Health Minister J P Nadda recently informed Parliament that 68 per cent milk being sold in India is adulterated. The nation wasn't shocked. In fact, for nearly 30years now I have read news reports telling us how rampant is the adulteration of milk and milk products.
Instead of checking the massive adulteration of milk products which is detrimental to human health, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is aggressively pushing for the fortification of milk, which means adding vitamins to milk to make it more nutritious. What use of added nutrition if the milk being supplied is largely spurious. In Punjab, for instance, in a month-long drive against spurious milk and milk products, nearly 40 per cent of the samples drawn have failed.
In some districts, the failure percentage is as high as 70 to 80 per cent. At a time when the use of sulphuric acid, which is commonly used in toilet cleaners, in making paneer besides the use of urea and detergents in making synthetic milk are commonly being used for making spurious milk how will fortification of milk help?
Take another case. At a time when the FSSAI is trying to regulate the quality of organic foods available in the market, still a nascent industry, three startling media reports have raised questions over the continuing failure of the regulatory mechanism in ensuring safe and healthy food for consumers.
The abundance of danger in the food we eat cannot be brushed aside anymore. Even the Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare has raised serious concerns about the inability to ensure food safety, including drinking water.
For the first time, the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) has in an elaborate study on the prevalence of organophosphate group of chemical pesticides in children, concluded that Hyderabad children alone consume 10 to 40 times more pesticides in their food than children in US, Europe and Canada. Yes, you heard it right, 10 to 40 times more.
Knowing the food safety standards that exist in India, there is no reason to believe that children in the rest of the country are not eating food with the same or still worse levels of toxicity.
In another study, the New Delhi-based Centre for Science & Environment (CSE), has found 21 of the 65 processed foods available in the market infested with genetically-modified ingredients. These include breakfast cereals, cooking oils, ready-to-eat foods, protein supplements and even baby foods.
Still worse, as many as 74 per cent of the imported food products and 96 per cent of the domestic products that were found to be carrying GM ingredients did not make a mention of it on the labels. Although civil society groups had been warning for a number of years now of the influx of processed foods carrying GM ingredients, the FSSAI had failed to initiate any action to safeguard public health.
This is happening at a time when India does not have the requisite quarantine infrastructure or monitoring facilities for measuring the pesticides residue levels or GM ingredients in imported foods. It will, therefore, be appropriate to label food and food products available in the market, unless specified as organic, stating clearly: "Grown using chemical pesticides/fertilisers" so that consumers can make an informed choice. I am sure most parents would be doubly careful if conventional foods available in the market are labelled accordingly.
The FSSAI, in fact, should devote its time and energy to tell people what they are eating, whether it is laden with harmful chemicals or not. Even those who are knowingly or unknowingly consuming chemically-produced food have the right to know what they are eating.
If the milk that is being consumed daily across the country comes laden with harmful chemicals and adulterants, what is the purpose of focusing and setting standards for organic milk? Wouldn't it, therefore, be more sensible if the FSSAI were to launch a clean-up drive for the milk and milk products rather than to focus its energies on the niche market of organic milk?
Traceability, therefore, is not only a criterion that should be specified for organic produce. As per the Food Safety and Standards (Organic foods) Regulations, 2017, which came into force from July 1, 2018, and is now being re-looked into, traceability is being ensured to maintain the integrity of the organic food product.
This is certainly welcome considering that India has witnessed a steep 38 per cent growth in certified organic produce between 2013-15 and 2016-17. At present, almost 1.49 million hectares are under organic farming, engaging 8.35-lakh farmers, and the number is continuously growing.
While traditional farmers using chemicals do not require any certification, organic farmers feel penalised by the additional cost of certification. Although small farmers selling directly to consumers are exempted, farmers do need retailers. But now they cannot sell to retailers unless they are certified.
At a time when finding a sustained market for organic produce is the biggest stumbling block for farmers shifting to non-chemical farming, such a move will throw an added spanner. I think the best way forward is to first make the conventional food available in the market carry a tag saying that it is produced using chemicals.
Just like cigarette smoking carried a warning saying smoking is injurious to your health, it is time to put a warning on the available food saying it carries chemicals. Let people then make a choice. I am sure if the warning was loud and clear, parents of school children in Hyderabad would have been doubly careful with what they were feeding to their kids. That's the kind of revolution that India needs on the food front. Don't forget you are what you eat.
(The author is a well-known food and investment policy analyst, this is his personal opinion. His Twitter handle is @Devinder_Sharma click here to read all his articles.)