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India: Where Food Adulteration Is The Most Paying Business

By Devinder Sharma

20 October, 2011
Ground Reality

Last week, the Punjab Department of Health and FamilyWelfare seized 2,000 litres of synthetic milk in Patiala. In Chandigarh, the administration has so far destroyed 30 tonnes of sweets in the past week -- 30 tonnes means 30,000 dibbas of one kilo each. These are notisolated events. Local newspapers are awash with reports of adulterated sweetsand dry fruits, and also have been carrying features on the unhygienic conditions in which the prolific sweet industry operates. Not only Punjab, shocking reports of adulteration and spurious sweets/dairy products is pouring in from across the country. Food adulteration certainly has become one of the biggest proliferating industry.

This is the festival season. While it is time for you tocelebrate by exchanging sweets, it is also the time for a roaring and brisk businessfor your neighbourhood shopwallahs. Inthe next few days, tonnes of sweets, bakery products, dairy products, andprocessed foods will be sold. How much of it will be of good quality and safefor consumption is anybody’s guess.

Let us look at some of common forms of adulteration that youare likely to encounter. Synthetic milk, which was seized from Patiala, as per reports, wasused for manufacturing sweets, ghee, khoa, cream, and other dairy products.It is known to cause irreparable damage to your body organs. It is of course ahealth hazard but if you are suffering from heart and kidney ailments, it willacerbate your problem. Urea, which is used in the preparation of syntheticmilk, is particularly harmful for kidneys, and caustic soda is a slow poisonfor people suffering from hypertension and heart ailments.

The chances are that khoasweets and desi ghee you buy too is adulterated.In addition, harmful colours and other raw materials are used. The colours thatare often used contain lead and arsenic and can damage kidneys. You pay a heftyprice for mithai made in desi ghee, and what you get in returnhas no nutrition but animal fat, crushed animal bones and mineral oil. Forthose who can’t afford desi ghee, thevanaspati too is laced withadulterants. It comes laced with stearin, a bye-product of palm oil used insoap manufacture.

While such gheemanufacturing units abound in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, MadhyaPradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, the khoa trade is equally rampant. It isbelieved that 90 per cent of the vanaspatibeing sold in the market violates the specifications of the Prevention of FoodAdulteration Act (PFA).

Such is the extent of adulteration, that even pistachio usedin sweets is not spared. Unscrupulous traders instead use inferior qualitypeanuts, cut into small pieces and than coloured with artificial colouringagents. From adulterated pistachio, you can show symptoms of acidity, severeheadache, vomiting, and in severe cases it can leave behind a terrible impactfor the pregnant women. But by the time the child is born with deformities, itmay be practically impossible to link it with food adulteration.

I can go on describing the harmful impacts adulterated foodscan have on your health. What is however disturbing is the completeindifference being shown by the consumers as well as the regulatory bodies inchecking the menace of adulterated food products, fruits and vegetables. Whatis urgently needed is a massive and widespread clamp down against theunscrupulous traders and farmers. This will take some time, but let us beginwith what we can do. Besides lodging complaint with the health department oryour local SDM, I have two suggestions:

Because of a string of television programmes last year, you will be surprised to know that consumers in Meerut, one of the epicentres of adulterated foods, had shunned khoa products. Tonnes of khoa sweets had to be thrown away by shopkeepers after the festive season were over. If this can happen in Meerut, it can also happen in your city and town. Just refuse the temptation to buy sweets, and believe me you are safe.

For the mithaiwallahas and bulk manufacturers. Why can’t they form an association of those traders/manufacturers who you can guarantee to sell quality products? Why can’t they follow the standardised quality norms spelled out by the health department? This association can vouch for quality and publicise through media listing reliable shops/outlets in different cities/town. This is the only way to regain the confidence of the consumers.

Devinder Sharma is a food and agriculture policy analyst. His writings focus on the links between biotechnology, intellectual property rights, food trade and poverty. His blog is Ground Reality




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