Guest Columns

The maggi trial- Indian paradox of food safety

A 45 year old man presented himself to an oncologist with the typical symptoms of stomach cancer. His worst fears came true, the biopsy reports showed positive results. He led an extremely healthy lifestyle; exercised regularly, maintained a balanced diet and did not have any addictions. Yet, cancer had managed to conquer his system. The distraught man asked the doctor, “Why me?” The visibly uncomfortable doctor was speechless. The Maggi trial that India witnessed recently opened a much needed debate on food safety and has exposed the tip of iceberg.

Many oncologists go through a similar ordeal almost every day. A lot of their patients may have maintained a healthy lifestyle and yet, end up succumbing to cancer. It may not be just tobacco; we have tons of other carcinogens as well which have unfortunately entered our diet chart. Some of the reports on food exports from India shows we rank among the top in agri-food rejects to USA & EU as per the UNIDO reports. The key reasons for rejects implicated in the reports were – mycotoxins, microbial contamination, veterinary drug residues, heavy metals, unauthorized food additives, product composition and pesticide residues. Ever wondered if these were the quality for exports, what could be the standards from internal consumption for us Indians? The Maggi trial that India witnessed recently opened the much needed debate on food safety and exposed the tip of iceberg.

Current status of food quality:
It would not be inappropriate to quote “ Diet and nutrition are two different aspects of food”. Is the current state of food quality in India a matter of implausible conjecture or a reality yet to dawn in the Indian mindset?

PESTICIDES – Pesticides, preservatives and wasted calories seem to be the trends of the new Indian recipes. A growing concern among consumers is the question – are we having too much pesticides in our food? are these really harmful?is there a way to prevent this? i have heard that often export rejects from various countries look at India as a potential market. Be it tyres, automobiles or food products – all exports rejects have a affinity for Indian market. Thanks to poor consumer awareness and implicit trust of the consumer in the manufacturer to abide by ethical practices. This is further compounded by extremely poor vigilance and enforcement by government agencies.

The Endosulfan Tragedy in Kerala has killed over 4000 people and many have been affected since the 1970’s. Despite the ban made by UN, Endosulfan is still being used in India, many farmers find its utility for crops even today. Recent reports in media highlighted traces of endosulfan found in several vegetables. Personal interactions with these farmers confirm their use of these banned pesticides owing to a quick, sustained and stable yield when used with minimal crop loss. Educational programs for farmers from NGO’s and department would pave way for foundation of food safety in farms.Insecticide act of India 1968 is awaiting amendments and its implementation. The amended act awaits clearance in Rajya Sabha.

PRESERVATIVES – Traditionally, preservatives were introduced into food products for keeping them safe and edible for long periods.As technology and research has advanced, we have moved to synthetic preservatives which help store and protect food from spoilage food for extremely long periods(class 2 preservatives). But are they really safe? They may protect the food but they’re definitely harming us. Studies suggest that synthetic food preservatives like Sodium benzoate and Sodium nitrite can cause hyper reactivity in children and have been linked to gastric cancer as well. These preservatives are commonly found in cold drinks, processed meat, canned food and most importantly, ready-to-make food products.

ADULTERANTS – Food colourants are another group of chemicals quintessentially placed in the ‘cancer causing family’. Adulterants range from chalk powder (common in milk), saw dust (found in chilli powder), non permitted dyes (common in turmeric powder) to coal tar (found in tea powder). Vegetables like green chillies and green peas are coated with malachite green (highly carcinogenic and are used as dyes to study bacteria) to enhance the colour and fruits like apples are coated with wax give them a glossy finish.

HYGIENE -Street food is a delicacy for the Indian palate. An unhygienic condition maintained by street vendors and eateries is a key factor behind the spread of these infections. Vehicular emission, carbon dioxide and air pollutants from the roads are also absorbed by these food items. The basic practice of washing one’s hands before touching any food ingredient is unspoken of. H.Pylori is a growing cause of gastric cancers. Can this be a cause of increasing contamination and adulteration ?

Food standard and safety act of India is a comprehensive act. The paradox is the regulation and implementation of this act. These bodies have largely remained to provide and regulate license. We have hardly come across brands being suspended owing to poor quality compliance. Would it not be ideal to have monthly checks of 100 random food products, selected from random shops in random areas and scrutinised for food safety? is it not time for us to amend and strongly enforce Insecticide act of India 1968 to product our future generations and secure food safety standards?

The writer is Dr.Vishal Rao U.S,In-charge Head & Neck Services,Department of Surgical Oncology, HealthCare Global (HCG) Cancer Center, Bengaluru and Srinidhi Koya, Natural Science Department, St. Joseph’s College, Bengaluru.


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1 Comment

  1. Vishwanath Shetty
    November 16, 2015 at 2:20 pm — Reply

    Really very useful message for public. Very informative. Thank you Dr Vishal.

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