Monday, October 29, 2012


The most frequently asked question by the consumers world over is whether commercial foods marketed by the processed food industry are really safe for short term as well as long term consumption? It is a tragedy of Himalayan proportion that no safety agency whether national or international is willing to say these foods are "absolutely" safe! Of course such a situation is understandable considering the complex composition of foods and enormous cost of running longitudinal safety studies on each and every ingredient used while processing. But the fact that consumer is not "protected" fully must sink in and there is nothing like an absolutely safe food. Consumer must weigh in the relative risks of enjoying a food or not consuming it at all before taking a purchase decision. At least those products coming under the supervisory regime of safety agencies carry lesser risks provided the market monitoring is done with vigor and efficiency. Here is a "caustic" comment on the safety of processed foods which tells its own story!

"Those unpronounceable ingredients listed on food packages are all tested, regulated and safe, right? When a company adds a new additive to its food, they have to ask permission first, don't they? According to a review by the Pew Health Group's Food Additives Project, the answer is a resounding, "No!" Of more than 10,000 chemicals allowed in human food as of January 2011, a third were approved by those with a vested interest. Either the product manufacturers themselves or the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association Expert Panel gave them a stamp of approval. The other two-thirds got the blessing of one of the agencies charged with regulating additives. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) looks after pesticides. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has responsibility for all other chemicals.It is easy to do the math. Double-blind, peer-reviewed studies are costly. Testing the safety of a new chemical requires longitudinal studies. Even those are not enough since chemicals never interact with the body in isolation. Tracking one chemical at a time or even narrow combinations is an imprecise method. So it is very difficult to be sure if something is safe or not. Neither the EPA nor the FDA has the budget for major research projects. That leaves us in industry hands. Their version of the "precautionary principle" could probably be defined as, "a rule meant to keep our profits healthy unless we are caught making people sick, in which case we will find legal means for avoiding responsibility."

In defense of the regulatory agencies, it can be said that they are doing a job as best they can under financial and infrastructural constraints imposed by the democratic governments which have many other priorities. What is reprehensible, however, is playing to the money power of the industry in bending rules or "looking the other way" when there are adequate scientific basis for hauling the defaulters and violators. It is true that industry is allowed to use thousands of chemical additives, many unnecessary, in the name of technical necessity. No wonder consumers are increasingly turning towards organic food industry which has a better hold on the chemicals used in their products. While in countries with poor food industry base people consume high proportion of unprocessed foods with their diets predominated by these components. In contrast in many wealthy countries the proportion of processed foods in the daily diet can be as high as 80% making them more vulnerable to food related safety episodes too frequently. As there are no uniform international norms practiced by all countries, such a situation is likely to persist for a long time to come.


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