Saturday, March 17, 2012


It is not understood why seaweed is considered as a food since it has practically no nutrients worth crowing about. There is no protein, no fat, only 1 gm carbohydrate per 10 gm, only 4 calories per 10 gm but still people are reported to be consuming it as a food in their regular diets. Indonesia which produces the largest quantity vie with others like Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, Taiwan etc. If the following report is to be believed there is nothing as nutritious as Sea weed! Here is the startling claim by some new "growers" of this muti cellular algae in the West.   

"Spend time talking to Charles Yarish and Paul Dobbins, and you'll start to believe seaweed farming could be the answer to some of the world's most intractable problems. For starters, it could provide a highly nutritious, sustainable food source to a hungry planet; it could be transformed into biofuel that removes heat-trapping carbon dioxide even as it cleans offshore waters of pollutants; and it could create environmentally friendly economic opportunities for coastal communities including Long Island Sound. Cultivation of this "virtuous vegetable," as Dobbins has dubbed it, is a multimillion dollar worldwide industry, supplying key ingredients for medicines, cosmetics, fertilizers and food products ranging from sushi wrappers to ice cream thickeners. Dobbins is president of Ocean Approved, a year-old kelp farming company on the Maine coast, that sells frozen kelp to restaurants and speciality food stores, growing the sinuous green ribbons in about 8 acres of offshore beds supplemented with plots tended by local shellfishermen and lobstermen".

It is true Sea weed is a valuable source of widely used food additives Alginate, Agar and Carrageenan. loved by the food industry for their water retention characteristics, emulsifying ability and viscosity/texture modification potential. With low fat food products in great demand these sea weed derivatives are valuable ally of the industry because of their fat sparing effect. As it is a type of marine algae capable of growing on coastal areas where plenty of light for photosynthesis, access to brackish water and some sort of attachment point, growing of Sea weed is an avocation common in coastal areas of East Asia. In ideal areas the Sea weed growth can extent many miles into the deep sea. Calling it a "virtuous vegetable" is some what far-fetched though it contains appreciable chlorophyll pigment inside the cell. Its use as a food additive is increasing exponentially providing big opportunities to people having access to sea coasts.



It is amusing to read that India is acting like a super power going valiantly to help Africa rise like a food industry giant through extending credit and technical help. What is not understandable is regarding the capability and strength of this Ministry to really plan, design and implement food industry clusters for which enormous experience is needed. One gets rather nervous hearing about such grandiose plans because this Ministry, in spite of its pedestrian existence for the last two decades plus has practically nothing to show as its accomplishments within the country! The 'proclamation"by the Babus in the Ministry is indeed pathetic. Where are the people, qualified and competent to undertake this task? Is the Ministry going to hand over the money to some "favorite' consultants without bothering about the success of the so called "Mission"? Can India afford such lavish spending in a foreign country when the small food industry is languishing across the country? Whatever is the worth of this policy pronouncement, one thing must be made sure and that is to make India a laughing stock abroad for inappropriately executed and inordinately delayed projects which ultimately fail to take of.  There are many "monuments" in some parts of Africa bearing testimony to such crude attempts in the past! Reading the announcement is nonetheless interesting for what it does not say than what is said!

'The ministry of food processing industries is planning to set up a food processing cluster in Africa. The proposed cluster would entail an investment of Rs 117 crore to be spent primarily on the setting up of common infrastructure for food processing parks which includes cold storage, food testing labs, incubation centres, standard designed factories, pre-cooling chambers and other modern technologies used by the industry. This cluster is part of India's $5-billion credit line for Africa announced at the India-Africa Forum Summit last year. "The cluster is likely to come up within next three years. We are floating a competitive bid to appoint a project management agency which will help the ministry in implementing this project," said a top ministry official."

There are some Technological Institutions involved in food technology development but none of them possesses the required management dynamics to design and execute manufacturing projects as exemplified by their relatively obscure presence in the industrial landscape of the country. One wonders how many incubation centers have been established by the Ministry in India during the last 5 years! Also debatable is the success of so called Food Parks touted as achievements by the Ministry. A more logical step would have been to rope in private sector players and experienced consultants to lay out a road map to attain the objective. Good projects with trouble free functioning in foreign countries can be a standing testimony to the technological prowess of the country and spending millions in the name of foreign assistance will have no lasting impact.



One of the severest criticisms about the latest Budget presented by the Finance Minister is that the much hyped poor "aam aadmi" is again left fending for himself while corporate sector continues to receive government's priority attention. Many reforms have been set in motion to free the manufacturing sector from unnecessary bureaucratic control, interference and messing up but the much awaited agricultural reforms and smooth backward linkages for the food processing industry have not received the attention due to it. The Budget takes care of just increasing food production on a short term basis to prevent serious shortages of food, in stead of any long term strategy to lay a firm foundation for the farming sector. It looks more like a fire fighting operation which is bound to fail no matter how much money is pumped into the prevalent archival farm management system. Here is a take on this issue articulated by some news media.

"Removing supply-side constraints - a major cause of food inflation - is among the five focus areas that Mukherjee outlined in his speech. Steps likely to follow include importing food in small amounts during occasional shortages to keep supplies up, taking perishables out of government regulation, avoiding multiple taxation of food items and increasing inter-state trade. Foreign Direct Investment in multi-brand, which would have been the biggest farm-sector reform, is still stalled amid political opposition. "Agriculture will continue to be a priority for the government," Mukherjee said. Total funds for the department of agriculture have gone up to Rs 20,208 crore in 2012-13 from Rs 17,123 crore last year, up 18%. As it takes farmers to grow food, but scientists to show them how, the new budget has set aside Rs 200 crore for boosting research in the field of agricultural technology. Kisan credit cards for farmers are being upgraded to smart cards that can be used in ATMs. However, despite all the positive factors, the big miss continues to be big-ticket reforms, which alone can deliver high farm growth. The country's contrast with China is stark, which began with reforms in agriculture, not industry. India freed industry first, but remains cagey about opening up its farm sector. Without reforms, agriculture cannot do anything more than just feed the nation".

It is truly said that a paltry Rs 200 crore for R & D to upgrade farm technologies for achieving quantum jump in land productivity cannot be expected to yield much positive results. The realization that subsidies do not work in motivating farmers but good infrastructure and correct inputs, both for production and marketing only can make agricultural system vibrant and strong, has not yet dawned on the government. As every body knows China is where it is to day, is largely due to agricultural reforms and with such a strong agricultural base it is a power to reckon with in the global arena. If with all the subsidies amounting to trillions of rupees during the last few years, India still cannot stop the farmer suicides taking place across the farm belt, there is no way it can reach a position any where near China.


Friday, March 16, 2012


Food irradiation process on which enormous investments were made both in terms of valuable money as well as time is still to take off in spite of its proven efficacy and safety to human beings. Every day one is confronted by revelations that enormous amount of food produced in the world is lost irretrievably due to spoilage and other causes and according to one estimate this lost food would feed the entire world. Similarly food poisoning episodes due to contamination with many pathogens like Salmonella, virulent E.coli, Pseudomonas, Listeria etc are continuing posing serious safety problems in many countries. Why is that industry is reluctant to use this technology for the welfare of the consumers?. There are several reasons, most important of which is the regulatory authorities' insistence on mentioning irradiation on the label. It is a paradox that GM foods need not be labeled in a country like the US but irradiated foods must label it!  

"A new ISO standard—ISO 14470:2011—provides state-of-the-art requirements for food irradiation, commonly used to improve quality and safety in food processing. According to a press note by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), a developer and publisher of international standards, the standard will benefit manufacturers, irradiation operators, regulators, customers and, ultimately, consumers. The new standard pertains to requirements for the development, validation and routine control of the process of irradiation using ionising radiation for the treatment of food, not only providing requirements, but also guidance for meeting them. The note adds, food irradiation is the process where food is exposed to ionising radiation in order to improve its safety and quality. It is intended to be used only on food that has been produced under good manufacturing practice (GMP) principles. The irradiation of food can be used for different purposes including control of pathogenic microorganisms and parasites, reduction of the number of spoilage microorganisms, inhibition of the sprouting of bulbs, tubers and root crops, extension of product shelf life or phytosanitary treatment.The main objectives of ISO 14470:2011 are - Provide requirements for the irradiation of food consistent with current standards and practices; Provide directions for a technical agreement between the customer and the irradiator operator; and Establish documentation system to support the controls on the food irradiation process". 

The new ISO standard is good but for whom these standards are made is a question that does not have any ready answer. Of course small quantities of food products are irradiated, especially with low doses for some specific purpose whereas pharmaceutical and medical industry uses them extensively. If finalization of ISO standards for food irradiation heralds a new initiative for popularizing the technology, then it is timely. Otherwise it will remain as a sterile exercise with not many takers for it in the near future.


Thursday, March 15, 2012


In Kashmir there appears to be a schism between senior food officials and the field staff entrusted with detecting adulteration in foods marketed in the Valley if recent reports emerging from there is any indication. FSSAI wanted to corner all the "glory" in shocking the nation by proclaiming from New Delhi that the extent of adulteration in milk and other common foods is alarmingly high and the implication is that preventing such frauds is not its responsibility! Close on this comes the Kashmir report which should make every Indian hang his head in shame realizing how incompetent the food safety assurance system in this country is. If the field staff finds that the samples picked up by them for testing are not properly dealt with because of inadequate infrastructure and technical personnel or due to sheer indifference of higher officers in charge or for favoring the adulterators for pecuniary considerations, whatever little morale left is bound to evaporate making the situation more grave at the ground level. Here is a take on this issue.  

"After the shocking revelations by the Food Safety Standards Authority of India that 83 per cent of milk produced and consumed in Jammu and Kashmir was contaminated with components like salt, detergents, caustic soda and several other harmful substances, the Drugs and Food Control Organization, Kashmir, Friday asserted 30 per cent of food items in the Valley were "highly adulterated," while Kashmir alone consumed 75 per cent of contaminated milk. "Kashmir consumes 30 per cent of adulterated food items - spices, biscuit, edible oil, salt, and many other eatables, which is shocking. Besides, the Valley people alone consume 75 per cent contaminated milk being produced by local companies," public analyst/ designated officer, Drugs and Food Control Organization, Hamidullah Dar, alleged while talking to Kashmir Observer. He said the food safety officers had been working in different districts and sub districts to check the menace of contamination and they had been collecting samples of milk from time to time, for which they had already sent reports to higher authorities to take action against the companies involved in adulteration. "We collected samples from every corner of the valley and during their testing we found that out of eight samples, six were adulterated with starch, detergent and some synthetic substances," Dar said, adding "In many other food and edible items, our experts found that turmeric and chili powder, sounp, sweets, ghee, pickles, oils, salt had been adulterated with toxic colors, starch with other harmful substances". He said his team had done the sampling and prepared the report before FSSI. Asked why he did not take action against the companies involved in contamination, Dar said, "As a concerned officer, my job is to frame the report and highlight the areas and companies involved in contamination and my work remains restricted to laboratory only, rest is the job of higher authorities." Reliable sources in the Drugs & Food Control Organization said contaminated products were a source of income for various law enforcement officials and other unscrupulous elements. "Contamination is possible only when concerned administration officials adopt a non-serious approach towards the companies involved in the crime. Although lower rung officials do their job like sampling, testing and reporting their findings to the food commissioner and other authorities who, on their part more often than not prefer to look the other way. The chief minister should order appropriate action in the matter," said a well placed official, wishing anonymity. Refuting claims of the commissioner, Food Safety, that food inspectors had been asked to collect samples, sources revealed their earlier reports had been ignored. "On August 5, 2011, we started sampling in different areas and all the food inspectors worked very hard, and then we found most of the products, milk as well as other eatables contaminated. We sent the report to the commissioner sahib, what happened to that, please ask him," said the official.

Probably food adulteration may be the only area where India beats China hollow and in deciding whether one wants to cry or laugh at this "achievement" is a matter of choice for the consumer. Ironically if the Health Minister of this country is to be believed there are no serious food poisoning episodes "reported" in the country during the last year and hence every thing should be fine! With a non-existent reporting and documentation system about food poisoning episodes, is it ever possible to know how many people are affected by food adulteration? Ignorance is bliss and an ignorant government is fooling itself by imagining that its food safety management system is functioning well! Whether in controlling the spiraling prices of processed foods or deterring the processors and traders from indulging in food adulteration, the citizen has no doubt that the governments at the state as well as the central levels have miserably failed him!



The controversies surrounding GM foods never seem to be ending with increasing polarization taking place all around regarding their safety. Though countries like China, with authoritarian governments at the helm have adopted GM foods with out bothering about the feelings of their populations, there are many others categorically rejecting these unnatural versions of food as unsafe or not proved unequivocally safe. Recent Bt Brinjal incidence in India has shown how sensitive people can be to issues concerning food safety and environmental protection though this is a country with high degree of illiteracy! Contrast this with the situation in the US where literacy is very high but 80% of market foods contain GM food ingredients. This anachronism can be explained away by the irony that despite being a democratic country the US government does not mandate the industry to declare the GM origin of the ingredients on the front of the pack label denying its citizens the fundamental right to know what they are eating!  Against this background the attitude of people in a country like the UK where citizen's right is highly valued, is worth knowing and this has been highlighted in a recent survey. Here is a gist of the conclusions of this study:

"Twenty nine per cent of those polled said GM food is good for the economy. A similar number- 27 per cent - disagreed with the statement and 44 per cent said they didn't know. Just over half agreed that GM food helps people in developing economies. Twenty four per cent agreed that the foods are safe for future generations - a fall from 31 per cent in 2010. The proportion who believe there to be safety risk also fell, from 39 per cent to 27 per cent, leaving more people sitting on the fence. The men were more pro-GM than the women but levels of varied depending on the potential use of the technology. For instance 64 per cent of those quizzed were supportive of a rice group with built in vitamin A that could stave of malnutrition and blindness. But just 22 per cent agreed with the production of carnations coloured violet through genetic modification. Sir Roland Jackson, chief executive of the British Science Association, said the survey showed 'a pretty high awareness of GM food' and considerable interest in the subject, with two-thirds of respondents interested in it."

Amid all these arguments and counter arguments, a basic issue has been obscured, that is about the personal freedom of the denizen to choose and consume what he wants with full knowledge of its advantages and deficiencies. It is here that governments world over must concede the inevitability of letting their citizens know in a clear and transparent manner what is offered to him by the market and front of the pack labeling must be made mandatory whether one likes it or not. Industry must not be allowed to hijack this right of the consumer through lobbying and money power. The above survey cannot be interpreted, as the GM lobby is trying to do, to mean that consumers are increasingly accepting GM foods but it only exemplifies their dilemma in coming to any conclusion in absence of "conclusive" data regarding the safety of GM foods to humans and the environment beyond a shadow of doubt. 


Wednesday, March 14, 2012


It is not for nothing that junior politicians are chosen as Ministers for portfolios connected with food. Right from its inception the Minister of Food Processing Industry has always been light weight politicians, largely for ornamental purpose. It was only recently the position was elevated to the cabinet level and this symbolism does not seem to have made any difference if the ministry's "activities and achievements" are critically audited. In the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, a heavy weight personality has been put in charge as a cabinet minister but he has very little time or inclination to manage the portfolio and do justice to this important area. Here again a junior minister has been allotted the food portfolio and this minister with his present stature even finds it difficult to meet a chief minister, that too from the alliance! He has been given the responsibility to canvas for the "illogical" food security bill now under consideration of the Parliament. Hear what he has to say about the "importance" and logic of this bill.

"We procure 30 per cent of the food grains we produce. In 2009-10, our total food grain production was 169 million tonnes and we procured 54.8 million tonnes, that is, we procured 32 per cent. The new poverty line will be determined on the basis of 2011 census, which is currently on. We need about 61 million tonnes as per the present PDS system. If the (food security) bill is enacted, we need 1 million tonnes more to provide 7 kg per person per month for priority sector and 3 kg per person per month for general category. At present, the subsidy bill is Rs 63,000 crore. The PDS provides ration on the basis of the 2000 census. If the new bill comes into effect, the subsidy bill will go up to Rs 1.11 lakh crore. If ration is provided on the basis of the present PDS system, it will be Rs 1.09 lakh crore. The difference is only Rs 2,000 crore on account of the food security bill as ration will have to be provided as per the existing PDS system. To afford an additional burden of Rs 2,000 crore is not an issue. Yes, it is important to plug in the leakages. We've started modernising PDS in the states. Out of 20 crore ration cards, we have weeded out duplicate cards and reduced them to 18 crore. That is 10 per cent. It will further come down as we believe that 20 to 30 per cent of the cards are bogus. It has to come down. Moreover, there is also loss of food grains due to damages in storage and transportation. But, that loss has come down from 2.5 per cent in 2008 to 0.5 per cent. Modernisation of PDS and introduction of Aadhar (UID) cards can virtually eliminate bogus cards, which means savings of 20-30 per cent in subsidy".

It is a tragedy of highest denomination that public money is squandered under some or the other populist schemes primarily to "catch" votes for the ruling parties and nothing exemplifies this madness more than the present food security bill. While the PDS system as it exists to day is in shambles, more food is sought to be pushed through this "pipe" with "gaping holes" obviously for leakage! Also being suggested is to give cash in the hands of families for buying food grains, in stead of depending on the PDS and there cannot be a better criminal scheme than this to siphon of public money "cleanly and neatly"! The misuse of the words food security is all the more evident when government is focusing only on grains with no consideration for really protective foods like legumes, fruits and vegetables which are beyond the reach of millions of poor and middle class families. The incoherent ramblings by this minister do not make sense to any one with a reasonable I.Q!



Food allergy is increasingly becoming an area of serious concern and all those involved in keeping allergens away from sensitive consumers, industry, safety managers and the government, are finding it more and more difficult to deal with the situation. There are about 8 allergens considered serious and labeling regulations mandate the industry to declare the presence of any of these substances separately to capture the attention of the prospective buyers. It was not long ago that some of these allergens were detectable only beyond 5 ppm levels with the prevalent testing protocols but with tremendous advances being made in analytic techniques and instrumentation the detection threshold is continually coming down putting the industry at a disadvantage. Many products cannot be manufactured without very low traces of allergens, considered tolerable by affected consumers. However over anxious safety enforcement agencies tend to lower such limits because of better analytic techniques. This needs to be resisted as it borders on "over kill" with no additional benefit to any one. Here is a take on this emerging scenario vis-a-vis allergen detection.  

"We know that technology is capable of being more sensitive," said Tony Lupo, Neogen director of technical services. "The question is, what is the risk and reward of that?" Do lower levels better protect the food-allergic and food-sensitive populations? Or do they place unrealistically low levels on manufacturers? If testing detects continually lowered levels, "what does that do to the industry in performing due diligence?" Lupo asked. Of course, anytime an allergenic ingredient is added to a product, regardless of the amount, it must be declared. But when testing for unintentional cross contamination, it is currently up to the processor to determine what is acceptable. Most choose to test at 5 ppm, Lupo said. And that is a level that can be maintained through good sanitation and allergen programs. But going much below that, he added, "may mean that certain products may not be manufacturable."

There is absolutely no two opinion that allergen information is very critical in saving precious lives and the existing regulations have served well so far. A review of the existing limits for allergens may be required as and when consumers show a tendency to be vulnerable to lower levels of such substances. Industry should not be put in a difficult situation by bringing down tolerable levels of allergens to impractical levels. The glitter of sophisticated electronic instruments with fantastic analytical capabilities should not blur the vision of safety policy makers.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


There is widespread impression that the globalization of food trade is heavily slanted in favor of large industry conglomerates leaving out the small and medium scale players. It is forgotten that most developing countries depend heavily on micro, small and medium scale enterprises for wealth generation and food production and progressively new global trade policies forced on developing countries are marginalizing these players affecting seriously the employment generation, land productivity and growth of agriculture sector to a very significant extent. Developing world has to thank Philippines for raising this issue at international forums and seeking appropriate re-prioritization of WTO policies and programs. Following excerpts reflect the concern of this country which is common to other similar developing nations.

"According to Domingo, the institutionalization of such framework is very important given that developing countries are comprised mainly of SMEs and poor small farmers whom he said, "are most vulnerable to market uncertainties and who would most benefit from a harmonized trading system and open and fair markets." Statistics show that as of 2009, there are 780,437 business enterprises operating in the Philippines. Of these, 99.6% are micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) and the remaining 0.4% are large enterprises. MSMEs generated a total of 3,595,641 jobs in 2009 versus 2,094,298 for the large enterprises. This indicates that MSMEs contributed almost 63.2% of the total jobs generated by all types of business establishments that year. MSMEs account for 25% of the country's total exports revenue. It is also estimated that 60% of all exporters in the country belong to the MSME category. MSMEs are able to contribute in exports through subcontracting arrangement with large firms, or as suppliers to exporting companies. Poor small farmers meanwhile mainly comprised the Philippine agricultural sector. The agriculture sector accounts for about 35% of total employment, but only contributes 15% of gross domestic product in 2009, Domingo said. Another area gaining more relevance for developing countries like the Philippines is "food insecurity." Domingo called on WTO member-countries to craft agreements and policies "that will provide support system to its farmers including an appropriate trade and non-trade policy environment that is conducive for their survival, and for food security." "While food aid and trade play roles, there is no substitute to bringing investments back to developing countries for productivity and greater production to meet the ever growing demand for food," he said.

In India agriculture is largely controlled by small farmers with average land holding just two acres in size and by western standards this is not a viable size for survival. Though GOI is trying to change land policies in favor of large holdings, it may take years before there is any consolidation of land in the country. There are vexing issues like fast urbanization, increasing diversion of agricultural land for industry and real estate conglomerates, landless labor, heavy dependence of agriculture on rains, stagnation of food production, all linked together and any long term solution must keep these factors in focus. Added to this India is still to come up with a national sustainable agriculture policy, all efforts made being ad hoc in nature. Unless there are clear perceptions regarding the role and fate of small and micro scale players, India cannot be in a position to fight in WTO forum for protecting the interests of this important sector.



Ever since Dolly the Sheep, was created by the biotechnology wizards through cloning process in 1996, there have been fierce debates regarding the safety of meat and milk derived from the off springs of cloned parents. Even to day there is no unanimity on this controversial issue and consumers are left in the lurch by not providing accurate and reliable information on the subject. Recent reports that American consumers have been eating food products manufactured from cloned animals for the last two years without them knowing about it, do raise ethical and moral questions regarding the role of the safety authorities in that country. A democracy always flourish when there is transparency in what ever the government is doing and here is a perfect example of a country considered a stalwart in democratic form of governance cheating its citizens by not being honest, sincere and transparent when it comes to GM foods or Cloned animal derived products. European countries fare much better in this respect as they are considering imposing compulsory labeling of such products as and when they are permitted to be marketed after conclusively proving their safety. Here is a take on this latest development in cloned animal products.

"Food safety representatives from the European Parliament's Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee (ENVI)  told the European Commission in February they want a bill regulating animal cloning within a year. ENVI has insisted that meat or milk products from the offspring of clones be labeled and traceable. Unfortunately, meat or milk from cloned animals in the US will not be labeled. Some say "is not labeled" because we are already eating it. In 2008, the FDA ruled that products from clones and their offspring will not be labeled because they are "no different from food derived from conventionally bred animals"--the same thing that was said about rBGH-produced milk.  Nevertheless, the FDA asked producers to "voluntarily keep milk and meat from clones out of the food and feed supplies until we finish assessing their safety." Key words: asked and voluntarily. But a 2010 demonstration in England over possible unlabeled and illegal food from clones in that country revealed that clones may already be on the American dinner plate-- with US food consumers being the last to know. The BBC, while reporting on the British cloned herd, said that cloned products have been in the US food supply for two years. Who knew? Jim McLaren, president of Scotland's National Farmers Union, concurred and told the press, "If you go to the US or Canada you will almost certainly be consuming meat and dairy products from cloned animals at every turn." Margaret Wittenberg, global vice-president of Whole Foods Market,  agreed. United States customers are "oblivious" to cloned products in the food supply, she verified to the BBC. "You don't hear about it in the media. And when you do tell people about it they look at you and say 'you're kidding! They're not doing that are they? Why would they?'" Whole Foods says it bans the sale of cloned products. When Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was asked point-blank, during a 2010 trade mission in Canada, if "cloned cows or their offspring have made it into the North American food supply,' he put no fears to rest. "I can't say today that I can answer your question in an affirmative or negative way. I don't know. What I do know is that we know all the research, all of the review of this is suggested that this is safe." So much for informed public officials. An FDA report written in collaboration with Cyagra, a Pennsylvania-based clone company, seeks to put public fears at rest over the brave new food. Not a big surprise since Cyagra, boasts about selling clone products to US butchers (who presumably sell to customers) and about its employees regularly dining on cloned products, say British new sources. Since the first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep, was created, cattle, horses, goats, pigs, and mice have been cloned, as well as dogs and cats, a mouflon sheep, a mule, and a racing camel. In fact, cloning doesn't even make headlines anymore. But lengthy reports from both FDA and  European Food Safety Authority raise questions about the safety of milk and meat from cloned animals and their offspring, their welfare and protection from suffering and the soundness of the cloning process. Why not let food consumers vote whether they want to support such food with their forks, say US and European consumers, by simply labeling them? END"

Why is this happening repeatedly in this particular country? How can the US which has substantial conservative population which abhors abortion as a strategy for family planning condone the sufferings and distortions taking place among cloned animals? When Dolly was created it took 277 aborted attempts and only one could survive! Look at the policy paralysis that has overtaken the American government when it comes to taking any decision against the powerful industry lobbies. First it was GM foods which were permitted under severe pressure from the powerful food and biotech industries. In spite of massive protests against the present policy of not making label declaration of GM foods compulsory, there does not appear to be any hurry on the part of the government to change the policy soon. Now comes the news that the safety authorities are ignoring the wide prevalence of food products in the market made from cloned animals during the last two years. Does this not amount to total insensitivity to the feelings, apprehensions and aspirations of people at large? If irradiated foods have to carry labels declaring the process used, why is that same rule cannot be applied to GM foods and Cloned animal foods? Is there any rationale or logic? Is the government in the US for the people or for the all powerful industry lobbyists? One can only sympathize with the agony and dilemma faced by the US consumers due to thoughtless policies and actions of their government!


Monday, March 12, 2012


Specialists always tend to look at their field of specialization in isolation without being aware of the dynamics of nature where every human endeavor is interconnected. There was a time when food scientists started looking at the whole food system from within and what came out was a shock for many of them. This refers to the efficiency of protein derived from different food sources and the comparison was between plant foods and animal based products. It became clear that to get one kg of animal protein man has to expend 7 kg of plant proteins and awareness about such gigantic waste started sweeping across the world transforming many meat eaters into vegetarians. Recent debate about the interconnection between food and energy is igniting a new sense of urgency for making conscious efforts to reduce energy consumption by the food sector as much as possible. Here is a gist of the debate which brings out many interesting revelations not known widely hitherto:

"It's important to understand the many interconnections between the food and energy sectors in order to make good consumer choices and develop prudent public policy. A recent Scientific American article by Michael E. Webber makes a big contribution to this effort by examining the food system through the "lens of energy use." Webber explains that looking at the food supply in this context "reveals opportunities for smart policies, innovative technologies and new dietary choices that can potentially solve food and energy problems together. The same steps would also make our bodies, and our ecosystems, healthier." So how much energy is required to grow food? According to Webber, about 10 percent of the U.S. energy budget is associated with "producing, distributing, processing, preparing and preserving the plant and animal matter we consume." And what's the rate of return on that investment of energy? Unfortunately, it's not very good. "The energy used to make food is vastly greater than the amount of energy we get out of it," writes Webber. In the United States, it takes about 10 units of fossil energy to produce one unit of food energy.This ratio is not sustainable! Americans need to find ways to reduce it if there's any hope of decreasing our own food-energy consumption, and so does the rest of the world, especially as the population is projected to top nine billion by 2050".

It is almost criminal for a country like the US to expend 10 units of fossil energy to get 1 unit of biological energy from the food produced and consumed. This becomes indeed a shocking news at an age when fossil energy sources are rapidly drying and desperate efforts are on globally to find suitable but affordable new sustainable sources of energy. As it is the US happened to be the top nation in the world when energy guzzling is monitored, most of it "savable" with a little bit of effort and sacrifice. Unfortunately there is an unwillingness to address this issue and the casualty is going to be the poor developing countries which are invariably being asked to bear the "Cross"! The rich nation club must address this issue under international aegis on an emergency basis similar to the collective efforts being made now to reduce green house gas emissions for avoiding further damage to the environment through global warming.



One of the few pleasures of life for a middle class family is visiting a decent restaurant for having a leisurely experience of consuming food preparations which are difficult to make at home. Besides such eating out practice enhances family values though it can make a big hole in the family budget, especially these days when all eateries have literally doubled or tripled the prices during the last two years. At least the customers patronizing the restaurants had the consolation the eating in these places will not endanger their lives because of the vigilance of the local civic authorities in regularly monitoring the safety of the foods served at these places. now comes the news from different parts of the country about the pathetic safety management in most places due to ill-planning on the part of FSSAI, the "apostle" of food safety measures in India. Here is a report from Chennai about the ground reality obtaining in many towns across Tamil Nadu vis-a-vis food safety vigilance activity.

"Eating out has become risky, with state health authorities not inspecting restaurants or carrying out checks on their kitchens for the past seven months. This has become a problem since perishables rot faster in the summer heat due to longer power cuts. After the responsibility of food safety was taken from municipal corporations and given to a special state food safety unit, monitoring has been consigned to the backburner. The newly-formed unit has been struggling with its organisation, training and logistics. "We are yet to begin taking samples or conducting raids in Chennai," said a food safety official in Chennai. "We are still registering eateries and setting up offices." According to the state health department, corporations stopped collecting samples for testing and raiding restaurants to check if they are conforming to quality specifications in August 2011. A Chennai corporation official estimates that it may have been nine months since samples were collected. Health experts and corporation officials say unscrupulous restaurateurs and manufacturers of food products could take advantage of the fact that no checks are being conducted. "With several hours of power cuts being imposed on the state every day, the absence of checks could be a problem as perishable goods are likely to spoil even faster," an official said. Officials say funding for the health department under the new Food Safety Act has begun only now, almost a year after the act was implemented. Even the state food commissioner is currently operating from the state homeopathy hospital without any support staff. Health department offices in other districts in the state have also been brought standstill, with the exception of Madurai and Coimbatore where officials recently started collecting samples for testing. "But we haven't begun taking samples yet," said a health department official in Tirunelveli. "Right now we our focus is on completing the registrations of over 12,000 small establishments in this district." Many other districts are awaiting release of funds and allotment of office space. In Coimbatore samples have been collected from three restaurants so far and two were found to be contaminated but the authorities were unable to prosecute them, added a local food officer. Food safety, until last year, was overseen as additional duties by health officers in city and town municipal corporations. Rules regarding food safety were covered by the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act. Now a new, more comprehensive, law is in place that has specific instructions for food packaging, ingredient display, hygiene and sanitary conditions".

Such reports are pouring in from different places across the country though from time to time assurances are given that things would improve and these are nothing but teething troubles experienced at the beginning of a new system. It is pathetic to hear such excuses from the Babus of FSSAI who were supposed to have been working on the Food Safety Bill since 2005! The citizen has a genuine right to ask how many more years it will take for the system to start clicking! In the mean time what will be the fate of the common man caught between the devil and the deep sea? Hoteliers must be a happy lot because they can compromise on investment on safety related activities with impunity! Of course there are many honest players among them who do not need the "stick" to enforce safety related rules as go by their conscience to fulfill their duty and obligation to their customers. Is it not ridiculous for the officials to claim that they are busy registering the eateries and therefore have no time for checking the hygiene and sanitation in these catering places?


Sunday, March 11, 2012


The world is divided between the so called "naturalists" who hate processed foods and those who tolerate them. Lately the food industry antagonists are raising their pitch after many serious food poisoning episodes in the West and calling the industry names. So vitriolic are some of the comments that a group even wants food industry to be bracketed with Tobacco industry! On the contrary many common people realize the inevitability of processing, at least for extending the life of perishable foods, so that their availability through out the year is not seriously constrained. Armed personnel working for the country in remote border areas under severe hostile conditions depend heavily on preserved foods as the logistics of delivering fresh foods there is almost nightmarish and cost prohibitive. It goes to the credit of Defense Research and Development Organization to foresee these needs and set up a dedicated R & D Laboratory exclusively to devote attention to the food needs of the Defense Forces. Recent news that this specialized organization is going full steam to translate a number of processes developed by its scientists into commercial operations with the help of some women empowered groups is most welcome. A good initiative indeed! Here is a take on this interesting development.

"Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), BASIX, a social enterprise group, and Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), have collaborated to launch Aahar - a pilot project comprising a range of ready-to-eat products. The project was launched in New Delhi on Tuesday by planning commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia. The collaboration focusses on food technologies developed by the Mysore-based Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL), part of DRDO. The objective of the project is to build women-oriented enterprises using food technologies of DFRL. Aahar is the first pilot project that covers a set of technologies and products including ready-to-eat roti, and two variants in dal which are instant palak dal and masala channa curry mix. While a pack of two rotis is priced at Rs 15, a packet of dal will cost Rs 20. 
Aahar is a hygienic, nutritious and convenient meal that tastes fresh with longer shelf life, and is quick to serve. While the roti has a shelf life of 15 days, the two variants of dal have a shelf life of 12 months under ambient conditions, according to Dr A S Bawa, director, DFRL. Rotis are highly perishable and spoil within 24-36 hours depending upon storage conditions due to microbial spoilage. With DFRL technology, the shelf life has been extended to over 12 months to help retain nutrition and taste. For the instant dal and chana mix, cold shock dehydration technology has been patented by DFRL to make a variety of tasty convenience mixes which can be reconstituted within 6-8 minutes. "The products are suitable for long journeys, nutritional feeding, catering programmes and other similar civilian applications," he added.  

It is aptly said that "the proof of the pudding is in its eating" and these initiatives have some meaning if the armed forces unreservedly accept these preserved foods with "long life" for daily consumption. Such an apprehension is justified in the light of past experience in developing specially "processed foods" for these "special consumers". It was long ago that DRDO imported a freeze drying plant using most modern technology of the time to process meat for captive use of the armed forces at Tundla near Agra and the project was a spectacular failure because of the resistance of the army personnel to accept the product due to textural deficiencies. The 15 day preserved roti mentioned in the report may have some problem of acceptance because of the susceptibility of this product to retro-gradation and consequent textural deficiency. As for dal preparations and curries there should not be any problem since retort pouch technology developed by this laboratory long back has already established itself as useful and dependable. Without prejudging the outcome of the trials, one should wish the endeavor success.



Meat industry seems to be having frequent problems regarding the safety of some of their products and during the last few years it is pilloried by one scandal after the other, The inhuman abattoir practices and use of antibiotics liberally were two of the most serious issues that caught the attention of the consumers during the last 2-3 years. Frequent contamination episodes further caused huge embarrassment to the industry. The most recent incident concerns the practice of making ground meat, which was found to be fraught with the risk of contaminating the product with E.coli. It concerns use of trimmings from the cows, recovered from layers nearest to the skin, for admixing with the normal meat for achieving lower cost of production. However according to some safety experts these trimmings being close to the skin are often contaminated with pathogens and hence pose greater risk to the consumer. Here is a take on this latest controversy.

"[Trimmings are] taken from the outermost part, and they happen to be the fattiest part of the cow," says Moss. "So they're put into a centrifuge which spits out the protein parts of the material." The term "pink slime" was in fact initially coined by a U.S. Department of Agriculture official Moss met who had seen the "bright pink, aqueous" stuff in a plant. Sounds pretty unappetizing, but there is some appeal to the material: mainly its price. "In the meat industry, there's something called least cost formulations," says Moss. "Companies will mix and match trimmings from different parts of the cow and different suppliers to achieve the perfect level of fatness. This material is ... slightly less expensive." Cheap it may be, but because it comes from the outermost part of the carcass, it's also more susceptible to contamination than other cuts of meat. That's because it could come in contact with the cow's hide, which could have excrement containing pathogens like the dangerous forms of E. coli. The industry tries to purify the material with gaseous ammonia, which raises the alkalinity to a level that E. coli can't tolerate, Moss says. USDA's food safety division says this method is effective. And the company that manufactures it says it also has a rigorous testing system in place. But Moss' s reporting has shown that school food officials have found the bad kind of E. coli in the material where they least expected – the trimmings. "It's entirely approved by USDA ... and accepted as school lunch as a component in the ground beef they purchase," says Moss. "So far they've been holding pat on the safety issue. They're satisfied that their testing program and the way they handle and cook beef is entirely safe for kids." None of the fast food companies — McDonalds, Taco Bell and Burger King — that decided to stop buying trimmings mentioned safety concerns, either. And even if it's been banished from a lot of fast food burgers, the material is probably still in a lot of ground beef sold at the grocery store. Except it's impossible for consumers to know that since USDA doesn't require meat companies to label whether ground beef includes trimmings.

First reported in products distributed to schools under nutrition programs, trimmings seem to be a part of all products made from ground beef meat used in many main stream products by the food industry. Though use of trimmings is not banned and found safe by the authorities, industry voluntarily stopped supplying products containing trimmings to the schools. However no one knows whether these trimmings form significant portion of ground beef being used by the industry as a whole. Though some major players have already announced discontinuing with this practice, there is no way a consumer can know whether the products in the market still contain trimmings in the absence of any compulsory label declaration. Fortunately, most of the meat industry players do process these trimmings scientifically killing all pathogens though there may be some exceptions which get noticed. There is no way the authorities can clamp down on these practices as they are perfectly legal, at least as of now.


Saturday, March 10, 2012


Are genetically modified foods and ingredients absolutely safe for human consumption? Probably with the present conflicting claims and interests of pressure groups and lack of critical volume of data in human experiments, it is doubtful whether even "God" himself can answer this vexing question with any reasonable degree of certainty! Keeping aside the issue of safety, those who permit GM foods in their country can at least be transparent with their citizens by declaring on the label about the use of such unnatural ingredients in formulated foods. This is what American citizens are asking of their government for the last several years. So far the American government has not budged from its stand that GM foods are safe and consumers must "believe" them. But winds of change are blowing across this country and the people are "forcefully" demanding for such regulatory labeling to which Government has to bow eventually. Here is the latest on this issue.

"Thousands of products in the typical American grocery store, from cereals to corn chips, contain genetically modified ingredients. But the average shopper wouldn't know it from their labels. Many companies in the food and biotechnology industry, including Creve Coeur-based Monsanto Co., want to keep it that way. But they'll have to fend off a growing push for labels on genetically modified products that's gaining traction in Washington and state capitals. At least 18 states are now considering laws that would make the labels mandatory, including Illinois and California, the country's biggest market. Earlier this year, pro-labeling advocates marched from New York to Washington. Late last fall, about 500 groups, including some of the country's biggest consumer organizations, banded together as the Just Label It campaign. Also last fall, the Washington-based Center for Food Safety filed a petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calling for the agency to require labels. As of this week, the petition had 850,000 signatures of support, the most ever for a federal food petition. "Fifty countries have mandatory labeling. We're one of the only developed countries that doesn't. GMOs are labeled in China, Russia. Why would consumers in those countries have this information and we not have it here?" said Megan Westgate, executive director of the the Non-GMO Project, a group that verifies and labels products as free of genetically altered ingredients. "It feels like we're at this tipping point where a lot more Americans are concerned about this."

Is it not funny that the very same government insists on labeling a product treated with gamma radiation though more than 65 countries have cleared food irradiation process as safe beyond any shadow of doubt? Double standards? Of course! If there were a lobby for irradiation process as powerful as that advocating GM technology for producing foods, Government would not have made labeling mandatory for irradiated foods. While debating on this issue, the views of the protagonists who believe that GM technology only can achieve quantum jump in food production in coming years should not be unilaterally shunned and with the present pace of scientific development there may be a possibility that the technology may gain universal acceptance in future. Till such time citizens must be given the choice to buy or not to buy GM foods through clear labeling.



A billion dollar question that begs for an answer is why Americans are "bloating up" at a pace that may soon find mention in "Guinness Book of World Records"! Of course there is no simple answer to this complex question and the policy makers in that country are going in circles to overcome this national disaster. But here is a small country in Europe, Scotland which seems to have realized the reason for people gaining uncontrolled body weight and its conclusion is fairly simple. Gross ignorance of any thing and every thing about foods eaten every day is the root cause of wrong foods consumed beginning from early childhood. These foods are qualitatively poor measured in terms of nutritive and health yardsticks. The remedy being thought of this economically rich country is to invest on education to teach kids more about basic aspects of food including sources, production, processing, safety, nutrition and health information. It is interesting to read the minds of the policy makers who are talking about the changes in the education system that will equip future citizens to be conscious and careful about the food they eat and the way they eat. 

"School pupils are to learn more about the food they eat as part of a £2 million project to improve the nation's diet. A group of experts made up of those from the food industry and the education sector will steer the three-year programme, which will help children understand more about their diets and how food impacts on their health and on the environment. The project, which was announced today by rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead, will encourage children to visit farms, fishing and food companies to learn more about their health. It will also be made easier for teachers to use food as a topic in Curriculum for Excellence: Mr Lochhead said: "Whether through farm visits, working with local companies or embedding food topics in the curriculum, food education is key to helping young people understand the role food plays in their lives. By encouraging pupils to learn more about these issues they can have the facts they need at their disposal to make informed choices for their future. "It's no secret that Scotland faces issues around the health of our nation and – like every other country – we need to protect our environment and face up to the challenges around climate change. "Food education has an important role to play in this, helping our youngsters make healthier choices and ensuring they are more aware of the importance of eating sustainably. That's why every schoolchild in Scotland will benefit from the food education package announced today."

One redeeming feature of this pro-active policy is to rope in the industry as a partner to transform the perceptions into workable programs at the ground level. Does it not make sense that small kids in early stages of development are more amenable to sensible
suggestions and advice? Why is this not happening in many countries where food is causing immense damage to the populace due to wrong products being manufactured by insensitive industry and wrong choices by the consumers, mostly because of economic factors? Probably such positive things may not happen unless industry cooperates in showcasing their facilities for better understanding by the children. This is happening in Scotland giving the experiment a better chance of success.



Food inflation is a concern shared by all countries, poor as well the rich ones and many suggestions have been articulated to reign in this trend that costs the consumer dearly in terms of diminishing disposal income. When there is a normal situation under a free economy the demand-supply gap determines the market price unless there is too much speculation and hording. That rich countries like the US and those in the European Union pay their farmers hefty agricultural subsidy is a fact of life though there is strong opposition to this unethical practice from poor developing countries at the WTO level. But in stead of these subsidies on the way out, they are actually increasing if the direction of economic policies of developed countries is any indication. For example the EU is slated to increase its subsidy quantum under the Common Agricultural Policy of the Union from the current Euro 55 billion to Euro 63 billion by the year 2020. According to economic experts such subsidies have a snow balling effect on food prices all over the world besides adversely affecting the land productivity. Here is a take on this issue.

"By 2020 the EU is planning to increase expenditure on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) by some €8billion a year at a time of catastrophically bad public finances. Despite the concern about pressure on food prices, reform of the CAP will not increase efficiency or lower prices to the consumer. The sweeping rejection of the benefits of new technologies and the proposals for more government control of food markets by many NGOs and lobby groups would exacerbate current problems. The geographical and economic realities are such that yields per hectare will have to increase substantially over the next 40 years. The CAP – especially after recent reforms – leads to farm yields well below the level of maximum efficiency. This lack of efficiency has several dimensions: land is not used for the most efficient crops; yields per hectare are well below the maximum attainable levels; and incentives to adopt – or research – new technologies that will increase productivity have been blunted. Research shows that farm subsidies do not necessarily help bio-diversity and that their abolition would lead to a less than corresponding fall in farm incomes. To a large extent, subsidies become capitalised in land values, thus increasing costs to farmers. Between 1992 and 2009 – the period since the introduction of direct payments under the CAP – the value of agricultural land and buildings in the UK rose 400 per cent compared with 38 per cent general inflation. This suggests that one of the effects of removing direct payments would be a decline in land prices, rents and associated production costs. The abolition of subsidies in New Zealand demonstrates how government subsidies damage productivity and their removal leads to increased productivity". 

Is it not ironical that in a country like the US super rich farmer families are paid large sums every year from the exchequer "for not cultivating the land"? Similarly direct subsidies in the EU make the farmers less innovative and industrious, satisfied with the return they are already getting and the chain effect is stagnation of crop yields while food needs are increasing continuously. If the demand outstrips supply as it is going to happen in a few years from now if the current practices continue, the food prices have to go north creating further hardships to the citizens. It is argued, probably with some justification, that removal of farm subsidies would wake up the farming community to work harder and use more efficient technologies to raise land productivity which in turn can be expected to reduce market prices of food materials. Whether this is going to happen depends on the collective wisdom of countries that make up the EU.


Friday, March 9, 2012


While debating about who are responsible for the safety of foods consumed by the citizens there is rarely any unanimity. There are several players in producing and distributing food to the market and they include the grower, transporter, handling agency, processor and the retailer. Of course even consumer can be some time responsible for food related episodes. In the case of processed and packed & sealed foods the processor has to ensure that only safety conformed contents are marketed and it is more or less certain that responsible processors assume responsibility for the safety of their products till the date of expiry or till it is opened. Controversy comes when one deals with raw meat products and cold stored open packs which are liable to be contaminated at different handling stages. Holding the farmer responsible for the produce they supply to the retailer may not be absolutely justified considering that contamination can always occur once the product is transferred to the retailer. Here is an interesting discussion on this issue.   

"A food safety expert has told growers that they should not rely on third party audits to guarantee the safety of their produce. Larry Goodridge, associate professor at the Center for Meat Safety and Quality in the Department of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University, told farmers that they bear primary responsibility for food safety. "Each farm or processing facility has to be able to assess their own risks," Goodridge told the governor's annual forum on Colorado agriculture in Denver. "Everybody who produces food has to be responsible for the safety of the food they produce. You cannot rely on third parties. You just can't." He cited the listeria outbreak of last year that was responsible for the deaths of 32 people, and which, for example, was traced to a farm that has just recently been awarded a "superior" rating from a third party food inspector. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate third-party auditors, and a congressional report released in January quoted the auditing company that graded Jensen farms as saying audits are not intended to improve food safety standards".

The above discourse applies to the situation involving technical auditors on whom the farms depend on for safety certification. Dependence on third party auditors is inevitable because most farms do not have the necessary wherewithal to test their products but it appears that it may become mandatory for the farms to assume responsibility for the safety of their offerings if the present trend of thinking is taken into reckoning. It does not augur well for the meat industry if they are punished when their auditors do not do a good job after taking hefty fees. Government must take the auditors also as responsible for bad products which only can make the latter more diligent and careful while doing their job.