Brick in chilli powder, chicory in coffee, coal tar dye in tea leaves, soap in milk – the list of adulterated products in as endless as it is shocking. The latest adulterants to hit the market in Bangalore are artificially ripened mangoes.
In Russell Market and other areas, mangoes like Malgova and Badami are treated with toxic calcium carbide powder to ripen them fast and supply to increasing market demands. This toxic powder, called ‘masala’ in trader lingo is used to give the fruit a bright yellow colour much before time and could result in food poisoning, skin and stomach problems.
As for spices, the market is flooded with spices whose origins are rather suspect. "Gobi Manchurian masala is a prime example," says Y G Muralidharan of the Vijaynagar based consumer rights group CREAT (Consumer Rights Education and Awareness Trust).
Palace Huttehalli based researcher Vijetha B V who was a nominee for the Young Scientist award in 2006, says there are banned colourants and artificial matter in several spices made in the local market, especially those coming from Tamil Nadu.
Milk is no more milky pure too. According to a recent report in The Hindu, the Karnataka Milk Federation found that many vendors were buying the Nandini full cream milk (6.5 fat percent) and adulterating it with water and starch to increase their profits. Sadashivnagar resident and techie Savitha Ramesh recalls returning a packet of branded ‘besan’ to a reputed supermarket chain after she discovered it was mixed with ‘rawa’ and therefore unusable.
That there is poison in the food we frequently eat is no new story. In fact much is made of the legendary ‘Indian immunity’ which can supposedly digest anything. The question that arises is why should we?
Lack of awareness among consumers is one big reason. "Many people use food colouring without even checking if it meets food grading standards or comes from a reputed brand," says Superna Gupta, homemaker from Bannerghatta Road. "Several people go in for spices with stronger colour without checking the label or blindly trusting their cook to get the spice he prefers!"
Unlike Superna, several consumers remain unaware of food grading and quality certifications. The safest bet, says Muralidharan, is to be aware of grading of food like AGMARK and ISI certifications and avoid buying loose products without any branding like tea, edible oil and so on. "While buying go only for AGMARK and ISI certified products," says Muralidharan.
ISI OR Indian Standard Institute was renamed as the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). It certifies products with an ‘ISI’ mark. These products include packaged water, milk powder, vegetable oils, cement, Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) cylinders and food colouring.
Indian importers and foreign manufacturers of these can use an ISI mark provided their product passes the certification test. Agmark is used for agricultural products and commodities like wheat, paddy, pulses, cereals, vegetable oils, fruits, vegetables, noodles, fibre crops, animal products and spices. Products that are certified with an ISI Mark or an Agmark are considered to be of a good quality and standard.
Unfortunately, not everyone is an educated consumer meticulously checking labels for ingredients and AGMARK/ISI certifications before buying. Vijetha researched on food adulteration and awareness among homemakers in Old Airport Road area as part of her Master of Science thesis and found that many homemakers in the lower middle class bracket were completely unaware of adulteration. "Increasing cases of stomach ulcers and intestinal ailments in Bangalore are often due to dangerous adulterants in food like lead oxide," she says. This won her the nomination for Young Scientist award in 2006.
Vijetha has found that argemone oil, prohibited artificial colour lathyrus sativus (in Kesari dal) and sand marble stones were some of the most commonly found adulterants in unbranded food products available in Bangalore.
With the national Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 still in the draft stage, it’s up to the consumer to be vigilant. "We are asking consumers to be aware and check the label, see if the product has preservatives, banned food colour and so on as finding adulterants in your food and trying to register a complaint can be a tedious process. We have extensively trained housewives in the Krishnagiri-Hosur region (in Tamil Nadu) to recognise adulteration and would like to conduct similar workshops in Bangalore," says S Ramani of Consumer Association of India (CAI), a Chennai-based consumer organisation. Ramani is Bangalore-based and lives in Malleshwaram.
Are branded goods any safer? Although we feel branded products (apart from the dubious colas) are safe to an extent, sometimes even these aren’t spared. "We’ve even come across branded products like Brooke Bond tea with adulteration," says Santhana Rajan of CAI adding that sometimes the retailer may himself be unaware as "they buy the products in bulk."
Cases of worms found in Cadbury chocolates are often heard and though the manufacturers usually claim that it’s poor storage conditions at the retailer’s end that are to blame, the fact is that the end user does suffer.
Rajan adds that right now there are several loopholes in the PFA Act and the government has no control over adulteration. "The regulatory authorities are not efficient, consumers are not educated enough and the traders unscrupulous." He and the others suggest that the customers need to buy products that have less of a chance of being adulterated or avoid traders who stock adulterated goods.
For more on how to detect adulteration and what you can do about it, don’t miss the Citizen Matters quick guide to adulteration detection, published along with this article.
"At the moment, the law is such that prosecution can only be by the government and not by the individual," says Muralidharan who suggests that if people wish to detect adulteration they could perhaps check a few products for regular use like oil, pulses, rice, coffee and so on. And most importantly, check the label before you buy.
While it may not be the most practical of solutions every time to turn your kitchen into a testing lab, if you do suspect your food products to be adulterated and wish to register a complaint, Muralidharan suggests that you take the samples to Public Health Institute or approach a consumer rights organisation such as CREAT or CAI or take the sample to the Standards Authority. You could also file a complaint with your zonal health officer and give the details of the provision store or hotel you obtained the adulterated foodstuff from.
In the absence of proper regulatory laws, what the consumer needs to do is to become more aware and conscious of what he or she is eating, at home or outside. (Info courtesy: Vijetha BV, YG Muralidharan, Santhana Rajan)
How the consumer can be aware
Difference between ISI Mark and Agmark?
ISI OR Indian Standard Institute was renamed as the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). It certifies products for domestic consumer consumption with an ‘ISI’ mark. These products include items such as packaged water, milk powder, vegetable oils, cement, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders and food colouring. Indian importers and foreign manufacturers of such products are permitted to use an ISI mark provided their product passes the certification test.
Agmark is used for agricultural products that need to be exported as well as for domestic trade. There are varied grading standards for different agricultural commodities like wheat, paddy, pulses, cereals, vegetable oils, fruits, vegetables, noodles, fibre crops, animal products and spices. Products that are certified with an ISI Mark or an Agmark are considered to be of a good quality and standard.