Sunday, June 30, 2013


Increasing episodes of Listeria monocytogenes contamination of animal based products like meat are causing serious concern, especially in retail super markets where meat muscles are sliced before serving to the consumers. As these slicers can harbor this pathogenic bacteria, transmission from serving to serving becomes a reality posing safety risks. L.monocytogenes happens to be one of the most versatile pathogens that can thrive even at cold temperatures if right moisture conditions prevail and almost 20% mortality is being attributed to infection with this pathogen, young and the elderly being highly vulnerable. What is interesting is that incidence of L.monocytogenes contamination occurs more frequently at the retail preparation level while factory processed products are comparatively safer. Though there are powerful chemicals that can kill the bacteria, their use in meat is restricted by food laws and use of chemicals invariably taint the product affecting the flavor and taste. Recent report that bacteriophage preparations specific to L.cytogenes are highly effective in sanitizing the meat products is a welcome news that is going to give relief to the retail Deli meat industry. Here is a take on this important development.   

"To comply with the regulation, Deli Brands initially used lauric arginate and a smoke derivative, but that created "issues with our process," Tew says. Next the company tried injecting sodium lactate and sodium diacetate into the meat products, but that caused flavor issues and increased processing costs substantially. Then, when USDA approved Listex as a processing aid in May of 2011, Tew and his colleagues were able to resolve their dilemma. "We started using Listex about 18 months ago on all of our whole-muscle cooked products," Tew says. "We found that by using Listex as a surface treatment with sodium lactate and sodium diacetate in the carrier solution, we improved our products' flavor profile, reduced our processing costs, and significantly increased our shelf life — to as long as 70 days. And because it's a processing aid, Listex does not have to be listed in ingredient statements, which means we didn't have to change our product labeling." Developed by Micreos Food Safety, Wageningen, The Netherlands, Listex is a culture of bacteriophages (or phages for short) that effectively eliminate Listeria monocytogenes. As phages occur in nature, are specific to their target bacterial species, do not affect desirable bacteria in foods or in the human gastrointestinal tract, and do not alter the finished product's organoleptic properties (such as taste, texture and color), Listex is listed by the Organic Material Review Institute, meaning it can be used in processing of natural and organic foods. Listex is one of the most cost-effective interventions on the market, says Dirk de Meester, Micreos' business development director".

The very mention of virus (bacteriophage) evokes some apprehension among consumers as they are causative agents for many deadly diseases mankind has been facing for centuries but bacteriophage preparation developed in the Netherlands is a harmless product that does not affect friendly and beneficial microgenome of humans, being highly specific to L.cytogenes. Industry seems to have accepted the technique of using the bacteriophage preparation for surface treatment which provides a protective umbrella to preempt contamination from L.cytogenes. As it is not considered an ingredient in the processing, there is no compulsion to declare the same on the front of the label of the pack. 


Thursday, June 27, 2013


When one looks at the phenomenal growth of organic food industry, there is an inescapable yearn among the people to day for things of the past, their ancestors were used to centuries ago! Why this change in attitude towards food that is consumed every day? Because the rampant spread of modern day diseases like CVD, Obesity, Diabetes, Blood Pressure, Cancer, Kidney disorders etc is awakening people regarding the link between the food and diseases. To day awareness about health is rising rapidly as educational levels are increasing due to economic development. This is precisely the reason why organic foods are finding increasing shelf space in supermarkets all over the world. To what extent the modern civilization must take responsibility for destroying the old culture that ensured production of nutritionally healthy agricultural crops, replacing it with "nice" looking food crops through mechanized cultivation techniques and hybridized crops that contain progressively less and less nutrients. Whether it is modern tomato or the good looking white maize the story is same. Man seems to have dug a hole for himself by these reckless short sighted evolutionary activities from where it is difficult to climb! Here is a critique on the transformation of old age agriculture into the modern industrial agriculture which is indeed very revealing! 

"Is the quality of our food decreasing as quantities increase? There is no doubt that industrial agriculture is extremely successful in producing food abundantly, but does the plant breeding that delivers big yields - along with the pesticides and fertilizers that compromise environmental safety - also result in lower-quality food? In a recent column I reported that tomatoes are now a pale facsimile of their formerly delicious selves, containing fewer nutrients and more sodium than they did when they tasted good. It seems that tomato breeders looking for qualities like transportability neglected nutrition. Now scientists are reporting that many of our foods have also become low in certain nutrients, including phytonutrients, the compounds that help reduce the incidence of four major modern health threats: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. Declining food quality is not a new thing, but industrial agriculture's emphasis on volume over quality has accelerated the pace of nutrient loss. "Each fruit and vegetable in our stores has a unique history of nutrient loss," journalist Jo Robinson reports in the New York Times, "but there are two common themes. Throughout the ages, our farming ancestors have chosen the least bitter plants to grow in their gardens. It is now known that many of the most beneficial phytonutrients have a bitter, sour or astringent taste. Second, early farmers favoured plants that were relatively low in fibre and high in sugar, starch and oil. These energy-dense plants were pleasurable to eat and provided the calories needed to fuel a strenuous lifestyle. The more palatable our fruits and vegetables became, however, the less advantageous they were for our health."

Nutrition and health paradigm has significantly changed during the last 6-7 decades and human beings are discovering what they have lost by their reckless pursuit of high productivity, increased profitability and palate comfort. Foods devoid of fiber, phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals etc are wreaking havoc with the health of humans and if diseases like CVD, Diabetes, Cancer, Blood Pressure, Kidney disorder etc are becoming the norm rather than exception, only the modern agriculture system needs to be blamed. Added to these woes comes the much hyped GMO foods which has divided the world vertically into opposing camps vis-a-vis their relevance and safety. There needs to be a paradigm shift in the thinking of the industry, scientists, consumers, policy makers and farmers regarding the best way to make the food more healthy and nutritious, forgetting the past baggage! 


Wednesday, June 26, 2013


Food wasting is a criminal act which must be condemned unequivocally. Mere fact that a country is wealthy does not confer upon it special rights to waste foods and such wastage is unconscionable looked from any angle. It is said that the world throws away food in such high quantities that it would be sufficient to feed 2 billion people, if saved, by taking a little bit more care by those who are blessed with access to plenty of foods. Food safety authorities world over have created an unenviable situation by mandating the industry to declare expiry date on each and every package of foods manufactured with the noble intention of helping consumers to avoid unsafe foods and face the adverse consequences of food poisoning. But the present system is not considered satisfactory since manufacturers routinely print expiry dates without any scientific basis and most foods even after the expiry date are considered safe though quality wise it may be marginally inferior. Ultimately it is the consumer who has to decide whether a food is good or bad through his sensory powers. Recent report that new smart freezers are being developed to help the consumer to forewarn about products dumped in the freezer and helping to remove old ones with expired dates already passed, is a welcome development. Here is a take on this electronic gadgetry which may hit the market soon. 

"Aside from the customer, the food industry includes many participants — from growers and producers to manufacturers who turn foods into products, to packaging companies, distributors, wholesalers, and retailers. The logistics are often complex: Food products can have many different ingredients, with multiple sources for each one. Perishable foods need cold storage and distribution that keeps them fresh. Food provenance, or where food is grown or made, also impacts the sustainability of the supply chain. Locally sourced food can reduce both transportation costs and emissions. With a global population expected to reach nine billion in 2050, efficiency is key in order to meet the increased demand for food. Food production consumes 10 percent of the U.S. energy budget and 50 percent of U.S. land, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Yet, 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes uneaten. The U.S. wastes about 121 billion pounds of food each year, with some two-thirds of that going to landfills. At the same time, said the NRDC, one-in-six American households struggle to find enough food. Reducing losses by just 15 percent could feed an additional 25 million Americans every year, the group said. The Food Waste Reduction Alliance Project is a coalition working to re-route edible food to food banks. At the 2013 Sustainable Foods Summit in San Francisco, Bon Appetit Management Company said it's reducing food waste by changing meal sizes and menu options, while Whole Foods Market said it's composting its food waste in about 75 percent of its stores. Playing it Safe New food safety laws are also exerting pressures on food supply chains. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law by President Obama in 2011, makes regulators more responsible to prevent contamination, rather than just responding to it. The FSMA redefines how food is tracked, traced and monitored. As a result, new technologies are helping food companies trace the source, distribution path, and handling of ingredients in case of contamination and recalls.Temperature tags using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology can provide continuous temperature data for perishable foods, enabling manufacturers and retailers to prevent spoilage and loss. IBM  used its RFID technology to create a smart freezer that can identify items nearing their expiration dates and alert staff when inventory is low on a particular item. Supermarket shoppers can also trace foods with the free HarvestMark Food Traceability App. Consumers can use a smart phone to scan codes on some three billion food items to see data on farmers and growing methods.With the help of new technology and smart changes to food management, companies can minimize safety risks, reduce waste and hunger, and help save the planet, too — a triple bottom line with far-reaching results for global sustainability".

More than the freezer, it is the refrigerator that needs such an app since frozen foods are relatively safe even after the expiry date linebut the temperature conditions in a refrigerator can definitely support bacterial and fungal growth after a few days of storage. If fresh produce packed properly are equipped with the appropriate RFID tags and smart refrigerators designed with the alert function, this will go a long way to help the consumers to save lot of foods. Such smart refrigerators can alert the house wives regarding the approaching expiry date so that the older foods are used in preference to fresher ones getting into the refrigerator.


Tuesday, June 25, 2013


The so called Direct Cash Transfer Scheme (now being rechristened as Direct Benefit Transfer, (DBT) is going to be one of the greatest scams this country has ever seen if many observers who have been warning the government of India not to go ahead with this madness are to be take seriously. With every citizen becoming allergic to every government agency in this country due to the insensitivity, callous disrespect to the sufferings of the citizen, inordinate delay in delivering services which are their right under the constitution and anarchy inherent in the system, will DBT be different? Even for reddressal of a simple complaint it takes ages and umpteen number of pilgrimage to the cozy office of the "Sarkari Babus" to get an attentive ear, let alone solving the same! How can DBT be different though tall promises are being made on the eve the forthcoming general election? The UIDAI which normally can be a good thing for a country like India for a citizen to prove his or her identity, the way it is being promoted raises many uncomfortable questions! Here is critic's commentary on DBT which is really incisive and eye opening.   

Is the DBT scheme driven by some such extraordinary popular (or perhaps unpopular) delusion? It would appear so. Alternatively, it could be legerdemain. The latter appears more likely. The 'madness of crowds' could be sensed in the queues that line up for enrolment in UID fearing loss of LPG subsidy. The prophecy of the UIDAI chief that the 'voluntary' UID, "would become ubiquitous" and "service-providers may ask for it" is being fulfilled right before our eyes. Voluntariness of UID has become a cruel joke. The government / UIDAI justifies or rationalises DBT using Aadhaar numbers linked to bank accounts  saying that crediting subsidies into bank accounts of domestic LPG consumers would prevent leakages of subsidies. This again, is an assumption without any 'aadhaar' (foundation). Subsidy leakages of the order of Rs 12,000 crore are sometimes bandied about, though no one has said how the figure was arrived at and why no action has been taken so far, if such large-scale abuse is a fact. Significantly, the minister for petroleum made no mention of Aadhaar in his speech at the launch of the LPG portal, but said, "the need to curb unauthorised use of LPG for commercial purposes has become acute." The LPG portal creates transparency, which would prevent unauthorised use of LPG. If so, what is the purpose of DBT?

Millions of people in this country are going to suffer because the so called electronic pay out towards subsidy is unlikely to work efficiently with hundreds of loopholes and "system failures" very often cited by institutions like banks for the delay to their customers. Where will the citizen go if the subsidy is not deposited promptly in his account in the earmarked banks? No where! Government may claim it has hot lines and toll free numbers for affected citizens to call and complain but past experience shows that these government phones are either dead or perennially "engaged"! Some people believe that the UIDAI is a simple ploy to reduce the subsidy burden on the government by default as many beneficiaries would get frustrated dealing with an unresponsive "babu net work", finally giving up on their eligible subsidy. 

Monday, June 24, 2013


Scouting for good but healthy foods is a nightmare for many families visiting a supermarket where thousands of products are presented as attractively as possible tempting the buyers to pick them up. While the price tag and expiry date weigh heavily in making purchase decisions so often, some discerning buyers do glance through the nutrition labeling though it is far from clear as to how much they really understand! Food safety authorities world over deserve kudos for putting in place a "front of the pack"  labeling regime that is helpful to millions of consumers to have a better understanding about the contents of the pack before making actual purchase and over the years the system is progressively being modified to make it more and more transparent and consumer friendly. Still attempts are going on in some parts of the world to bring about more clarity and in one such attempt in Australia, a new type of labeling guideline is being introduced to enable the consumer to decide at the first sight itself how healthy the product is without being forced to spend time and efforts to read through the fine printed information presently in vogue. This system is based on a system of star rating and following critique gives an idea about its mode of working and logistics of implementation.

The introduction of an easy-to-understand food labelling system was a key recommendation of the 2011 Blewett review of food labelling commissioned by the federal government. But reaching consensus on the best system to implement has been difficult. Food manufacturers have voluntarily adopted their industry's own percentage daily intake (%DI) labelling scheme since 2006. But the scheme doesn't meet the Blewett review's requirement for an "interpretive" system. The daily intake system only presents information about the contribution that a single serve of food makes to the "average" person's daily dietary requirement. It has been criticised as being confusing for consumers, and potentially misleading. The Blewett review specifically recommended traffic-light labelling, which uses green, amber and red to show, at a glance, the relative healthiness of products, as the preferred scheme. The recommendation was strongly supported by public health groups. But traffic-light labels are vociferously opposed by industry, primarily because food manufacturers don't want to put red (negative) labels on their products. By the end of 2011, the federal government had rejected the call to implement traffic-light labelling. This was widely seen as government caving in to lobbying pressure from the food industry, which has been extremely active in its campaign against traffic-light labelling, both in Australia and internationally. In an effort to develop a labelling system that could be supported by all parties, the federal government established a multi-sectoral committee to work on a proposal for a new scheme in 2012. In May 2013, this committee finalised their recommendations for the health star system. The scheme is based on a system proposed by the US Institute of Medicine. Under the proposed system, processed foods will be labelled using a scale ranging from half a star (least healthy) to five stars (healthiest). The front of food packages will also have an icon showing the number of kilojoules in the product, and nutrient information on saturated fat, sodium and sugars. Only the kilojoules in the product will be expressed in terms of recommended daily intake.Foods that are considered healthy (using government-defined criteria) will also be able to list a single "positive" nutrient (such as calcium) icon on the front of the package. And the standard nutrition information panel that is currently displayed on the back of the pack would remain in place. The system will initially be voluntary, and implementation is expected to be accompanied by a government-sponsored marketing campaign to explain and promote it.

Though on paper it looks really good, implementing the same will be a hard job because of the difficulties involved in assigning stars to thousands of products with different chemical and nutrient composition. Still it should be possible to implement the new guidelines in cooperation with the industry. Since the star rating system is voluntary at present there may not be any serious hiccups during the initial period as most products with good health credentials will queue up for getting the coveted star rating and once products start appearing in the market with the health star icons printed on the front, a positive force is likely to be unleashed that will push more and more manufacturers into the star rating system. When fully implemented the market environment may become so sanitized that bad and unhealthy packed foods would probably disappear from the shelves sooner than later! One aspect about this new policy which cannot be appreciated is that the government does not want to make it mandatory in the interest of its citizens. Probably industry may eventually be forced to implement the star grading system by mandatory policy compulsions.    


Sunday, June 23, 2013


Can any one imagine producing honey among the concrete jungles of vast sprawling cities spread all over this world in different countries? Possibly the answer may be a resounding no! But Australia is in the forefront to debunk this conventional belief and it has been shown time and again that better quality honey can be produced in urban townships than that in rural areas! In cities like Sydney there appears to be great enthusiasm by the citizenry to go for honey production on their roofs and amazingly the fear about bee sting does not bother them a wee bit. According to Beehive experts honey bees do not harm humans as they are least interested in them and gentle handling will ensure safe honey extraction from their hives. It appears the infectious enthusiasm about urban honey production seems to be spreading fast to other cities in the world like London, Paris etc and soon Urban Honey Beehives may become a parallel activity to urban agriculture and gardens which are growing day by day. Here is a take on this interesting phenomenon which deserves kudos from all nature loving people of the world. 

It might seem counter-intuitive but cities are perfect for beekeeping, Burton says. "Urban bees tend to do better than country bees because people have so many exotic trees and flowers in their gardens, so there's always something flowering in the city," she says. "In the country most of the land is used for farming, which means forage tends to be less diverse." In the cities however, even hives within a few kilometres of one another can produce honey with distinctly different tastes. The honey Burton harvests from hives in Elizabeth Bay, for example, is sweet and floral, whereas the honey from Fassnidge's hives in Paddington – less than two kilometres away – has a richer, earthier flavour. Doug Purdie, who splits his days between a marketing job and his real love, the Urban Beehive business, says interest in urban beekeeping has leapt significantly in recent years. "When I started [three years ago], there were no hives on restaurants or cafes. There were in Melbourne but as far as I know, the first in Sydney was the one we put on the Swissotel," he says. Today, Purdie and his business partner manage 55 hives in Sydney, including at Cornersmith cafe in Marrickville, Chez Dee in Potts Point, Wine Library in Woollahra and Berta in the city.

It may be logical to expect such initiative from consumers who are fed up of commercial agriculture because of safety fears and adverse environmental impact, especially on the weather conditions that contribute to global warming. Locavore movement which is spreading fast these days encourages urban beehive operations as the honey produced will have minimum carbon foot print. China and India are the biggest producers of honey and recent scandals about antibiotic tainted and pesticide contaminated honey from China  are not easy to forget for a long time to come. Here are three cheers for the adventurous, courageous and nature loving citizens living in different cities of the world for their efforts to save honey bees and coax them to give high quality and safe honey year in and year out!


Friday, June 21, 2013


Are genetically modified foods (GMO) absolutely safe? Is it necessary to let the consumers know that the product he is buying in the market contains GMO? If yes at what levels? Can the labeling policy be flexible enough to allow the industry the leeway to declare or not regarding presence GMO in the products marketed by them? These are inconvenient but pertinent questions on which international community must arrive at a consensus, sooner or later. Only harmonized standards can be the basis for free trade among countries having different standards and protocols. What is disturbing however is the implied stance of WTO that GMO must be accepted by all member countries but labeling provisions can be flexible with each country free to insist on mandatory labeling. Why the world body is taking this stand can be understood in the light of situation prevailing in the US considered the "champion of champions" of GMO, This country has long ago abdicated its national responsibility to protect its citizens from harmful foods long ago, leaving the same in the hands of the multinational GMO giants whose clout and muscle power in controlling policies in that country are well known. Here is a commentary on the role of WTO in toeing the despicable GMO policy of the US and insisting other member countries to follow the same! 

Russia is gradually starting to fulfill its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). One of these obligations is a more lenient attitude towards products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMO). In line with WTO regulations, it will soon be possible to import GMO seeds into the country. This will enable producers to sell and label the resulting genetically modified products as any other product – that is, marking the food as containing genetically modified organisms will be made optional. Environmentalists are in an uproar, repeatedly taking to the streets with anti-GMO rallies in late May to get their voices heard. Labeling policy often appears simple and straightforward. However, the policy is complex, particularly for process attributes (those that relate to how a product was produced rather than its final use characteristics). In choosing GMO labeling policy, a government must address the long series of questions shown in table 1. This list can serve as a useful framework for comparing policies. Broadly speaking, the labeling choices being made by countries fall into two broad camps. One camp, including the European Union, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, among others, is pursuing mandatory labeling programs for GM food products, although in some cases voluntary labeling is retained for non-GM products. The other camp, which includes the United States (US), has voluntary labeling as its main strategy, with labeling being required if important end characteristics of the product, such as its allergenic potential or nutritional content, are changed. Genetically modified organism labeling is a prime example of a quick moving policy area where individual countries are not willing to take the time necessary for development of international consensus on the best approaches. The strategy is to regulate now and worry about coordination or harmonization later. The recent record of discord and gridlock in the relevant Codex Alimentarius committees reinforces the "everyone for themselves" approach. An example of the developing differences in policy, even within the mandatory labeling camp, can be seen in provisions on when labeling requirements are triggered. The European Commission is proposing that mandatory labeling be triggered if more than 1% of an ingredient in a product is GM. Japan is proposing to require labeling only for selected products and for those products, only for important ingredients. Legislation has been introduced in the current session of Congress in the US House of Representatives (Kucinich Bill, H.R. 3377) and Senate (Boxer Bill, S. 2080) to require mandatory GMO labeling in the United States. The Kucinich Bill is more detailed and specifies a self-certification approach to labeling a product's GMO status. While it is unlikely either bill will pass in this session of Congress, they suggest the mix of policy choices being thought about by some US legislators. In early May, the US Food and Drug Administration reconfirmed its policy of voluntary labeling for GMO products, when they are not significantly altered, and for non-GMO products. Voluntary labeling will be actively supported through issuance on labeling guidelines and provision of certification and reference testing services by the US Department of Agriculture.

India has done well to resist the WTO "guideline" on GMO and it is one of the few countries where GM foods are not allowed to be cultivated, at least officially. The story of GM Brinjal which was played out in India a couple of years back must still be fresh in the minds of Indian citizens and maintaining this stand is good for the country till there is absolute consensus regarding the safety of GM foods. Recent accidental finding of a GM wheat in the fields of some farmers in the US raises fresh concern about the environmental risks involved in giving a free run to GM crops in countries where most farmers do subsistence cultivation based on traditional seed raising and conventional technologies. If WTO is going to serve the interests of the American government and the American monopolistic industry giants as being perceived by many third world countries, it is time for this organization to close its shop once for all!   

Thursday, June 20, 2013


There is a wide spread perception among international agencies that the unemployment situation in India is serious and people are starving because of lack of adequate income generation opportunities, especially for the vast mass of unskilled and illiterate citizenry. A recent report from the government sources however gives a totally different picture vis-a-vis the employment situation where people are shunning work even under some of the government sponsored employment schemes under some of the laws like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act! If the employment situation is really grim, why should people shun the offer of the government to give work for every citizen above 18 years of age at least for 100 days in an year and in a family with at least two adults the annual income works out to more than Rs 30000, adequate for sustenance. Still demand for this dole out is progressively coming down during the last 4 years with very few takers coming forward to take up work under the Scheme! Why? What is the real reason? There may be many "official" explanations but the fact still remains that people do not want to take up this offer from the government because they have better income generating opportunities elsewhere! How can any one believe the 'statistics" being published regularly by the government on the unemployment situation in the country? Here is a take on this ironic situation. 

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act makes it mandatory for the State government to ensure a minimum 100 days of unskilled manual labour for any person above the age of 18, demanding employment under the scheme. But, cut to 2013, there are no takers for the scheme. As per the data provided by MGNREGA at the State level, between 2009-2010 and 2012-2013, the cumulative number of households with job cards demanding employment through this flagship scheme declined from 74,753 to 15,303 in Bangalore (both rural and urban). According to officials, in 2013-2014, there will be a further dip in the job demand. The total number of job cards issued to households in the City has also seen a sudden dip of 60 per cent in the past four years. The phenomenon is no different in other parts of Karnataka. In the same time period, the State has experienced a decline of around 61 per cent, from 36 lakh to 14 lakh, in job demand. "The scheme in Karnataka was started with great enthusiasm and had received good response from the people. But, in the last few years, the impact has tapered off to a great extent, due to several bureaucratic issues," said Chandrashekar, Joint Director, MGNREGS, Karnataka.

Another less charitable view of the situation is that people are being made lazy by various populist schemes through which government spends public money largely to further the interests of the political group that rules the country and they are satisfied by what they are getting almost free like rice, wheat, gas connections, television sets etc without raising a finger! With the Cash Transfer Scheme now being implemented at a huge cost, cash is going to be put in the hands of the so called poor to spend as they like and why should any one work if his needs are satisfied by sitting at home enjoying a retired life even before the life starts? Many critics believe that in a matter of few years after implementing all these misconceived schemes, India may have to import "human beings" from neighboring countries to do hard work on various developmental projects!. No wonder that industrial production is dipping alarmingly low and infrastructure activities are not taking off because of such a huge human shortage for doing hard work. What will be the impact of these changes on food production in future? Small farmers are likely to be wiped out leaving large landholders to carry out agricultural operations using large scale mechanization! Is India going to be a nation of zombies with no initiative to work and wasting precious human wealth? Only time will tell!   


Wednesday, June 19, 2013


The big paper tiger in India viz the Food Standards and Safety Authority (FSSAI) has a knack of projecting themselves in the public as the "savior" of Indian citizen by promulgating "tons" of "laws". These laws, on paper, look excellent, comparing well with the best in the world. Unfortunately this "toothless" tiger can only roar and cannot bite as has been proved in case after case during the last two years! As the system of governing in India is based on a federal and decentralized regime, all central laws can be implemented only by the constituent states which are supposed to have the wherewithal to enforce them. Recent ban on Gutka in more than two dozen states as per direction of FSSAI is a typical example of bringing a law which cannot be implemented because of the ill equipped and grossly insufficient enforcement infrastructure currently existing in these states. This ban on manufacture and sale of gutka, an arecanut-tobacco mixture under different brand names is based on the perception by FSSAI which considers chewing it regularly as a causative factor for cancer and other health problems. Every state is feeling the pinch in enforcing this ban sincerely because of their understaffed food vigilance departments and they know pretty well that such personnel cannot be produced overnight qualitatively and in required numbers. Here is a commentary on this sorry situation vis-a-vis food law enforcement in the country and no one seems to be too much concerned about.   

"Meanwhile, the Health department, officials said, has approached the Home department for help to implement the ban. According to M Madan Gopal, Principal Secretary to the Health and Family Department, they had requested the Director General and Inspector General of Police (DG&IGP) to ensure that police personnel across the State apprehend those selling gutka.  When the ban on smoking in public spaces was implemented, we got the co-operation of the police department. Similarly, we are seeking their co-operation to implement the gutka ban," Gopal said. The Health department has also sought the support of urban local bodies (ULBs) and orders are being issued by the Urban Development department to chief officers of the ULBs to implement the ban. Currently, the State government has sealed all gutka manufacturing units in Karnataka. On alternative employment for those working in the manufacturing units, the State has asked the owners to shift production to non-tobacco or non-nicotine based arecanut products.  The State government has said there will be no impact of the gutka ban on arecanut growers in the State. Horticulture department principal secretary M K Shankarlinge Gowda said the areca grown in the State is never utilised in the manufacture of gutka. "We are likely to see only a small percentage of arecanut growers who may be impacted by the gutka ban. But, they can change their land use to plantations or other such activities. The arecanut used in the manufacture of gutka is the reject of the actual arecanut," he said. Most of the arecanut used in the manufacture of gutka comes from outside the country and only 25 per cent is from the State. On the Gorakh Singh Committee report, Gowda said the measures recommended in the report had already been taken and farmers in Chikmagalur and Shimoga are being encouraged to grow alternative crops. On loan waiver, Gowda said only those loans obtained from co-operative societies by arecanut growers can be waived of". 

Another dimension to the problem is the economic impact of banning gutka making on the areca farmers who have thousands of acres cultivating this crop for decades making a living. What were the governments at Delhi and at the state level were doing all these years to discourage areca cultivation in the country, is a question begging for an answer. Even during early nineteen sixties there were serious debates regarding the relevance of this crop to the country and serious suggestions were being made to chop them off to be replaced with healthy and nutritional crops like coconuts. Paradoxically arecanut cultivation doubled during the last 15 years and nothing concrete was done by the country which contributed to the present crisis situation! Even now it is not too late to take a long term view and persuade areca farmers to replace this crop with other commercial crops like coconuts, by offering incentives and compensations over a period of time that will rehabilitate them economically.   


Tuesday, June 18, 2013


The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) which originated 30 years ago has become a subject matter of intense scrutiny during the last couple of years and recent claim by an Indian farmer that he has harvested the highest yield from his land using SRI was independently verified by government scientists confirming that SRI is indeed here to say in spite of many skeptics raising serious reservations about the claim. A new twist has recently been added to the story of SRI when some studies averred that despite increased farm yield the overall income of the farmer did not show any increase but actually recorded lass income from their agricultural operations in general. This was attributed to neglect of other activities like livestock raising, poultry rearing etc because of much greater time required for SRI technique to achieve quantum jump in yield. Here is a commentary on this latest controversy which refuses to die down easily. 

First of all, Barrett and Takahashi found that SRI did, in fact, boost the farmers' yields of rice by an estimated 64 percent. But here's the bad news: Even though the farmers were harvesting more rice and spending less on seeds and chemicals, their household income did not go up at all. This apparent contradiction actually has a pretty simple explanation, Barrett says. Farming families in Indonesia — in fact, in much of the world — don't just work on the farm. When they have time, they also find work elsewhere to earn more money. But SRI demands more time for all that careful transplanting and soil improvement. And as a result, family members have less time for outside work, and that lost off-farm income cancels out any gain from the rice harvest. (Interestingly, although SRI reduced outside work, it did not appear to reduce the rate of school attendance among children.) Norman Uphoff, a professor of government at Cornell who has been SRI's most important advocate, says that what Barrett and Takahashi saw in Indonesia isn't typical of other places. "If you go to China or India, you'll find that farmers are saving labor with SRI, not using more labor," he says, because farmers in those countries already are spending a lot of time in their rice fields. In addition, he says, farmers who stick with SRI soon find ways to do the work more quickly. "It's not intrinsically labor-intensive; it's initially labor-intensive," he says.

Probably the holistic view taken by the above critics tells a different story that cannot be brushed aside easily. After all most rural households eke out a living performing many tasks with potential income generation as agriculture, being seasonal, cannot provide full time income generating opportunities round the year.  SRI cultivation needs undivided attention and a regime of dedication to achieve any meaningful increase in production from a given stretch of land and that calls for sacrifice of other activities by the farmers and if increased yield does not fetch as much income as that derived from supplementary activities, it is unlikely that farmers would continue with the new system. Extreme care and full attention needed to make SRI work at the ground level demand more workers and there is a critical shortage of rural workers because of government schemes like MGNREGA, SJSRY etc where guaranteed income is assured to every citizen who wish to work for150 days in an year by the government. In such an environment how can SRI technique work? Devoting too much time for rice cultivation under the SRI technique may not be possible every where in the country.  


Monday, June 17, 2013


The great land of litigation, claiming all sorts of compensation by the citizens, viz the US seems to be moving towards a situation where food industry is now the focus of attention from the lawyers. Such a conclusion is being drawn based on the latest data on such cases which shows that law suits filed during the last few years registered a phenomenal increase. Probably this may be worrying the food industry as it is a reflection of decreasing trust consumers repose on the credibility of this sector and this is largely due to the rapidly growing obesity epidemic which threatens to swamp that country. There is a growing perception that food industry's intentions are not honest and they prefer profit over the well being their constituency, viz the citizens. In spite of dire warnings, persuasion, policy orchestrations and consumer pressure, food industry continues to persist with promoting unhealthy foods most of them rich in sugar, fat and salt, the villainous triumvirate, all indicted for their role in many life style disorders faced by the community as a whole. There is some talk that food industry, if it does not respond to the pulses of its customers, may end up in a situation similar to that faced by Tobacco industry decades ago, forced to fork out billions of dollars of as reparation to millions of consumers in the country. Here is a take on this interesting development. 

"A dramatic uptick in the number of consumer fraud lawsuits has put the food industry on the defensive against a wave of litigation, lawyers said at a panel Wednesday. The number of consumer fraud class actions brought in federal court against food and beverage companies has skyrocketed in the last five years, from roughly 19 cases in 2008 to more than 102 in 2012, according to data compiled by the food litigation department at Perkins Coie. At Wednesday's panel at the Intercontinental New York Barclay hotel, Perkins Coie partner David Biderman, a consumer and mass tort defense lawyer, said the legal and political environment has created the "perfect storm" for consumer fraud class actions against food and beverage companies. This "litigation explosion" has sparked fears that the food and beverage industry is being targeted by plaintiffs' lawyers, as the tobacco industry was several decades ago, said Ronald Levine, co-chair of the litigation department at Herrick Feinstein. "None of these companies would have predicted this wave of litigation even five years ago," Levine said. The majority of consumer fraud litigation against the food and beverage industry has landed in California federal courts, according to the Perkins Coie data. From 2008 until 2012, 186 class actions were filed in California court, many of them in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, which has been dubbed the "Food Court." That's compared to just 18 in the second-busiest state, New Jersey".

There may be a point in the stand taken by the industry that it produces products demanded by the consumer and their business can thrive only when consumers patronize their offerings. They further aver that it is purely an individual's decision as to what should be purchased and which one should be shunned. Naturally if these calorie rich foods are more popular and others with healthy credentials are shunned in the market, can the industry continue with latter types of foods without risking bankruptcyHowever this stand is contested by the protagonists of healthy foods who want the industry to be forced to change their product lines to include more balanced foods vis-a-vis good nutrients and change the market place into a "dessert" as far as foods with empty calories and high salt are concerned. If past trend is any indication the spate of litigation currently being seen may eventually subside because food is not like cigarette, being an essential part of daily life. Having said this one has to remind the industry that by claiming their products to be safe after suppressing evidence of their research to the contrary it will have to face the consequences as this amounts to criminal fraud deserving severe retribution.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Any one not familiar with various economic jargon may not understand why so many consumer industry giants from around the world are rushing to this poor country to invest in droves? This is especially jarring to the ears of poor and hungry millions in the country who seem to have been left behind in the race of the country to be a top global economic power. Alarmingly the gap between the rich and the poor is increasingly widening with the fruits of economic development cornered by a few rich people. It is not that poor has not been benefited at all but such crumbs thrown at them are minuscule compared to rich man's taking! As some critics have pointed out foreign players are more interested in consumer products industry while the much sought after infrastructure investments are far and few. In one of the most paradoxical twists in the economic development, government seems to be pumping more and more and more money into the hands of people through gigantic subsidy schemes and benefits distribution policies that even the poor people seem to have more money in their hands which are being spent for purchase of many aspirational products, normally the prerogative of the rich! Seeing this trend foreign players are trying to attract this money in the hands of the poor for reaping a rich harvest in terms of profits. Here is a take on this paradoxical situation currently playing out in India. 

"From Diageo and Unilever to GlaxoSmithKline, all multinational companies want a bigger slice of the Indian consumption story - fuelled by rising income and small families, say bankers. "We are seeing a secular growth trend in all consumer-led businesses, whether it's consumer products or health care - primarily driven by favourable demographics and increasing purchasing power. That is reflected in increasing M&A deal volumes, besides higher sustainable market valuations, as foreign investors don't feel concerned about any regulatory or governmental overhang that they see in other sectors in India," says UBS Investment Bank Managing Director Ravi Shankar. The recent investments show foreign investors have completely shunned the infrastructure sector - roads and power, for example - which is facing serious issues of environmental clearances and land acquisition. A top official of US-based Blackstone said all of the company's investments in the Indian infra sector were blocked due to problems plaguing the industry. "There is no option but to remain invested in infra companies," he said. In contrast, in 2012, Indian food & beverage sales rose 21.2 per cent, while sales of home and personal care grew 17 per cent. Sales for airline and cell phone companies also grew. A Morgan Stanley report says food & beverages sales in India will rise another seven-eight per cent, while home and personal care sales will go up four per cent, ahead of a rise in disposable income over the next six years. Adding to the consumption story are rising rural wages, which have continued to grow, 18.3 per cent on a year-on-year basis as of November 2012 - thanks to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The growth rate moved up from 10-13 per cent in the first half of 2008 to an average 19 per cent annually over the past three years. Against this backdrop, as economies across the world slow down, the Indian consumers are providing investors comfort to open their purses and put their money in companies here'.

What is unfortunate in this sordid story is that the public money amounting to more than Rs 5 trillion showered on the poor in the country, at least a significant part of it, seems to be ending up in the pockets of organized industry as it offers goodies to fulfill the emerging aspirations of this new segment of consumers. With rice, wheat and coarse grains being offered under the new food security regime at Rs 1-2 per kg, free gas connections provided under some populist schemes in a few states, electricity being practically free, what ever government is offering under various employment schemes like MGNREGA,  SJSRY etc, creates surplus money in the hands of these beneficiaries which ultimately flow to the cash boxes of consumer goods selling industry! What type of equity is this where honest tax payers money is diverted to the so called poor families who spend most of it on organized industry?  No wonder more and more global players are queuing up for getting a slice of this cake! Recent opening up of the retail trade to foreign investment is being trumpeted as a "win-win" situation for the country  because of the restrictive clauses stipulating 30% local purchase and 50% of investment on back end infrastructure. If recent attempts by a few major retail giants to modify or eliminate these provisions clearly show their real intent of flooding the market with cheap imported goods, mostly from China ignoring the local farmers, micro enterprises and artisans. The mirage of improved infrastructure will remain a mirage only while these foreign players will laugh all the way to their banks in tax haven countries!

Saturday, June 15, 2013


Fat is no doubt a bad word for most people concerned about maintaining body weight and in to day's market low fat or fat free food products outnumber normal ones to meet the increasing demand from such worried consumers. Whether it is fat or carbohydrate, diets containing these two constituents provide energy needed for basal metabolism and day to day work regimen. It is only when the intake of food provides more energy than needed, the body starts storing the excess ones in the form of fat deposits which in turn contribute to over weight, obesity, metabolic syndrome, CVD, blood pressure, kidney disorders etc. The logic of cutting down on calories by reducing fat and sugar/carbohydrates is fairly well accepted and there are many slimming diets offered by the health food industry with low caloric density. As against this a new approach is being tried to tinker with the existing body fat so that it is burned fast in stead of storing in different parts of the body. This involves transforming the white fats to brown fats through therapeutic or nutritional intervention as the latter has the major role in burning for calories, just like carbohydrate. Though no conclusive therapy has yet been developed the attempts by scientists are showing encouraging signs and here is a report that highlights the efforts in the laboratory. 

"Scientists from ETH Zurich in Switzerland have shown for the first time that brown and white fat cells in a living organism can be converted from one cell type to the other. Their work, using mice as a model organism, provides important new insights into the origin of brown fat cells, which is a prerequisite for the development of successful anti-obesity therapies. Two types of fat cells can be found in mammals and hence in humans: White fat cells function mainly as highly flexible energy stores which are filled in times of calorie abundance. The fat is stored in the form of lipid droplets, which are mobilized when energy is needed. Diametrically opposed in function are the so-called brown adipocytes: These cells specialize in burning energy in the form of fat and sugar to produce heat. New-born babies possess substantial amounts of brown fat and utilize it to maintain body temperature. Since it was recently shown that brown adipocytes also exist in adult humans, research has focused on understanding how brown adipocytes are formed. The ultimate goal of these efforts is to increase brown adipocyte number and activity in obese humans, allowing them to burn excess calories and thus reduce weight".

The findings cannot be taken seriously yet as the experiments are confined to laboratory mice and till this is proven beyond doubt it may still be a possibility for future. More over the empirical observations must be validated in human beings through clinical studies. While it is a fact that interconversion  between white and brown fat has been demonstrated, man is still in the dark regarding the means to achieve this so that it can be applied under real life situation. There is a possibility that suitable drugs might be evolved for such an intervention at the cellular level or achieving it through nutritional route by appropriate design of special foods with such functions. It may take quite some time to arrive at this point and humanity will have to wait in baited breath for such a development!  


Friday, June 14, 2013


Honey is much valued as a food material besides having many therapeutic qualities attributed to it. As it is a product extracted from Beehives where the bees process the syrupy material they suck out of many types of flowers, protecting these creatures from infection and other disease causing bugs is a prerequisite to ensure safety of honey produced by them. Honey was recently the focus of attention internationally after it was found that honey imported from China was heavily contaminated with antibiotics. Honeybees afflicted by infectious diseases are reported to be routinely treated with antibiotics and a part of this was found leached into the honey produced by these bees. Some countries even banned import of Chinese honey because of the wide prevalence such practices by beekeepers in China. In yet another instance of threat to honeybees is there is this report which speaks of a move by the EU to impose a ban on the popular pesticide Neonictinoids and is being welcomed widely because of the adverse impact these pesticides have on the bees. The Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) which is becoming a matter of concern in many countries is now being attributed to widespread use of neonicotinoids. Here is a take on this interesting development which if ends up in a real ban will give the honeybees a fresh lease of life.    

"There have been demonstrations in various EU cities, from London to Sofia, in favour of a ban. The companies that produce the pesticides reject the findings of the food safety agency investigation and have offered alternatives that they say will preserve bee populations. The April 29 vote was 15 in favour of the restrictions, eight against and four abstentions. Since the previous vote, after a series of protests by beekeepers, Bulgaria changed its stance from abstaining to voting for a ban. Tonio Borg, European Health and Consumer Commissioner, said: "Although a majority of member states now supports our proposal, the necessary qualified majority was not reached. The decision now lies with the Commission. Since our proposal is based on a number of risks to bee health identified by the European Food Safety Authority, the Commission will go ahead with its text in the coming weeks. "I pledge to do my utmost to ensure that our bees, which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over 22 billion euro annually to European agriculture, are protected," Borg said. The proposal restricts the use of three neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam) for seed treatment, soil application (granules) andfoliar treatment on bee attractive plants and cereals. In addition, the remaining authorised uses are available only to professionals.
Exceptions will be limited to the possibility to treat bee-attractive crops in greenhouses, in open-air fields only after flowering. The restrictions will apply from December 1 2013. The European Commission said that as soon as new information is available, and at the latest within two years, the Commission will review the conditions of approval of the three neonicotinoids to take into account relevant scientific and technical developments". 

So far honey as a healthy food suffered from antibiotics contamination, adulteration and Clostridium bottulinum poisoning and the new threat perception comes from the indiscriminate use of neonicotinoids on some crops. Will honeybees will end up in the category natural species that face extinction due to man's reckless action to outsmart all other species on this earth for his selfish goals? It is sad that when new pesticides are created, their impact on the nature is largely ignored and the result is devastation that is being witnessed as in the case of neonicotinoids vis-a-vis honeybees. Even now it is not too late for the world to take effective action to do whatever is possible to protect honeybees these tiny creatures have an important role in preserving the plant kingdom. Without honeybees 80% of the plants will disappear from the face of this earth as they have an important role in producing seeds through pollination of flowers and these seeds propagate the various species on a perpetual basis.  


Salmonella is a deadly pathogenic bug which has contributed to thousands of human death through consumption of contaminated foods, mostly in the US. Its potential for food poisoning is well known and extensively documented. There are hundreds of food poisoning episodes reported every year from all over the world from this food pathogen, in spite of pre-emptive precautions exercised by the industry. It has now been discovered that this monstrous bug has the capacity to defy every destruction technology man has known and it is spreading its tentacles far and wide affecting even dry foods with no moisture for survival! According to new studies Salmonella has acquired this new capability to resist severe processing condition because of a strange phenomenon called biofilm formation. Such biofilms containing these pathogens behave like a cocoon protecting them from harsh environment like high heat or high acidity! Here is a commentary on this new findings with far reaching implications. 

"Over the past five years, more than 900 Salmonella-related illnesses have been linked to dried foods such as nuts, cereals, spices, powdered milk and pet foods. Those foods were previously believed to have been safe from the bacteria, as their dry nature helps halt the growth of bacteria and other microbes. "Most people expect to find Salmonella on raw meats but don't consider that it can survive on fruits, vegetables or dry products, which are not always cooked," Ponder said. Salmonella typically thrive and reproduce abundantly in moist conditions, the researchers said. In dry conditions, they cease reproduction, but activate genes which produce biofilms, thus protecting them from the harsh conditions. "Researchers tested the resilience of the Salmonella biofilm by drying it and storing it in dry milk powder for up to 30 days," the university explained. "At various points it was tested in a simulated gastrointestinal system. Salmonella survived this long- term storage in large numbers but the biofilm Salmonella were more resilient than the free-floating cells treated to the same conditions."  "The bacteria's stress response to the dry conditions also made it more likely to cause disease," they added. "Biofilms allowed the Salmonella to survive the harsh, acidic environment of the stomach, increasing its chances of reaching the intestines, where infection results in the symptoms associated with food poisoning."The researchers believe that their work could help the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shape federal regulations by emphasizing the need for a new strategy to reduce biofilm formation on equipment. With luck, those strategies, along with improved sanitation techniques, will hopefully decrease the likelihood of another widespread Salmonella outbreak in the US".

Microbiologists are already familiar with the ability of some of the bugs to sporulate, how these spores are resistant to destruction under most severe heat treatment and the technology of Tyndalization involving serial high temperature treatment was specifically developed to deal with such a situation. The new development revealing the biofilm forming ability of Salmonella is a challenge to food scientists to go for steps that will have to ensure total destruction of this pathogen present in food both free as well as in biofilm format. Dry foods can no more be taken as free from Salmonella risk since this pathogen can contaminate, form biofilm and stay there till right conditions arrive for their proliferation. Biofilms can pass through the highly acidic environment of the stomach and "wake up" later in the intestine to bring havoc with the attendant consequences. With the discovery of biofilm phenomenon, food scientists are likey to come up with new techniques that can penetrate the biofilms and destroy the bacteria for making the food safer.