. If you live long enough, you're at risk." According to an Institute of Medicine report on sodium released last year, "No one is immune to the adverse health effects of excessive sodium intake."

If adequate knowledge is not available to day as to the type of diet which can be safe for the humans, in spite of high salt content present, it is time more focused attention is given to unravel the mysteries of this vital food ingredient. If salt is really bad in the daily diet why is that people in countries like India who are prolific consumers of salt have less incidences of blood pressure and other salt related diseases? Surveys like the above reported cannot give absolute answer to such pointed queries and the answer lies some where else. More research under controlled conditions using human subjects is called for in elucidating the role of salt. In absence of clear picture regarding optimum intake of salt for sound health, it may be wiser to listen to cautionary signals calling for cutting down salt as much as possible. One can only hope that lowering of salt in the diet as being recommended will not precipitate any other unanticipated problems in future.


Thursday, February 2, 2012


There is an old saying that even "Elixir" can become a poison when consumed in unlimited quantity. Same is true with food also. The root cause of many modern day life style diseases has been attributed to processed foods with high degree of refining where bulk of the health promoting constituents are removed. A diet not balanced in terms of essential nutrients can also be a deterrent to sound health as being seen with many wealthy consumers who eat rich foods but some what unbalanced vis-a-vis one or the other nutrient vital for normal body metabolism. In India Mango is a much liked fruit but it is also rich in sugar and one of the regular observations made by physicians is that many diabetic people land into problem during Mango season because of high sugar levels in the blood caused by too much consumption of Mango. Those counting their calories must be aware of the calories contributed by fruits though these protective foods are recommended by nutrition experts. Same is true with other recommended foods like coarse grains, whole grains etc all of which do contribute to calories and their excess consumption does not help the cause of weight control.  Here is an interesting commentary by a discerning observer about the implications of over consumption.

People often make the mistake of thinking that something is good for you just because it's all-natural or organic. Today, I want to focus on a different nutritional blind-spot: quality vs. quantity. Even when a food is good for you, it doesn't necessarily follow that you can eat it in unlimited quantities. Whole grains and fresh fruits are two examples of healthy foods that can easily be over-consumed. 

It is true the concepts of Cosmic Index (GI) and Glycemic Load (GL) are excellent to guide consumers regarding the quality of carbohydrate in a diet but ultimately one has to control the quantity consumed to prevent excess calorie build up which can add to the waist line. When it comes to planning a diet for a normally healthy individual and others handicapped by disorders like diabetes, obesity etc different yardsticks need to be used but the basic principle that over delivery of calorie rich foods to any one can be deleterious to both the groups. Moderation and elf-discipline in eating are the corner stones for a normal healthy life.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


With major cuisines from China, Mexico, India and other countries becoming universally sought after, the national boundaries are getting blurred more and more and the ease of travel across the globe has further accentuated this trend. Restaurants specialized in the traditional cuisines of many countries are springing up every where in the world and there is no dearth of customers for these joints. The explosive development of Food Truck industry, especially in the US, has taken eating experience to a different level with customers patronizing these mobile food caterers in great numbers. It is in this context one has to appreciate the novel approach to catering by an entrepreneur in London with his offer of the foods prepared in his restaurant any where in the world using a renovated Jet fighter acquired from Iraq. According to the claims made by him the foods are much sought after by many celebrities from many countries and he seems to have developed the necessary skill to deliver these foods in prime condition. Here is a take on this new phenomenon.  

"The owner of an Indian restaurant in Britain has bought a fighter jet to deliver his food to celebrity clients across the world. Rob Abdul, 40, who runs the Cafe Taj restaurant in Gravesend, Kent, bought the now abandoned Iraqi warplane with a pilot friend, and has spent 35,000 pounds ($55,000) restoring it. "One thing you cannot do as a businessman is disappoint your customers. I regularly get requests from around the world," Abdul was quoted as saying by the Daily Express. Abdul has previously sent food from his restaurant to the England cricket team on tour to Australia".

One is curious to know the over head cost incurred in supplying food out side England by air and whether the eventual price tag would not be too high. Probably for celebrities who earn thousands of dollars every minute through their talent, any price tag might not be too high. 
Modern food technologies like modified atmosphere packing, freezing, aseptic filling, high pressure processing etc, capable of preserving the quality of food for significantly longer periods, there may not be any technological challenge for the venture. Logistical problems like phyto-sanitary clearance and border controls between countries may still pose some uncertainties, especially under the present security concerns for international travel and freighting. All said, the new initiative deserves to be applauded and it is worth watching the experience of this entrepreneur to guide future developments in this area.