Saturday, August 15, 2015

"Green" plastics-Will Polylactic Acid emerge as a viable choice?

The dominance of synthetic plastics derived from fossil fuels in to day's world is scary as petroleum sources are not going to last for ever and the question as to what then is driving the scientific community feverishly to innovate and come up with viable alternatives based on renewable sources. While cellulose based plastics are manufactured and used for a variety of applications, their functional properties do not come any where near that of synthetic plastics. An yet another problem associated with petroleum based plastics is their near indestructibility and their biodegradability credentials. It takes almost 800 years for most plastics to degrade in nature and disposal in land fills posses enormous dangers to the safety of the environment including water resources. Emergence of poly lactic acid based plastics was thought to be an answer to this problem. Unfortunately these biodegradable plastics cost too high to be commercially viable. The major factor in this cost escalation is the manufacturing technology which appears to be too complex and expensive. Recently a group of scientists from Belgium have come up with a new approach for producing cheaper poly lactic acid base material which if true can be a ground breaking development Read further below.    

"The bioplastic PLA is derived from renewable resources, including the sugar in maize and sugarcane. Fermentation turns thesugar into lactic acid, which in turn is a building block for polylactic acid. PLA degrades after a number of years in certain environments. If it is collected and sorted correctly, it is both industrially compostable and recyclable. In addition, PLA is biocompatible and thus suitable for medical use, for instance in absorbable suture threads. PLA is also one of the few plastics that are suitable for 3D printing. However, polylactic acid is not yet a full alternative for petroleum-based plastics due to its cost. The production process for PLA is expensive because of the intermediary steps. "First, lactic acid is fed into a reactor and converted into a type of pre-plastic under high temperature and in a vacuum. This is an expensive process. The pre-plastic – a low-quality plastic – is then broken down into building blocks for polylactic acid. In other words, you are first producing an inferior plastic before you end up with a high-quality plastic. And even though PLA is considered a green plastic, the various intermediary steps in the production process still require metals and produce waste," said Prof Bert Sels from the Centre for Surface Chemistry and Catalysis. The KU Leuven researchers developed a new technique. Michiel Dusselier, a postdoctoral researcher, explained, "We have applied a petrochemical concept to biomass. We speed up and guide the chemical process in the reactor with a zeolite as a catalyst. Zeolites are porous minerals. By selecting a specific type on the basis of its pore shape, we were able to convert lactic acid directly into the building blocks for PLA without making the larger by-products that do not fit into the zeolite pores. Our new method has several advantages compared to the traditional technique: we produce more polylactic acid with less waste and without using metals. In addition, the production process is cheaper, because we can skip a step."

Whether this development can lead to large scale production of the new plastic materials remains to be seen. At least there is a hope that an alternative option is available on the table. Of course lactic acid production from biomass materials through intervention of microbes can still pose a logistical problem because of competition from fuel industry which also is working on fermentation route for making green fuel. Already there is some criticism regarding diversion of food materials like corn, plant oils and other organic carbon sources for production of alcohol and other fuels to replace fossil fuels. World has to take a holistic view of this critical area and only cooperative endeavors can succeed ultimately.  


Emergence of LED based bacterial destruction technology- Opening up a new avenue for safeguarding foods

Technology for food preservation has evolved over a hundred years in the past and from the early findings that salt, sugar, acids can protect foods from deterioration by pathogenic microorganisms, modern food technology has been able to innovate newer processes with more reliability and assurance. Canning was considered the most trustworthy process and during various wars canned foods formed the backbone of the fighting soldiers. Emergence of technologies like irradiation, High pressure processing, controlled environment storage/packing, HTST etc are now available to the industry for different types of products. Ultimately the effectiveness and acceptability of a technology depend on its ability to preserve the quality of the food processed, achieving cent percent kill of microbes and the cost of using the technology under commercial conditions. Recent claims that blue LED rays can be an effective tool in the hands of technologists to preserve foods, offer a new option that may be acceptable to the industry. Here are more details of the same as reported recently.

"Blue LEDs in conjunction with cold temperature and acidic conditions can kill off foodborne pathogens making chemical-free preservation a possibility for a range of foods. Fresh-cut fruits and ready-to-eat meats are just some of the foods which are mildly acidic (pH 4.5) that could use this preservation technology to avoid the use of chemical preservatives and present the 'clean label' that consumers desire. A team of scientists from the National University of Singapore (NUS) has found that blue light emitting diodes (LEDs) have strong antibacterial effect on major foodborne pathogens and are most effective when in cold temperatures (between 4 and 15°C) and mildly acidic conditions of around pH 4.5. These findings were recently published in the Food Microbiology journal in June 2015. While LEDs are most commonly known as an energy-saving light source, they have also been known to have an antibacterial effect. Bacterial cells contain light-sensitive compounds that adsorb light in the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum (400-430 nm), which is mainly blue LED light. Exposure to illumination from blue LED light can hence start off a process within the cells that ultimately causes the cells to die. Existing studies on the antibacterial effect of LED illumination mostly evaluated its efficacy by adding photo sensitisers to the food samples, or by using very close distance of less than 2 cm between the bacterial suspension and LED light source. These conditions would not be viable for application on food preservation. The NUS team, led by Assistant Professor Yuk Hyun-Gyun, from the Food Science and Technology Programme at the NUS Faculty of Science, is the first so far to show that factors such as temperature and pH levels, which are typically related to food products, can affect the antibacterial effect of LEDs.
In this study, the team placed three major foodborne pathogens — Listeria monocytogenes, Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Salmonella Typhimurium — under blue LED illumination and varied the pH conditions from acidic to alkaline. The team found that higher bacterial inactivation was achieved at acidic and alkaline pH conditions than when neutral. In particular, acidic conditions were more detrimental than alkaline conditions for L. monocytogenes. For E. coli O157:H7 and S. Typhimurium, alkaline conditions were most detrimental although acidic conditions were also sufficiently effective in deactivating them. A previous study in 2013 by the same team had also looked at the effect of temperature on blue LED's ability to deactivate bacterial cells and found the antibacterial effect to be most enhanced in chilling temperatures. Asst Prof Yuk said, "Taken together, our two studies point to a potential for preserving acidic foods in combination with chilling temperatures without chemical treatments. This could meet the increasing demand for natural or minimally processed foods without relying on chemicals such as acidulants and artificial preservatives to preserve food products."

Though blue light rays are used widely for a variety of applications, its utility to food preservation is some what new deserving further development to bring it to wide scale use commercially. The major constraint has been that photo sensitizers are required to activate the kill effect of the blue rays. Also the efficiency of blue rays depends largely on the distance between the food sample and the source of the light. Though cold temperature and pH conditions can enhance the kill effect, how suitable equipment can be designed for large scale commercial application needs to be addressed. If these problems are overcome, blue ray technology may find wide applications in future in the industry, retail stores and domestic refrigerators, especially to protect cut fruits and vegetables, meat cuts and other perishable foods


BIS Vs FSSAI-Why this dichotomy?

When Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) was created with great fanfare, it was expected that food industry in India could deal with one single government agency from licensing to product monitoring. It is another matter that what the industry got was a thoroughly bureaucratized top heavy obese organization with no technical expertise to carry out the awesome task of protecting the citizens from fraudulent practices by some of the unscrupulous segment of the food processing industry which is bent on making a fast buck ignoring the health perils posed by their sub-standard and unsafe products. Honest industry players who want to play strictly by the rule books are unnecessarily harassed as seen recently by the brutal action to ban a particular brand of noodles based on unreliable and questionable test results. To add to the burden posed by FSSAI, another irritant has been introduced by way of bringing another government agency viz Bureau of Indian Standards "BIS"  to approve tin plate quality. Here is a take on this latest development against which the industry is protesting.    

"The Bureau of Indian Standards' (BIS) quality control order on tin plates issued in April will affect India's metal packaging industry of around Rs 5,000 crore. The Draft Steel Quality Control orer includes 'Cold Reduced Electrolytic Tinplate', an import component used in packing baby food, milk power, mango pulp, coffee among other edible and non edible items. Industry body Metal Container Manufacturers Association (MCMA) feels that the order, which will come into force by next month, needs to be reviewed as it will impact the metal packaging industry, which employs over a lakh people. According to MCMA President Sanjay Bhatia tin can is an "industrial product and not an item of mass consumption". Industry consumes around 550,000 tonnes of tin mill products (tinplate/tinfree steel etc), of which about 60 per cent is prime and 40 per cent non-prime. Domestic availability is about 325,000 tonnes and the balance is imported from different countries such as Japan, Korea, Brazil, Europe, USA, China, Venezuela, etc. "The firms in these countries follow rigorous global quality control orders and since we do not import large quantities they will not take pains to get BIS certification, which will impact us as we will not get good material at competitive rates," Bhatia told PTI. Prime material is mainly required for edible products like processed food, fruits and vegetables, dairy products, edible oil etc while non-prime (secondaries arising out of Prime) are required for non-edible products such as in packing of paints, industrial oils among others. "The order brings a non-tariff barrier in order to protect the domestic producers, but the production in the country is not sufficient enough to meet the demand of the industry both in terms of volume as well as grades," he countered. In certain applications industry requires continuous annealed material, high precision shearing in terms of squareness for products like battery jackets, scroll tinplate sheets which the domestic producer is not in a position to supply, he said. "We have approached the Prime Minister's Office, Steel Ministry, Commerce Ministry, Ministry of Medium and Small Enterprises with our demand. A similar order had come in 2007-08 and the government had taken it back. We are hopeful that something can happen this time as well," he added. The order will also reduce the competitive strength of metal packaging industry as it is likely to result in increase in cost of raw material involved in BIS marking fees and other related expenses as compared to other packaging material like plastic, paper, glass, Bhatia said."

It is unfortunate that bureaucracy in the country is trying again to overlord the manufacturing sector putting such types of hurdles reminding one of the old days of "inspector raj". Sympathize with poor Prime Minister who is talking day in and day out about strengthening the industry by removing impediments so that his "Make in India"  dream takes off in a big way. Probably he has not reckoned with the vice-like grip of bureaucracy in this country which does not see any thing beyond its self interest-that is wielding power without accountability. Why should there be any standards set by BIS when tha responsibility of food standards management is vested with FSSAI? Industry has a case when they are protesting against such arbitrary policy decisions affecting their functioning in a serious way. It is not that BIS is inferior to FSSAI as both organizations are epitome of inefficiency and unreliability when it comes to protecting the consumer. Ultimately industry has to blame itself for its subservient attitude to babus in the government by their behavior bordering on sycophancy! It must stand up with no fear or favor from the government for causes which are right and sensible.


Friday, August 14, 2015

"Made in India" food products not up to international mark? Why?

When Indian Prime Minister started his "Make in India" campaign last year with the honest intention to see more and more Indian made products in the international market, there were many who had reservations about the success of such an effort. It is true that manufacturing sector has great potential to expand employment opportunities, especially to those with low skill levels and thus contribute to socio-economic upliftment of the nation. Prime Minister even went to the extent of saying that the country would roll out "red carpet" welcoming foreign investors in stead of "red tape" of the bureaucrats which is a curse on the country. Alas not much has happened during the last 15 months of the government, though many are willing to give a chance for the reforms to come through in the coming months. Functioning of the Parliament, as being seen during the last one year is a big dampener to our hopes but it is time the government focuses more on administrative reforms not requiring the stamp of parliament so that most of the bottlenecks at the bureaucratic level can be sorted out. A recent report highlighting the sorry situation regarding export of processed foods, as highlighted by large scale rejections due to quality and safety factors at the buyers' end, offers a sad picture which must be addressed without much delay. 

Much before the controversy around Maggi raised an alarm over food safety standards in India, the voluminous rejection list of Indian food and cosmetic items in the US served as a precursor to the need for better regulations of food safety laws in India.India has always been one of the top three countries to face rejections in the monthly refusal list of food items by the Operational and Administrative System for Import Support (OASIS), of the US FDA(Food & Drug Administration). In June 2015, 170 Indian products, 185 in May and 143 in April, were rejected by the US FDA, marking the second highest number of refusals in all the three months. Ironically, India has one of the best food laws in place on paper, which requires even a roadside peanut vendor to get a licence from the government. However, the problems lie in the poor implementation of laws. In 2006, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) was established as an independent statutory authority for all food-related laws under Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. The Act repealed a plethora of previous central Acts including the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954, which was the principal law governing the food sector in India so long. The new laws were aimed to address the issue of food safety, apart from food adulteration. The FSSAI- broadly based on Codex Alementarius Commission, a benchmark for international food safety practices- became the central regulatory authority responsible for regulating manufacture, storage, distribution, sale and import of food. The commission dates back to 1963, when the Food and Agricultural organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) along with its 185 member states formed the standards. "The biggest problem with food law is that it was hurriedly copied from Codex but was not sufficient to address problems in the Indian food sector. Most importantly, at the ground level, the food inspectors have no competency and capacity for effective monitoring. The FSSAI has just made the inspector raj more pronounced," said a food consultant on the condition of anonymity.

It must be admitted that the country does not need to evolve standards for various products being manufactured here because of the existence of thousands of such standards evolved by international organizations. But when it comes to traditional food products, unique to the country, they have been severely neglected by the food scientists in India though there are half a dozen research organizations of some repute and at least two dozen universities across the country imparting training and research skills to aspiring food scientists. As for Food safety management agency we have seen how it became butt of a joke internationally through its unjustified ban on a brand of noodles which was fortunately overruled by the judiciary. If India is to make a dent in the export market in food sector, it cannot achieve this through export of bread, biscuits or chocolates. This has to come through trasditional foods, thousands in number, languishing locally across the country for want of scientific inputs to standardize them, modernize their making process and design appropriate machinery for commercial production. Can our PM inspire the food scientists through carrot or stick to shift their focus of research to traditional foods in stead of wasting their time on western foods? Unless this is done the "Make in India" slogan will remain a slogan only!


A gigantic research scam-What will be its impact on past scientific research?

Science is supposed to be based on truth and nothing but the truth. Research which is supposed to find the truth must be seen as an unbiased pursuit of finding the truth and must be above suspicion as scientists are trained to adopt ethical and trustworthy methods to unfold things which were not known earlier. Unfortunately during the last 5 decades the quality of research and motives of a significant segment of research scientists are increasingly being questioned because of intentional and improper investigations to come up with results that are questionable. Recent findings by a group of investigators questioning the veracity and reliability of many safety studies because of faulty research logistics is casting a shadow on the food research community which is not receiving attention it deserves. If these findings are true, the absolute trust of consumers who blindly believe their conclusions can be shaken severely while the scientific peers who vouchsafe for their trustworthiness will have to answer a lot for the terrifying consequences of such misdemeanors. Here is a take on the startling claims on the state of affairs vis-a-vis thousands of food products which were tested under inappropriate protocols.     

"Dominique Dupagne, a well- known doctor in France and frequent guest on the show, pointed out that the biotech industry's conflicts of interest and influence in this area are far greater than those of FIFA- this industry has much greater influence than FIFA and much more money. He calls this study by Séralini "remarkable" because everyone has been assuming that all of this testing had included control groups that were fed organic food, free of toxins, but this has not been so. This means that that totality of all of these safety studies done by industry for at least 100,000 products should be retracted. For years, industry has fraudulently been saying that these lab rats naturally tend to develop tumors, but that is not true. Their tumors were largely due to toxins and pesticides in their food.According to Dr. Dupagne, "Séralini's study here is flawless. He is absolutely correct. In all of these studies, how could you possibly conclude anything with a control group that is being exposed to toxins?" But there is a very powerful lobby in the press that blocks the publication of any studies finding flaws with these products. Séralini's study that was published in 2012 was pulled in an incredible manner. After having been peer-reviewed and published as a perfect toxicology study, industry was unhappy. The tumors on the rats were impossible to ignore, so it was criticized for not having been a proper cancer study. At the journal, a post was created for an industry-friendly editor who made it his first order of business to get that study retracted. The toxicological study has since been reviewed AGAIN by peers and it has been republished in another journal. It stands. This new study analyzed thirteen feed samples sent from nine countries on five continents. All samples were found to have levels of toxins much greater than the already high permitted levels- they were "extremely contaminated" They were tested for metals, dioxins, PCBs, GMOS, and pesticides. It has commonly been held that in these rats seeing a rate of 70% of breast cancer and 80% other cancers was normal after a 2 year period. But Séralini found that when fed food without pesticides the tumor rate was FIVE TIMES LOWER in the same breed of rats. So that shows at what level they are able to cover up the fact that their products cause cancer. The control group is polluted, and they say that is "normal". That is fraudulent and it allows them to cover up the fact that their products are causing cancer, they are masking the results."

If control samples which are used to compare the results of safety studies with newly developed products are contaminated, as being claimed, what sanctity one can expect for the results of such studies. After all the conclusions are drawn by comparison with the performance of control samples used and the quality of the research can be severely compromised. What next? Will there be a real soul searching on the part of scientists engaged in safety studies using laboratory animals and correct themselves at least hereafter for the sake of safety of future generations. What about thousands of products already in the market "cleared" being safe whose safety credentials are under the cloud? Will there be rerun of such studies using control samples with unquestionable purity? This is a matter to be decided by WHO after consultation with all countries for bringing about correction procedures and more transparency. The role of food industry, especially that of the large players, is questionable because of their suspected involvement in doctoring the studies through their financial clout.  


Thursday, August 13, 2015

How India messed up the Maggi episode! Is there no accountability for the rashness of the state apparatus?

The consumer affairs minister has been recently bragging that India has demolished the "Goliath" like Nestle after filing a damage suit for Rs 600 plus crores after the Maggi noodle was unceremoniously banned by another foolish government agency FSSAI. Where is the sanity gone when such reckless steps are taken by government babus and ministers, in the name of consumers who are being harassed by food adulterators and fraudsters roaming around the country freely without any fear or retribution? Targeting reputed manufacturers like Nestle for "teaching" a lesson is just madness and counter productive. Hear what the Mumbai High court said to day about natural justice not being done by the government agencies, which are drunk with power but not accountable in any way! Read how the government is bragging about its "achievement" and one cannot help feeling a sense of dismay at these developments.

India is suing the Swiss food giant Nestlé for nearly $100 million, two months after banning the company's Maggi noodles for what Indian officials said were dangerously high levels of lead. The government announced Wednesday that it has filed a suit against Nestlé, seeking damages from the Indian arm of the company for "unfair trade practices," AFP reported.  Nestlé expressed its "disappointment" over the complaint in a statement, saying in part, "Nestlé India maintains the highest standards of food quality and safety in the manufacture of all its products." This case represents the first time India's Consumer Affairs Ministry has charged a company before the quasi-judicial National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, reports the Economic Times of India.  "For the first time, the government has filed a class action suit against Nestlé India to send a strong message to companies that they cannot sell sub-standard products in the country and put consumers' health at risk," said an unnamed Economic Times source. In their petition, the ministry charged that Nestlé misled consumers with claims that Maggi instant noodles were healthy, and noted that their packaging claimed "no added MSG," but that government officials found levels of monosodium glutamate well in excess of legal limits.

Now that government has received a rap on its knuckles from the judiciary, will it learn any lesson from this episode? Very unlikely! There are hundreds of claims made by different manufacturers with no scientific evidence and these are ignored by the very same government to the perils of the consumers. How one can justify the claim that a brand of beverage can increase height, brain power, stamina etc of children and such claims are aired day in and day out on the electronic media through saturated and disgusting commercials! It is beyond common sense as to why government has cherry picked on Nestle only? If the out come of this sordid saga goes in favor of Nestle, who will pay for millions of rupees lost by this company because of the action of a few bureaucrats. Is it not natural justice that those responsible for bringing down the image of the country is punished severely? Any reparations to be paid eventually must be booked to the officials and politicians who were behind this reckless episode.