Thursday, October 31, 2013


Human requirement for water is still a controversial subject with no unanimity among health pundits. While 2 liters a day is considered essential there is no clarity as to whether this quantity has to be consumed over and above the moisture that is present in daily diet. The food consumed varies from culture to culture but basically most cooked foods will have a moisture level averaging about 50%. Considering that the daily calorie requirement of 2000 kCal will have to be taken through foods, considerable water enters the body through the food. It is indisputable that water is needed both for physiological and thermo regulation and some quantity has to be imbibed in pure form. The phenomenon of thirst is a part of human body's signaling system to compensate for water loss due to perspiration and evaporation and consumption of water based products like juices, soft drinks and others contributes to water "make up". It is during the last five decades that beverage industry started exploiting the thirst phenomenon for commercial gain through natural and synthetic beverages with diverse flavors and the explosive growth of sugary beverages is telling on the health of the population as reflected by the fast developing obesity epidemic in many of the financially healthy nations. In spite of global campaigns against these non-nutritive high calorie drinks, not much progress was visible in curbing their consumption. It is against this background that one has to welcome the news, reported recently, about a new trend of declining "soda" (sugary beverages) consumption in countries like the US which is considered a good omen. Here is more about this development.

"Sales of water in standard lightweight plastic bottles grew at a rate of more than 20 percent every quarter from 1993 to 2005, he said. The growth has continued since, but now it has settled into percentages within the high single digits. If the estimated drinking of water from the household tap is included, water consumption began exceeding that of soda in the mid-2000s. That significant shift has posed a tough challenge for the Coca-Cola Company and rival PepsiCo in recent years. While both companies sell bottled water lines, Dasani for Coke and Aquafina for Pepsi, they have had trouble establishing dominance in the more profitable business of so-called enhanced waters — including flavored and carbonated waters and those with added vitamins and minerals — where a horde of new beverage companies like TalkingRain, Hint water and Fruit2O are giving them a run for the money. "Given where pricing has gone, I would assume that on the average 24 pack of bottled water, Coke and Pepsi are selling at break-even at best," said John Faucher, who tracks the beverage and household products businesses at JPMorgan Chase. "The one thing keeping them in plain, old bottled water is that both have a very large and highly profitable single-serve business in it." Plain bottled waters are little more than purified tap water with a sprinkle of minerals tossed in, which makes the business one of producing bottles and filling them. Factors as varied as innovations in bottling technology that have helped drive down the price of water as well as continuing concern about obesity and related diseases are also driving the trend. A recent study by North Dakota State University, for instance, used dietary intake data collected by the federal government to draw correlations between decreased consumption of soda from 1999 through 2010 and improvements in the biomarkers that indicated cholesterol and other chronic diseases. A study by Coca-Cola asserted that the government's data, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, was flawed, but that had not stopped public health officials from encouraging greater consumption of beverages with less sugar. Last month, Michelle Obama heavily endorsed water, teaming up with Coke, Pepsi and NestlĂ© Waters, among others, to persuade Americans to drink more of it. Health advocates complained that Mrs. Obama had capitulated to corporate partners by not explaining the benefits of water over the sodas they sell and that her initiative promoted even greater use of plastic bottles when she could have just recommended turning on the tap".

It is ironic that water, one of the cheapest materials in this planet, considered God's gift to the residents of earth, has now become a money spinning business with billions of bottles of processed water flooding the markets in every country! There was a time when the water coming through the taps of toilets in a country like the US was fit for consumption because of the water treatment plants working in each and every city in that country. Same applied to Europe also and a recent attempt by a city in Italy to brand its tap water reflects the mania among the citizens to go for bottled water incurring significant expenses for the consumer. Of course a bottle of water is always a convenience and this factor has modified the human behavior to shun tap water and buy processed and packed water. It is rather unfortunate that even in a country like India with half its population considered very poor there is a roaring market for bottled water though the citizen cannot be blamed for this craze due terrible fear about the safety of the so called piped water supply in almost all urban areas. Some time one gets the feeling that holding a bottle of attractively packed water bottle is becoming a status symbol among Indians! While bottled water industry is obviously serving the community by providing clean and safe water, the blame for such a skewed development must be borne squarely by the civic bodies, state and central governments for neglecting this fundamental right of the citizen, viz access to safe water.    



Eat or not to eat? That is the million dollar question before the consumers when hard decisions are to be made regarding the advisability of consuming food products past their "expiry" date or "best before' date! Though from time to time many experts express their view that most foods past their expiry date are still edible and fit for consumption, consumers still do not have sufficient confidence on their safety leading to millions of tons of foods being wasted all over the world. Britishers were wise to take the stand some time back that food should not be wasted just because it is past its expiry date. Many other countries are also realizing now that such declaration on the front of the label, though supposed to be advisory, forces the industry as well as the consumers to throw them out into garbage. While industry needs legal protection against consumers suing them if some thing happens after consuming a date expired food, consumers with no basic awareness about food safety faithfully follows the expiry date as a gospel truth refusing to even buy them, let alone consume them. What a dilemma in a world where almost one third of the population are famished for want of access to good food. Here is a take on this situation in some of the countries like the US, Australia and New Zealand and views of some experts regarding the safety of some of the foods with their expiry date over.

"Consumers should be aware that the expiry date is only a guide for quality and when a product is at its best, according to new US Department of Agriculture guidelines. But while giving the thumbs-up to some foods, it still cautions against certain meats and food items such as spinach and lettuce. Hard cheese, cured meats and hard vegetables can be eaten so long as mould is removed. Other items can be eaten at your own discretion, according to Jena Roberts, vice president of business development at the National Food Lab. Foods that never go off. Ms Roberts told ABC News that she couldn't pinpoint a single food safety issue that happened because food was past its used by date. She agreed the dates should be used as "only a guide". She said spinach and lettuce were the only foods which should be thrown out because "there isn't a heat step or a process to kill pathogens." Meat should be followed to the date, unless it is frozen, while condiments including mustard are fair game. "Bacteria isn't going to grow in them. It's just a quality issue," she said. Food Standards Australia New Zealand is a little less relaxed, advising that foods that have an expired used by date should not be eaten "because of health and safety reasons". However food with a best before date may be safe, although the quality and taste of the food may be affected. Spices: The quality of spices declines with age but they don't go off. Olive oil: Keeps for about two years unopened in the pantry or fridge. Vinegar: Keeps indefinitely although the quality will decrease. Dried pasta: Keeps for years in the pantry. Sesame seeds: Keep for years in the pantry or the fridge".

In general many dry foods with low moisture content or water activity keep well without causing any ill effect from most pathogenic microbes but they may be vulnerable to attack by insects of different types if not properly fumigated before packing. A sure way of keeping even the dry foods safe is to store under low temperatures obtained in domestic refrigerators. Consumers face the difficult choice while deciding about the safety of high moisture and rich foods with high pH which are easily vulnerable to microbial attack under ambient conditions. Here again there is a mistaken conception that the contents would be safe after properly heating the same. It is true most of the time reheating of high moisture foods will kill all microorganisms but one has to be aware of the toxins excreted by them before dying which can cause some health problem among many consumers. On the whole keeping any food under vacuum or at refrigerated temperatures or in frozen state can ensure a reasonable degree of protection to the consumer. All said and done it may be time to revisit the present system of indicating storage life on the packed foods by suitably including another provision to say such foods are unsafe after a certain date to be compulsorily thrown away. Is it practical? Will the industry agree for it? No harm in trying! 


Friday, October 18, 2013


A recent report about seizure and destruction of huge quantities of Chutney products in Ahmadabad by the food safety authorities there because of their low quality and unhygienic environment focuses on the impunity with which food fraudsters thrive in the country. These raids do not address the core of the problem, that is about the inability of the safety agencies to sustain activities that could be deterrent to such fraudsters. True people love chutneys of different types as accompaniments to a number of traditional Indian cuisines and the recipes vary from region to region, the most common property being their susceptibility to rapid spoilage as they contain high water content. Most chutneys, except may be the sweet variety are liked when consumed fresh and preparing them under insanitary conditions using sub standard ingredients can be dangerous because of infection by bacteria that can easily cause stomach upset, especially among consumers with "weak" stomach and low immunity. Here is a take on this episode in Ahmadabad.

Dabelis, sandwiches and vada pavs, laced with the red and green chutney, are a hot favourite with Amdavadis. But ever wondered about the quality of that chutney, often prepared in completely unhygienic conditions and that, too, with substandard material?  The health department of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) raided one such chutney manufacturing unit in Vatva ward on Tuesday and destroyed over 4,000 kg of low-quality chutney.  During the raid, six food inspectors found that vegetables, acetic acid and colours were being used to prepare the chutney. "We found that the manufacturer used boiled potatoes to make the thick chutney, which was later filled in huge plastic barrels in unhygienic conditions," said one of the inspectors requesting anonymity. The health officials also found that the chutney manufacturer had been functioning without health and food licences. Also, the chutney, which was packed in 5 kg bottles and sent to food stalls and hotels across the city, did not have information like date of manufacture, name of manufacturer, date of expiry, etc. "We have seized more than 4,000 kg of the chutney and destroyed it in the Pirana dumping yard. Also, samples have been collected and sent to the public health laboratory for testing," said Suhas Kulkarni, AMC medical officer of health. Incidentally, the health department had been trying to trace the illegal chutney manufacturer for the past three days. This was because the packet or the bottle has no mention of the manufacturing place in the city.

Street vending is an unavoidable phenomenon in countries like India and people flock at these vending carts because of the taste and freshness associated with them. Generally these foods are safe as long as they are hot served. How ever there are some preparations served cold and the chances of infection could be very high depending on the quality of water used. Unfortunately some of these vendors use water of suspect quality though lately use of processed water in large carboys is becoming the standard. The manufacturers of the Chutney in Ahmadabad obviously indulged in making a product without getting the necessary permits from the authorities and therefore had suspect intentions regarding the quality of their products.


Sunday, October 13, 2013


The world has traveled a lot since the industrial revolution which brought about the concept of economic viability for industrial production. Over the decades the mantra was to make production plants bigger and bigger without much focus on sustainability, especially when fossil fuels were available in plenty and that too cheap. Time has changed after the "oil shock" about 4 decades ago when fossil fuels became expensive and realization dawned on the humanity that they are not inexhaustible leading to sterling innovations in the energy front. Large scale mechanization of unit operations, evolution of giant manufacturing plants with lesser and lesser workers needed to manage them and integration of electronics with plant operation for better efficiency all saw the industry in general piling profits with apparently no concern for the environment or the welfare of workers or the consumer well being. Things are changing as new concepts are emerging with features like energy efficiency, water saving, waste disposal, improved worker welfare, down sized plants with better controls and back up facilities in case of break down etc becoming bench marks of newer plants. Here is a commentary on these emerging trends which cannot be ignored by the industry if to survive in the coming years. 

Bigger is better was the industry's mantra through much of the last century. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, holds two prime examples: General Mills' million-square-foot facility and, across town, Quaker Oats, a 22-building complex on 25 acres fronting the Cedar River. Centralized manufacturing enabled low-cost production, but the downside of the eggs-in-one-basket approach became painfully obvious over time. An electrical substation fire once took GM's plant off line for 18 hours; a 2008 flood knocked Quaker completely out of commission for three weeks. By the time full operations resumed two months later, lost throughput at the world's largest cereal plant would have fed a small country for a year. Regional production is today's trend, and that will continue. Logistics dictate site selection, and hauling finished goods halfway across the North American continent doesn't make economic sense. Diesel generators and even solar panels are being installed as a hedge against power outages, and energy conservation efforts increase the likelihood that at least partial production will continue in a worse-case scenario. Smaller facilities are being laid out for maximum flexibility. The Dr. Schar bakery in Logan Township, N.J., exemplifies this. Riding the crest of the gluten-free diet trend, the Italy-based company opened the 60,000-sq.-ft. plant in the Philadelphia metro area in June 2012. More than 100 different products are produced, the company boasts, from breads to cookies and crackers to pasta. It was the company's fourth new facility in six years. Equipment is getting easier to clean and sanitize, in part to meet higher food-safety standards but also because managers recognize that older designs mean more downtime and much higher labor expense over a machine's useful life. Stainless steel is the material of choice, and suppliers are redesigning their equipment to meet cleanability expectations.

As far as food industry is concerned, notable changes were taking place to make the manufacturing more sensitive to consumer safety and health. But the "profit at any cost" mentality is still ruling this sector with the industry being hauled for many ills of the society. Blaming food industry for many modern day health afflictions like CVD, Kidney ailments and Obesity is more or less become a standard criticism from which it cannot easily escape. Here again winds of change are perceptible with many large players trying to improve their products from nutritional and health angles and implementing many worker welfare programs. Energy and water are receiving priorities. It is a question of time before industry performance norms become more and more rigid and universally applied. This makes one wonder whether world is going back to the earlier concept, "small is beautiful" which may be good for the industry, environment as well as the consumer.