Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Urban gardening-Ever possible in India?

Lot has been said, written and debated about urban gardening which is being encouraged in countries like Canada and the United States. Recently in the US state of California where urban lands are available which are not being used for building houses, incentives are being offered to encourage owners to lease them out to potential "farmers" to cultivate food crops. Specifically in the city of Los Angeles the city council has plans to allow gardening on plots of sizes varying from 0.1 acre to 3 acres to be leased out by giving the owners tax incentives in return. This trend is visible across the country and can be a win-win situation for the stake holders involved like the owners, lessees, consumers, local governments and the nation as a whole. In the US there is a peculiar situation where large tracts of land are lying vacant for the last several years after the migration of city folks to well designed communities out side the urban core areas. These vacated land plots are not being utilized and since they are substantial in terms of total acreage, schemes like the above may work to the advantage of all concerned. Here is a take on this landmark changes taking place in these countries. .  

"There are thousands of vacant, unproductive lots throughout Los Angeles," said Fuentes, who represents the 7th District, which covers the Northeast Valley. "By converting empty parcels into urban farms, we can encourage local economic development, green our communities and provide produce in neighborhoods that lack access to fresh foods." Last year, the state Legislature approved the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act, which authorized a tax adjustment for private property owners who lease land for commercial or noncommercial agriculture use for at least five years. The council members want that law implemented locally. In Los Angeles, parcels would be eligible for the tax break if they are between 0.10 and 3 acres in size, dedicated to agriculture and animal husbandry, free of dwellings not intended for agriculture or educational purposes, and located within a zone that allows for agricultural use. The Los Angeles Food Policy Council estimates that 8,600 parcels in Los Angeles would be eligible. Price, whose 9th District seat represents South L.A., said the motion would benefit residents in low-income areas like the one he serves. "Representing a food desert community, I understand firsthand the need to expand food options for our residents, Price said. "This action will help us transform underused and blighted plots of land that often attract crime into thriving green spaces, encouraging green enterprises and helping us improve the look and feel of our neighborhoods."

Sustainable environment is a compulsion to day because of rapid destruction of nature by indiscriminate industrialization and modern living style of population guzzling non-renewable fossil fuels. More than ever man is getting more and more concerned about the fate of future generations in an exhausted and unlivable world. Urban gardening and local food movements fit into the wheel of changes which yearn for a more livable and healthy world. Though WTO regime wants to make global trade hassle free with no hindrance, fact still remains that long distance haulage of food and other materials contribute enormously to global warming and the consequent undesirable changes. In India urban gardening may have limited impact as most cities are starved of the most critical input viz, water. No city in this country can assure its citizens that the water supplied to its them are safe for consumption and no city supplies adequate water sufficient even to carry out daily activities of its residents. Under these circumstances how can any urbanite ever think of sparing water to raise a garden? Of course there are sporadic reports from some small towns that individuals having their own wells are raising gardens for vegetables on available space around and on top of their houses. But to imagine this will become a significant part of our landscape may be unrealistic.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Crusader's fiery opposition to modern agricultural system

Given below is a reference to the campaign by a fiery activist in India against modern input intensive agriculture and the fast spreading use of GMO technology for producing food for the world. While reading the report one cannot help getting a feeling that though she has many strong points in repudiating the current system, there are lot more issues that need careful consideration and analysis before out right condemnation.  It is not necessary for the reader to agree with whatever she says but one can get a right perspective on the changing agricultural landscape in the world in response to an expanding population that is predicted to reach 10 billion by the end of this century. 

"Shiva's fiery opposition to globalization and to the use of genetically modified crops has made her a hero to anti-G.M.O. activists everywhere. The purpose of the trip through Europe, she had told me a few weeks earlier, was to focus attention there on "the voices of those who want their agriculture to be free of poison and G.M.O.s." At each stop, Shiva delivered a message that she has honed for nearly three decades: by engineering, patenting, and transforming seeds into costly packets of intellectual property, multinational corporations such as Monsanto, with considerable assistance from the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the United States government, and even philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are attempting to impose "food totalitarianism" on the world. She describes the fight against agricultural biotechnology as a global war against a few giant seed companies on behalf of the billions of farmers who depend on what they themselves grow to survive. Shiva contends that nothing less than the future of humanity rides on the outcome. "There are two trends," she told the crowd that had gathered in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, in Florence, for the seed fair. "One: a trend of diversity, democracy, freedom, joy, culture—people celebrating their lives." She paused to let silence fill the square. "And the other: monocultures, deadness. Everyone depressed. Everyone on Prozac. More and more young people unemployed. We don't want that world of death." The audience, a mixture of people attending the festival and tourists on their way to the Duomo, stood transfixed. Shiva, dressed in a burgundy sari and a shawl the color of rust, was a formidable sight. "We would have no hunger in the world if the seed was in the hands of the farmers and gardeners and the land was in the hands of the farmers," she said. "They want to take that away." Shiva, along with a growing army of supporters, argues that the prevailing model of industrial agriculture, heavily reliant on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fossil fuels, and a seemingly limitless supply of cheap water, places an unacceptable burden on the Earth's resources. She promotes, as most knowledgeable farmers do, more diversity in crops, greater care for the soil, and more support for people who work the land every day. Shiva has particular contempt for farmers who plant monocultures—vast fields of a single crop. "They are ruining the planet," she told me. "They are destroying this beautiful world."

No matter who says what world has to come up with new ideas and programs to goad the farmers to produce more food to meet the increasing demand for food without expanding the current level of land utilization. In stead of squabbling on this vital issue, it is time that all countries put their heads together to arrive at a consensus regarding the most feasible way of achieving increased production of foods. While debating about the best route to go about the imposing task, what is not negotiable is that safety of humans and quality of the environment they live in. Predominantly private initiatives in seed development and evolution of new farm technology must give way to more government controlled programs that will have no strings attached vis-a-vis direct economic returns. Privatization of fruits of research and finance linked intellectual property regime cannot be allowed to dictate to the world the terms of utilizing the scientific results for the common good of the people inhabiting this planet.


Food grain storage -Where is the quality oversight?

If government orders can set things right, every thing in this country should have worked as they ought to have!Alas, in the scheme of things in the agenda of babus who rule this country, "ordering" is the only duty they have to perform and whether they are obeyed or implemented is none of their business!. Latest one hears is about an "order" by the Goan government to the PDS players in the state to obtain license from Delhi for grain storage to "ensure" quality of grains supplied by PDS to the card holders. What is not clear is how getting a license will improve the quality unless there is a ground level infrastructure to pick up samples, assess quality in a well equipped laboratory and haul up those who indulge in distributing unfit grains to the consumers. Here is a take on this tall order from Goan babus to the state PDS dealers. 

"Goa civil supplies department has stated that all its godowns across the state have to obtain a food safety license to ensure that quality of grains is maintained. The department has also asked for a monthly report from joint mamlatdars about damaged, inferior or infested grains found in godowns from where the grains are supplied to fair price shops through the public distribution system. The directions are mentioned in a circular issued by director of civil supplies Vikas Gaunekar.The joint mamlatdars will also have to educate fair price shop owners about maintaining quality of grains and to take measures to prevent pest infestation. There are more than a dozen godowns in the 12 talukas."

One wonders whether there has been any case in the last 2-3 decades of any food inspector daring to confront PDS system and hauling any ration shop owners or the warehouse owners (FCI or State agencies) for violating food standards? India is a country where public agencies are holy cows which cannot be touched by quality control agencies, be it food grains or the milk. If these QC agencies had done their job efficiently without fear, the quality complaints so rampant from consumers about unfit grains being supplied would not have reached Himalayan dimensions to day. Even private players manufacturing and selling sub-standard foods are rarely hauled up with annual conviction hardly in the range of 700-1000 in a country with a population of 1.2 billion! The truth is that food standards agencies in almost all states are grossly understaffed with archaic testing infrastructure though there are loud proclamations from Delhi that crores and crores of rupees have been "budgeted". Is this some sense of pessimism expressed here? Of course past experience has taught the citizens in this country to be pessimistic about every thing government says from time to time! 


Is the world giving up vegetarianism slowly/-Current trend does indicate that!

The remarkable growth of gluten-free food sector in the US and Europe is a big mystery defying any logic. Though number of people affected by gluten allergy is substantial, the galloping growth of this segment of food industry does not explain such a frenetic pace of development. According to market watchers not even 20% of the consumers buying gluten free foods really need them for health reasons. Whether the marketing hype or heavy promotion by the industry is responsible for this phenomenon is not known. Definitely superior eating quality of these products cannot be the reason as substituting gluten in many products with other ingredients does compromise on some sensory qualities! As in many cases scare about unsubstantiated health hazards of some food components on health, gets ingrained in the minds of the consumers leading to such large scale avoidance of such products. Gluten is also implicated in some health disorders like Celiac disease in a few people and many articles, most of them motivated by vested interests, appear from time to time regarding the virtues of avoiding gluten in foods by the consumers. In contrast, knowing fully well the harmful impact of consuming meat based foods regularly and the advantages inherent in plant based foods, consumers do not seem to be too much concerned leading to a situation where vegetarian food portfolio is shrinking progressively these days! One can only hope better sense will prevail on human beings regarding the dangers posed by animal foods and switch over to plant foods sooner than later. Here is a take on this puzzling market trend reported in the US and other Western countries.

"Consumer demand for products without gluten, however, is rising rapidly. Health-conscious Americans were first to avoid it in significant numbers. Sales of gluten-free food and drink there have surged from $5.4 billion to $8.8 billion over the past two years, according to Mintel, a market-research firm. They are set to grow a further 20% by 2015. Europe is now quickly catching up: there is double-digit sales growth in most countries, with Britain leading the way. This makes for tasty business. Sales in America of food untainted by gluten are forecast to grow by a further 61% by 2017, with similar increases expected in other rich countries. Shops have reshuffled their shelves and restaurants rewritten their menus to keep up with demand. Big supermarkets have been slimming down their range of vegetarian products and are stocking more gluten-free lines. Even small convenience stores in remote parts of rural Ireland and Italy now stock ranges of gluten-free bread and cakes. Restaurants, in particular, have rushed to launch menus that banish the stuff. The number of options that leave out gluten in British restaurants has tripled since 2011, says Emma Read at Horizons, a data firm. That is less because restaurateurs fear losing bookings from diners who want to avoid gluten, but more that they worry that their family and friends will not come along either. Yet some retail analysts fret that the wheat-free bubble will eventually burst, as it already has for meat substitutes. Many doctors say that only a few of the one-in-ten households that now regularly buy such products have a member with coeliac disease and a medical need to avoid gluten. But research from Monash University published last year shows that many more people may be sensitive to other allergens that are found in wheat. And according to a survey by Kantar, a research firm, only 22% of people who buy gluten-free food say they do so for non-medical reasons. This could be one foodie trend that turns out to be much more than a fad."

A fad is a fad which is bound to burst one day and this latest bubble about gluten free foods being demanded by a vast segment of the consumers will have to burst eventually. Regarding meat foods considerable efforts are needed to persuade consumers to progressively increase consumption of plant foods as meat industry cannot continue its operations in a sustainable form in the foreseeable future throwing out a plethora of problems vis-a-vis human health and environmental degradation. Attempts to create artificial meat through biotechnology is a welcome effort but it will ever be economically feasible is doubtful. Whether consumers will accept such products is another imponderable factor. In the long run humanity has no alternative but to switch over to plant foods which only can sustain this planet. It is better that the food industry world over gets reconciled to this truth and work on a long term strategy to expand its plant food portfolio as quickly as possible.


Sunday, October 26, 2014


When antibiotic resistant bacterial pathogens emerged in Western countries, many took solace that it would not happen in India. But if recent reports are to be believed India is on the threshold of such a contingency it the present poultry farming practices are any indication. Use of popular antibiotic drugs, commonly prescribed by physicians to cure illnesses among human beings, by poultry farmers is a controversial subject with many health experts claiming that constant exposure to such antibiotics lead to many pathogens learning to over come the lethal effect of these vital drugs over a period of time. It is true that there are a few strains of pathogenic bacteria which are not killed by any of the known antibiotics leading to a situation where human lives are exposed to fatal dangers. According to some investigative journalists, Indian farmers have also learned how to "fatten" their birds by administering sub-lethal doses of some antibiotics and the processed meat from them often contain antibiotic residues which are consumed regularly by the consumers without being aware of the adverse consequences of the same. Since there are no stringent regulations which are enforced, this undesirable practice is spreading fast in the industry. Here is a take on this critical issue. 

"Poultry farmers can now afford to count their profits before their chickens hatch — and they are big, with chickens weighing on average twice as much as they did 50 years ago. The broiler chicken of today, a product of controlled breeding, weighs around 2.2kg as compared to 1.2kg before 1960, say veterinarians and chicken farm owners. Contract farming started in India in the early 1960s, taking over from multi-breed coops that contained birds of various breeds and ages. Contract farming involves the industrialised breeding chickens of the same age and variety.This method of poultry farming employs improved feed formulations and vaccination, says R Prabhakaran, former vice-chancellor of Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University. "Selective breeding has increased livability of the birds," he said. "Since the 1960s mortality rate of chickens has reduced from 10% to 2% due to improved nutrition and hygiene in farms." The downside of scientific poultry farming is that medication administered to the birds may find their way to the table. A study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in July showed that one in two chickens in the country had antibiotic contamination. Farms give chickens feed mixed with antibiotics that act as growth promoters. Most stop the antibiotics a few days before slaughter. This allows the birds to flush out the remnants of the antibiotics. "Farms should ideally not feed birds antibiotics at least 10 days before slaughter," Prabhakaran said. Because farms seldom follow this, antibiotic residue in meat passes on to humans. Scientists have shown that large-scale use of antibiotics by the poultry industry has caused antibiotic resistance in people who eat chicken regularly, leaving them vulnerable to a range of bacterial infections. Scientists have shown that large-scale use of antibiotics by the poultry industry has caused antibiotic resistance in people who eat chicken regularly, leaving them vulnerable to a range of bacterial infections. Chickens also pass on residue of antibiotics through their faeces, which may spread through water and soil and eventually end up in crops, putting even vegetarians at risk of antibiotic resistance."

Though stopping feeding of antibiotic tweeted feed materials can be stopped 10 days before processing the birds to avoid significant presence of residues, there is no guarantee that the meat from such birds would be free from antibiotics. Regular consumption of such meats can also destroy some beneficial microbes in the intestine causing over all decrease in immunity. Besides the poultry excreta and waste which at present are not scientifically disposed off, also contain significant amounts of antibiotic residues which can potentially contaminate the soil and water. A country like the US is mulling over this issue and remedial measures are being seriously considered. Probably alternate set of antibiotics, which are not used by humans can be considered for use by the animal food industry which can considerably reduce the dangers of further evolution of antibiotic resistant pathogens in future.



When FDI in retailing was permitted in India, every one thought that the small "pop and mom" stores would disappear from the Indian landscape. This Blogger was the one who argued that the super market chains can never compete with the unorganized retail sector in the foreseeable future, given their great resilience and personal type of service they offered to the Indian consumer. Though it is almost one and a half decades since organized retailing giants entered this business, none of them could become viable even to day! Their share in the retail market is a paltry 5% which is too insignificant to make any dent. Here comes a supporting report which talks about the decline of super markets in the UK during the last 10 years. 

"And yet a decade on, the supermarket sector is in meltdown. An overstatement? Hardly. In the cool-headed assessment of the Grocermagazine, the most authoritative voice on UK food retail, "consumers are abandoning supermarkets in their droves". Tesco, once the darling of the stock market, the government's pet performing British company, is in the most acute distress. From January to June this year, its profits crashed by 92%. Investigators have yet to plumb the depths of the big black hole in its books. Morrisons is also in a bad way – its pre-tax profit for the six months to August was halved. Sainsbury's share price has dropped. Even the supposedly trend-bucking Waitrose cannot be complacent: its profits for the first half of this year slumped by 9.4%. Overall, sales at the "big four" supermarkets – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons – have been stagnant, or in decline, since last May, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics. Rating agency Moody's predicts that their profit margins and sales will shrink further. Two German discount chains, Aldi and Lidl, acted as the immediate nemesis of the fat, smug, greedy status quo of British food retail. They dealt a deadly blow to our familiar chains by exposing just how expensive they really are and continue to shave grocery market share off them. Before the discounters appeared, most British consumers swallowed the attractive proposition that UK supermarkets offer unbeatable value for money. In truth, they overcharge routinely, putting a minimum 30% mark-up on everything they sell, although the most egregious margins are systematically squeezed from sales of fruit and vegetables."

One of the strongest arguments while opening the sector to FDI was that foreign players would assure about their operations being able to support poor farmers of this country. Above report speaks about the power of the super market chains to force consumers to buy only those products with high profit margins and how healthy foods like fruits are vegetables are priced sky high! While many western countries have traveled a long way to confer almost invincibility to their retail chains by spreading their wings across the country eliminating small retailers totally, now they have nothing to fall back on even if consumers want to boycott them! In that way India is blessed with almost 8 million small stores distributed evenly through out the country and discerning consumers are likely to go back to these family friendly shops once disenchanted with the mechanical approach and impersonal attitudes of the big retailers. Hail the small fellow around the corner of our house who has been providing useful grocery service in the past and will continue to do it in spite of any move by the government to bring in large players in the name of farmers and efficiency of operation.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014


One of the oft repeated statements by the marketing pundits is " consumer is the king"! (One wonders why they have left out the queen!) But the cardinal principle involved in making a product and selling it, is that consumer acceptability and patronage can be expected to a reasonable extent. It is also a known thing that a dissatisfied consumer will never buy the same product. The free market gurus propound the theory that when there is competition consumer gets better service. But are these theoretical considerations work in India? Probably not if the following report is an indication.

"Inspite of all these healthy signs and the availability of the latest gadgets concurrently in India and the rest of the world, there is a disconcerting gap in the attitudes of companies selling the same products in these regions. In the West, for example, complaints against goods purchased are given top-most priority and most retail outlets do not have the slightest hesitation in refunding the consumer the amount he has paid for his goods or offering him an exchange in case he is dissatisfied with the product. As a rule, this facility is not easily available to the average Indian. Even though the Department of Consumer Affairs of the Government of India has stated that the mantra of "Goods once sold cannot be returned or exchanged'' is not permitted and amounts to unfair trade practice, most Indian retailers blatantly print this statement at the bottom of their cash memos and adhere to it strictly in practice. Lack of after-sales service and prompt redressal of complaints can lead to immense harassment to the unfortunate consumer who lands up buying a product which has in-built defects. Even though courts have held that a product which malfunctions within a few months of its purchase will be presumed or deemed to have a manufacturing defect, manufacturers continue to give a tough time to the consumer who buys such a product. Customers who have had the misfortune to buy a defective mobile set or a two-wheeler narrate stories of untold misery in getting the manufacturer to even acknowledge their complaints. Even when these issues are taken up by representative consumer bodies, most companies turn a deaf ear to the calls for help. In most Indian hospitals, the medical care may be world class but the post-operative care lags far behind and leaves much to be desired. Similarly, Indian consumers feel that the products they get are world class but the after-sales service is almost non-existent. With international e-tailers like Amazon, E-bay and others vying for the Indian market and news reports stating that the on-line purchase system is making inroads into the marketing and sales of goods, the problem is likely to further intensify.  It would be far easier for the consumer to fight with a face he sees in his store than an unknown post box address in Gurgaon or Noida, with call centres giving mechanical answers and unfulfilled promises of succourLack of laws and regulations to discipline errant manufacturers and retailers is the other major hurdle for the consumer to succeed in his attempt at getting justice in such cases". 

In that land of free enterprise, viz the US, a consumer is really a king or a queen when it comes to product servicing. any dissatisfied consumer can invariably return the product within 30 days of purchase for a full refund and this makes the purchasing decision easy for millions of consumers which may be the reason why American market place is vibrant and a consumer delight. Product servicing in India is at best a laggard affair involving hours or days of chasing the manufacturer or the retailer to get the grievances addressed satisfactorily! With the FDI in retailing now allowed in the country there are both domestic and foreign players who have set up their shops with glittering super markets and Malls, copying the picture that exists in western countries. Unfortunately these big players are the ones who do not entertain product return while the mom and pop shop near by invariably accepts returns! Why Government regulators are not taking action on these big players is a mystery.



With new government in charge at Delhi and a brand new Railway Minister taking over the portfolio of railway "administration", citizens had a ray of hope that things would look up and better days are ahead for the hapless passenger community. When the quality of foods served in premium trains was under attack during the last few years, there has always been wishy washy response from the babus who rule the roost in this government sector organization with no perceptible improvement happening at the ground level. In this context one is shocked by the attempt last year by the Railway Board to bring in "foreign" auditors to prepare a "report" on the quality of foods served in the trains! It is rather ingenious on the part of the Railways to bring in "experts" from abroad who will have no clue regarding the needs of Indian consumers vis-a-vis food quality especially the eating quality. May be they would be able to point out the safety deficiencies based on standard tests and investigations but why foreign experts? Why cannot Indian agencies like CFTRI do the same job and Indian institutions not only would have done a diagnosis but also are capable of suggesting solutions appropriate to the domestic situation. It is interesting to listen to the rationale of the Railways in bringing foreign experts as stated by agency last year.   

"Fed up with complaints about food served on trains, Railways has decided to deploy international food auditing firms who do quality checks at five star hotels to do its quality assessment. On Thursday, it abandoned its one-week-old menu on Rajdhanis and Shatabdis following constant passenger complaints. As a pilot project at present, a Swedish company is carrying out third-party audit of the food and hygiene on the premium trains on the Mumbai-Howrah route. It will present its report to the Railway Ministry on November 5. "There are renowned multinational auditing firms who do quality audits for five star hotels. Once we get the report for this one, we will formalise this policy and call for tenders for all trains. And we will recover the cost from the vendor who serves food on trains," D P Pande, Member (Traffic), Railway Board, told The Indian Express. The firms will not only check quality and quantity of food served but will also assess the condition in which the food is made and served, the hygiene standards and the like, he said. In the past one week, two catering vendors have been fined Rs 1 lakh each based on complaints from passengers. "We will revise the upper limit of the fines to be charged from errant vendors so that the heavy fine becomes a deterrent," he said. After rolling out a new menu with reduced food items and at the same time jacking up their prices on Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto trains on October 17, Railways quickly reverted to the old menu on Thursday because passengers had been complaining of getting "too less for more money".

Not much was heard about the report of any foreign auditors but the new government's efforts to address the issue is are interesting. in a major announcement recently the concerned Minster announced a series of measures to "improve" food quality and one such attempt is to bring in on-line ordering and delivery of foods from star hotels on some trains if the passengers are computer savvy and after all most travelers in the upper class should have smart phones with 2G/3G facilities and credit card payment provisions. Also being brought in is a system where packed foods from reputed branded processors like ITC, MTR etc would be offered though cost could work out very high. These are good moves but it begs the question regarding the inability of in-house Railway Catering service to meet the aspirations of the traveling public, in spite of decades of experience in this field. It is still not clear why Railways have not made any attempt to use this opportunity where it has millions of captive consumers to build up a thriving public-private partnership in catering with the help of food technology institutions like CFTRI, DFRL, NIFTEM and Universities to back up the safety and quality credentials. Probably this will never happen unless there is a dynamic management cadre with vision, foresight, dedication and commitment. The new government should not fritter away this golden opportunity for a long term effective solution to the serious quality problems being faced by the Railways for the last few years!


Monday, October 20, 2014


These days consumers are bombarded with so much information, some useful and others just trash that it is difficult to "pick the grains from the chaff". Even well informed food scientist are confused by such information explosion that they also become victims of misinformation and distortions. Every day one can come across reports, most of them of academic value and some even planted by vested interests in the name of science with no evidence that it is difficult to get a coherent picture on any aspects of food or related issues. Latest to emerge is an alarmist report from the United States of America which says sensationally that Ebola threat is nothing compared to the threat to public life from dangerous chemicals used by food industry. How serious is this allegation can be revealed only by the food safety experts who run the safety monitoring programs in that country. Here are some excerpts from the above mentioned report. 

Pizza boxes (and other kinds of food packaging) harbor what are called perfluorochemicals or PFCs. Manufacturers employ PFCs for several reasons, but the primary role of PFCs is to make products resistant to water and grease. Now do you see why it's in pizza boxes?  PFCs are dangerous though. How dangerous? Dangerous enough that even retailers like H&M won't sell clothing containing PFCs. As the Washington Post reported, PFCs have been linked to thyroid disfunction, slowed prenatal and postnatal brain development, and testicular degeneration.  So what the hell is it doing in food packaging?  In 2011, the FDA banned the substance due to its ill effects. However, food suppliers are still allowed to import pizza boxes containing the chemicals from overseas. The imported pizza boxes, as well as other kinds of food packaging, also contain perchlorate, a hazardous chemical pollutant with similar health defects as PFCs that's used in the sealing for food containers and as an antistatic agent.  So does this mean we have to stop eating pizza? No, not unless you want to anyway. What it does mean though is that we might want to be paying attention to two recent petitions filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). One asks the FDA to prohibit the use of perchlorate in food packaging. The other asks the FDA to amend its ruling on PFCs so that food companies can no longer use packaging containing PFCs period, regardless of where it's from. The NRDC petition protesting perchlorates cites studies noting the chemical is fairly ubiquitous in dry-food packing. The most alarming part is that perchlorate has made their way into baby formula packaging. The petition noted why that's harmful: "If the formula packaging used the perchlorate as an antistatic agent to allow the powder to flow more fully and freely from the container, then the infant would have much greater exposure to perchlorate. Also, infants and children consume more food per body weight than adults, adding to a higher exposure." The petition about PFCs is similar. It discusses the FDA oversight that allows companies to get away with using PFC-laden packaging. Then it states there are "significant gaps in our knowledge of the safety of long-chain perfluorocarboxylates" in regards to how it impacts our health. Like perchlorates, PFCs also had a detrimental effect on fetal and infant development. Studies in the petition found PFCs could be responsible for decreased fetal body weight, "skeletal variations," delayed hair growth, and other symptoms. The documents (all 70+ pages of each one) are embedded at the end in case you'd like to check them out.

There is no doubt that all chemicals are dangerous when consumed by people through processed foods but the extent of threat depends on factors such as their degree of toxicity, concentrations used and their long term effect on human body. Therefore whether it is perfluorochemicals or perchlorates their use in food packing or wrapping, must be certified to be safe at concentrations transferred to the consumers due to storage, distribution, vending or retailing. If the above report is true food safety authorities in the US seem to be more sympathetic to the industry than to the citizens by obfuscatory attitude. Regarding the sensationalism inherent in such reports, citizens will have to be wary about such alarming proclamations and learn how to wade through them to reach at the truth. How can any sensible person compare Ebola virus epidemic with Obesity in terms of potential for death? Of course both are dangerous but in different ways. While Ebola can kill millions if an epidemic arrives in a matter of few months, obesity is an affliction of choice for those who indulge in gluttony and consumption of junk foods. There must be a right perspective when such issues are brought to the public domain by investigative journalists.  


Saturday, October 18, 2014


It is difficult to decide whether one has to cry or laugh when grandstand statements are made by new ministers in new governments, repeating the same made by many of her predecessors which really means nothing but an empty talk. Neither the minister nor the those who listen to her believe a word of what they say or hear. It is nothing but a charade which has been going on for the last 5 decades in this country without any thing happening at the ground level. The present minister in the highly redundant and irrelevant ministry of food processing industry who must not have been born when the "40% food waste" story was invented by some one which was being repeated ad nauseum by every "tom dick and harry", the last heard being from our erstwhile "silent" prime minister last year. Funnily there is not even an iota of data derived by scientific studies to make such inane statements and it is like a "recorded tape" stored some where in the dusty office of the ministry being made available to every new unfortunate minister who is allotted this portfolio, to speak whenever and where ever there is a seminar, workshop or meeting for inauguration or press briefings! It is the turn of this new young minister to "speak" these words of "wisdom" in a seminar of no consequence recently! Here it is.

Our government is currently working on the National Food Processing Policy to reduce wastage of perishables and improve the supply situation. Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal recommends that agriculture credit should also be connected with food processing sector as the ultimate beneficiary is the farmer. "There is an urgent need of some integrated policy for the food processing sector. We are working on it with the purpose of reducing the wastage of perishable fruits and vegetables so that we can bring down the inflation," the Minister said. She was speaking at the National Cold Chain Summit organized by CII jointly with Ministry of Food Processing Industries and Ministry of Agriculture and National Centre for Cold Chain Development (NCCD).
Some of the stock words like "reduce wastage", "supply situation", "perishable", "agricultural credit", "cold chain", "integrated policy" etc will always appear in such statements whether the minister understands the nuances of such words! Government does not realize that food industry is capable of developing it self if it does not interfere or puts road block in working smoothly with least control at every level. Of course the Government has a duty to provide infrastructures support for any industry worth the name and facilitatory policies for sustainable growth. Last year this country had to "invite" foreign companies through the FDI incentive for "helping" our farmers without realizing that the MNCs are least interested in the well being either the farmer or the consumer! Probably it is time that the glorified MoFPI is wound up soon for which no one in this country will shed tears!  


Wednesday, October 15, 2014


The two worship places  in Southern India famed for their prasadam are Tirupati-Tirumala Balaji Temple in A.P and Sabarimala Ayyappan Temple in Kerala where millions of devotees visit on pilgrimage and crowd controlling is a logistical nightmare of gigantic dimension. Still during the last so many years no major mishaps have been reported jeopardizing the lives of the pilgrims. There may be issues concerning cleanliness, hygiene, filthiness  and sanitation which continue to persist in spite of frequent claims of satisfactory remedial measures. Even to day Sabarimala is a veritable dumping place for garbage, plastic pieces, human excreta, rotting food left overs that make the environment unbearable for most of the visitors though as devoted Hindus they suffer such discomforts in silence. As for prasadam, Tirupati laddu and Aravana Payasam and Neyyappam of Sabarimala are world famous with each devotee carrying them to share the blessings with relatives and friends back home. But the "11th hour firefighting syndrome" is characteristic of Sabarimala where food safety officials are seen active only during certain festival seasons. Though the prasadam is prepared near the vicinity of the Temple where modern gadgets are supposed to be deployed, the products suffer from severe scientific limitations including limited process standardization, vague quality specifications, ill trained working personnel, inadequate sanitation and hygiene and lack of accountability. Here is a report emanating from Kerala which says that the Food Commissionerate finds it difficult to manage the food quality and safety due to lack of personnel to carry out sampling and analysis keeping in pace with the production. 

"With the High Court mandating food safety certification for 'aravana' and 'prasadam' sold at Sabarimala,  the pilgrimage season will be a real test for the food safety commissionerate. According to authorities, the food safety officers from every district will be randomly appointed at Sabarimala to ensure round-the-clock services. Commissioner of Food Safety T.V. Anupama told DC that Pathanamthitta district would be given top priority during the pilgrimage season.  The commissionerate is planning to appoint special officers at Pampa, Sannidanam and Erumeli to ensure quality of food and 'prasadam' being served to the pilgrims. The department will recruit three analysts in the lab to check the quality of jaggery coming from Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. "Around 40 lakh tonnes of  jaggery is required every season and we have to be on our toes to check the samples from each truck arriving from other states. Either day or night we must scrutinise the loads to ensure that there is no adulteration. It's a tough  task," said a top official. Two of the total six analysts will be appointed in the lab at the shrine to check the quality of 'aravana' and four analysts will scrutinise the raw materials being transported to the shrine for 'prasadam' preparation. "Starting from November for a period of three months, the focus of the department will be on Pathanamthitta and Kottayam – where lakhs of Sabarimala pilgrims arrive," said the official. Sources say that the pilgrimage season will slow down the normal activities of the commissionerate as the full focus would be only on the two districts. "We are carrying out intensive drives every month throughout the state and the coming months we will not be able to carry out the drives. Staff crunch is a severe issue and around 80 posts are vacant," added the official."

It is most unfortunate that the responsible Food Commissioner is on record admitting that due to lack of personnel, the task is difficult though maximum efforts would be made to lessen the burden of unsafe and low quality foods on the pilgrims! What type of assurance is this from a senior representative of the mighty FSSAI in Delhi and how can the pilgrims place any confidence on them? It is the duty of FSSAI to ensure that adequate trained inspecting officials and analytical chemists are positioned on a priority basis in places like Sabarimala and Tirupati where lives of thousands of pilgrims are put in jeopardy every day. Even after three decades since the premier food institute in the country offered to undertake standardization and quality/safety related work, nothing much has been done and products like Aravana Payasam and Neyyappam remain almost inedible from the point of view of eating quality. Though there were some court strictures on this issue, the die-hard bureaucrats know well how to circumvent them with impunity! A time has come for the pilgrims to collectively put pressure on these politicians and bureaucrats to mend their ways and make the Shrine a lovable place to visit and enjoy the presence of the divine Ayyappa without any hassles and fears for their life..


Tuesday, October 14, 2014


The organic food movement which started in a small way a few years ago to satisfy the growing demand in the market for safe foods produced/processed without using synthetic chemicals and other unnatural inputs has become a force to reckon with to day. Its share may not be high, less than 10% of the food sector market, every one wants to get into this band wagon and this has naturally caused some distortions vis-a-vis quality of organic foods in some parts of the world. Similarly the local foods and farmers market movement became a rage in the US, most states providing a platform for the small farmers in the locality and nearby to sell their products directly to the consumer without any middle man or retailer in between. The basic presumption is that local farmers bring their produce from nearby with least green gas emission foot print unlike the long haulage involved in most organized retail operations. Besides small farmers are presumed to be honest and do not indulge in unfair agricultural practices. Most farmers markets maintain a degree of integrity that has endeared them to consumers. However recent findings that there are frequent frauds happening in this sector is raising eye brows all around. Here is a take on this subject as reported from the US.

"One doesn't usually think of farmers' markets as being prime locations for fraud, but apparently they do see their fair share of unethical behaviour. When a vendor misrepresents products, whether through direct mislabeling or lack of labeling, the integrity of the market is undermined for everyone. The state of California has decided to crack down on farmers' market fraud. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law authorizing the creation of a group of investigators to ensure that market vendors are following the rules – that is, selling local produce that they've grown themselves and was not purchased wholesale. Every market has its own set of regulations. In New York City, most of the major farmers' markets are run by a non-profit organization called GrowNYC, which ensures that markets are producer-only. That means that vendors can only sell items that they've grown themselves; no reselling, even if clearly labeled, is allowed. As Modern Farmer reports, GrowNYC maintains its high standards by employing investigators who keep an eye on vendors, taking note of any suspicious things such as retail boxes, waxed fruit, or consistently high volume of produce."

It is gratifying that states like California are promulgating stricter laws to deter potential fraudsters from -misrepresenting the products as locally self grown while really they are resellers owning no responsibility for any violations. Farmers market is an excellent concept worth emulating all over the world to encourage small farmers who are at the mercy of mega corporations dealing with food for reaching the market. In India it is incongruous to see a situation where government does not allow direct selling of farmers produce to the consumer. In stead only middle men are licensed to buy the produce from the farmers and most of the time the prices are rigged leading to exploitation of the poor farmers by these sharks. Even in a country like Malaysia there are so called "wet markets" where any one can bring their produce to the market for direct sale to buyers. The weekly shandies in some states in India, mostly in rural parts, do serve the purpose of direct sale but in cities direct sale is not invariably permitted. States in the US like California and New York have strong monitoring regime for safeguarding the integrity and credibility of the Farmers markets and fraudsters are severely punished for violating the concerned regulatory regime put in place for the purpose. India must consider removing the much hated APMC Act that comes in the way of setting up exclusive markets for farmers all over the country, providing necessary infrastructure for handling and storage of perishables and ensuring fair trade practices.



It is only recently that the world is recognizing the ill effects of high calorie diets, especially high sugar products churned out by the food and beverage industry. During the last few years efforts have been going on to persuade the processing industry to voluntarily reduce the sugar levels in their products and down size the serving portion so that consumers are discouraged from imbibing too many calories. The damage sugar can cause to human health is well documented and if no action is taken now to curb such consumption future generation will never condone the same. Mandatory actions, punitive policy steps, consumer education, warning labels, high financial levies on finished products etc are some of the options considered to discourage consumption of high calories foods. But to date no single action in any country seems to have worked satisfactorily and industry merrily goes on producing these foods, attracting consumers through lower prices and other promotional efforts. But a recent report from Mexico shows glimpses of a contour of a policy that seems to be helping the country in making a small impact on reduced consumption of high calories products. Here is a take on this subject. 

"No wonder Coke and Pepsi are spending millions of dollars to fight proposed taxes on sugary drinks in California. PepsiCo reported a higher quarterly profit Thursday as global sales rose, but one weak spot was Mexico. The company said snacks sales volume declined by 3 percent, hurt by a new tax on junk foods. Recent declines suffered by Pepsi and Coke in Mexico underscore why the beverage industry is fighting tax proposals on sugary drinks in in San Francisco and nearby Berkeley. PepsiCo — which makes Frito-Lay chips, Gatorade and Tropicana — reported similar declines in its snacks business for the first half of the year, starting when the tax went into effect. Coca-Cola, which reports its third quarter results Oct. 21, has also reported beverage volume declines in Mexico for the first half of the year, citing a similar tax on drinks. Mexico has the world's highest per capita consumption of Coca-Cola drinks. Hugh Johnston, chief financial officer for PepsiCo, said in a phone interview that declines in Mexico were in line with what the company expected. To mitigate the impact of the tax, he said PepsiCo plans to target different package sizes for different outlets. The taxes in Mexico add one peso, about 7 cents, to the cost of a liter of sugary drinks, and 5 percent of the price to foods with 275 calories or more per 100 grams. It's not yet clear whether the taxes' impact on consumption will last or how significant it will be over time. And while PepsiCo monitors such tax initiatives around the world, Johnston said he doesn't expect them to become more common. Back in the U.S., San Francisco and Berkeley are seeking to become the first cities to pass per-ounce taxes on sugary drinks in the upcoming November election. The measures are being closely watched because many say defeats in the Bay Area, which is known for its liberal politics, would be a major blow to advocates of such taxes as a way to improve nutrition. Similar measures in other U.S. cities have failed. Health advocates have pushed taxes as a tool to cut consumption of calorie-laden junk food, similar to tactics that have successfully been used against cigarettes. Makers of such products say they are being unfairly singled out. During a conference call with analysts and investors, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi addressed the measures in California and said she believed such "discriminatory taxes" are "wrong." "We will make our case and hope the voters are sensible enough to look at the right answer," Nooyi said. Since the start of this year, the American Beverage Association contributed $7.7 million to defeat the proposal in San Francisco alone, according to a filing made this week. That's far more than the $391,000 in contributions reported by supporters of the tax over the same time. In the meantime, the beverage industry has touted its commitment to reducing the calories people consume from drinks by more aggressively marketing drinks with less sugar. The industry has also stressed the need to raise awareness about balancing the calories people consume with how much physical activity they get."

Taking a clue from the tobacco experience, Mexico increased the taxes on junk foods containing nutrient light and calorie dense products making these products significantly costlier to the consumer. While absolute data regarding any dip in consumption is not yet forthcoming, the industry reaction does indicate that the new approach is working. The business volume for junk foods seems to be declining in Mexico, affecting many major manufacturers though it cannot be termed as dramatic. If the whole world moves in this direction there is a possibility that over a period of time industry is forced to rethink about their obsession with high sugar and high salt products. A silver lining is the commitment given by American food industry to reduce calories served by their products by 1.5 trillion by 2015 and it is reported that on the whole 6.4 trillion calories have been cut between 2007 and 2013 by the industry collectively. Whether such calorie cutting has any meaning can be gauged by the fact that on an average each consumer consumed 74 calories less which may not be significant considering that calorie over consumption is rampant in that country and much more rigorous reduction is called for. The unusual interest taken by the industry to beat back balance initiatives to impose high taxes in some of the states in the US by pumping huge resources to defeat the motion, is any indication voluntary action is never going to work for this industry obsessed with profits ignoring the well being of the consumer. As of now punitive taxation as being enforced in Mexico seems to be the only way to achieve any meaningful result in the years to come.



What is hunger? How does one feel hunger? How can one satisfy hunger? Very complex questions eliciting different responses from different experts, each looking at this phenomenon from their own perspectives. Many administrators feel that by supplying adequate quantity of food  the problem hunger can be solved! But nutrition and health pundits do not agree with this approach because such a simplistic solution does not take into consideration the vital needs of human body vis-a-vis micro nutrients such as minerals and vitamins. Take the case of India where a misguided political class came up with the idea of a food security act to confer upon its citizens the right to access food at low cost and if the assumptions of the government are to be taken seriously, there would be no hunger when citizens are provided cereals practically free of cost. Unfortunately the hunger does not not seem to be coming down in spite of all these freebies and India ranks a lowly 120th position in the Global Hunger Index with just about 8 countries worse than it. Imagine India being worse than its neighbors like Nepal and Sri Lanka! Whether this "good achievement" is due to government efforts or through statistical jugglery is a matter of speculation. The distinction between calorie hunger and nutrient hunger makes a lot of difference as good healthy individual with maximum human productivity can be ensured only when nutrient hunger is also eradicated eventually. Here are some data released by some international agencies recently highlighting the position in India and 127 other countries which offers some clue regarding the direction India is going in dealing with hunger among its population.  

"Is it possible to have food on your plate, but still go hungry? Yes, is the answer, according to the latest Global Hunger Index, compiled by German World Hunger Aid together with the Irish aid and development organization Concern Worldwide and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). "Eight hundred million suffer from not having enough to eat, so it is quantity, it is calories," said Shenggen Fan, general director of IFPRI. "But 2 billion people suffer from lack of micronutrients." "The question is the timing, how soon the people will die. So lack of food, particularly lack of calories, can lead to death very quickly," Fan said. "But the lack of micronutrients is equally damaging."

It has to be borne in mind that India is a huge country with a large population but low income levels which restricts many of its citizens access to food whether good or otherwise and it calls for herculean effort to lift those who are still impoverished above the poverty line. How far the statistics by the government agencies can be relied upon to draw any conclusion about the extent of poverty prevalent in the country is any body's guess! Indians are known to be reluctant to share their true personal information to statisticians surveying for such data for various reasons. If one takes the example of income tax paying population in the country, almost 90% of those who qualify for IT payment escape the net by suppressing their income and never filing their returns regularly.The farming community is in distress because of the nonviable land holdings and uncertainties of weather as most of them rely on rains to raise their crops. If any tangible improvements are to be realized, land consolidation is a prerequisite which only can make agriculture an income generating avocation. Can any government do this? Do they have the courage to think in this direction leaving aside the politics of vote consolidation? Sending condolences and paying ex-gratia payments to farmers committing suicide due to unbearable debt burden cannot achieve any thing. As long as this situation does not change, India is consigned to the bottom of the GHI for decades ahead.


Monday, October 13, 2014


Election time rhetoric is very misleading can be gauged from the fact that a new government, boasting of its own majority without being hamstrung by "coalition dharma", is continuing the "food doling" program enacted under the misleading name of Food Security Act by the earlier government bleeding the country of its financial resources. Every body knows that not even 25% of the targeted population of 81 crore need such magnanimity by the government but the central government does not seem to be bothered about these incongruities in giving extensions after extensions to state governments to implement this misplaced subsidy heavy cereal distribution scheme to all and sundry without verifying their financial status. It is still not clear as to why the earlier PDS machinery was overlooked,having built it brick by brick over the last 3-4 decades. If there were pilferage, they should have been plugged and the pilferers taken to the gallows for such heinous crimes! The reported news that the new food minister seems to be pressurizing those state governments who have doubts about the need for such heavy subsidies, is disturbing to most citizens in the country as it is their hard earned money given to the government as part of their taxation obligation which is being frittered away in the name of equity for all.

"The Central government has decided to give states an additional six months to implement the National Food Security Act that gives two-thirds of the country's population the right to highly subsidised food grains.  This is the second extension given by the Narendra Modi government to the states. A three-month extension given earlier has expired on October 4. More than 6.1 crore tonnes of rice, wheat and coarse cereals are expected to be distributed to 81 crore people, covering 75% rural and 50% urban population, under the programme. So far, eleven states - Haryana, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Chandigarh - have implemented the law, Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan said on Thursday. States have to prepare the list of beneficiaries, issue cards to them "..

Helping the poor with low cost food is a noble cause for which every honest citizen in the country would stand up and support but doling the same to people with reasonable income to buy their grains from the open market or getting them through the old ration card system cannot be justified under any excuse. Same is true regarding subsidized cooking fuel or for that matter any subsidy program without identifying the eligible beneficiaries. It is not realized that with to day's income levels the budgetary outgo for food for a family is not more than 50% of the family income for majority of the citizens in the country and providing 5 kg per person of cereals at Rs 1-6 in a month does not help them much. Recent reports indicate that there not many takers for the much touted job guarantee scheme of the government paying Rs 150 per day for 100 days. Does not this mean that there is a substantial population earning much above this. Against this background the heavy out go to the extent of almost Rs1.5 lakh crore year after year till perpetuity on this doling program is uncalled for. Will the new government ignore the electoral compulsions and politics of expediency and scrap this program forthwith? Future generations will not pardon them for this profligacy in a nation that cannot be called rich by any yardstick.