INDIA’S consumer-driven economy has unleashed a large number of brands. They meet top-quality standards and requirements that are laid out by the Indian food regulator, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). Normally, they carry a higher price as they have to deliver on multiple benchmarks. However, this has provided an opportunity to unscrupulous players to either produce cheap products or indulge in counterfeiting.
Such is the greed for money that those indulging in food adulteration knowingly refuse to see the unabashed disregard for human life. What makes this problem more complicated is that there are a host of cheap, easily available and life-threatening options at the disposal of the adulterators. Hence, it’s difficult to pinpoint the most effective strategy to counter this situation. It’s a hydra-headed monster that we are dealing with.
Economically, adulteration cuts costs and boosts profit margins, but from the health and safety perspective, it plays a deadly game with those it comes into contact with. The travesty of justice is evident from the fact that no matter what the health damage is, the adulterators literally go scot free under the existing laws. While there is a provision for life imprisonment, the police doesn’t have the power to invoke the FSSAI Act. This can be done only by the food safety authorities in the states. The net result is that in most cases the offender receives a maximum imprisonment of six months, or a fine of Rs. 1000.
The FSSAI, which is responsible for protecting and promoting public health through regulation and supervision of food safety, has collected a total of 84,537 adulterated food samples in 2014-15, 77,941 in 2015-16 and 80,463 in 2016-17. However, the convictions stood at 1,402 in 2014-15, 540 in 2015-16 and 1,591 in 2016-17. To my mind, this has to skyrocket in the times ahead and could be a vital part in dealing with the complex maze of adulteration.
The commonly adulterated items in India include milk, pulses, rice, local sweets, vegetable oils and ghee, honey, liquor, and medicine, among others. According to the National Survey on Milk Adulteration 2011, states such as Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Mizoram witnessed adulteration up to 100% against the national average of 68.4%. The adulterants of choice were found to be urea and detergent.
Pulses are consumed by a large number of people, and adulterants such as asbestos (polishing), metanil yellow (colour) and soluble coal tar (shine) are added. These are all carcinogenic products and compromise the health of the consumers.
Rice, which is a staple food in India, has become a favourite with the adulterators, who till recently were adding marble chips, mixing sand, chalk and brick powder, have now started a synthetic replication of rice called ‘plastic rice’. Experts warn that this form raises the risk of cancer by 15-20 per cent and wreaks havoc with the digestive and reproductive systems. Since the rural folks predominantly consume pulses and rice, the damage to health is exacerbated in the rural areas due to lack of proper medical care.
Local sweets are a rage across the country. However, sulphur dioxide in excessive amounts, starch, aluminium and more adulterants are added to them. These can cause severe allergies, and in worst cases, fatality. Vegetables oils and ghee are necessities that are exploited by the adulterators. In mustard oil, argemone seeds and papaya seeds, which are mixed to add bulk and weight, can cause epidemic dropsy and severe glaucoma. People have lost their eyesight by consuming sub-standard edible oil. The young, old and those with immunity issues are particularly vulnerable.
AN article in the Business Standard in April 2018 carried a report about a fake ghee factory that was busted in Uttar Pradesh. It contained packets of prominent dairy brands such as Amul, Paras, Sanskar and Madhav. It was found that they were using a combination of Dalda (vegetable ghee), refined oil and essences to make desi ghee. Officials say that this combination was like poison and played havoc with the lives of the people. These were sold at cheaper prices and the nexus with local wholesale traders ensured its penetration in the markets.
Honey, which is known for its overall health benefits, is being denatured with the addition of corn syrup, which is imported from China and invert sugar, which is locally available. The net result of all this according to the experts is that 85 per cent of the honey sold in India is adulterated.
I have limited my scope to the very basic and essential items sold across the length and breadth of our country. The situation is no better in spices, ice creams, liquor, medicines and bottled water.
Last year, acknowledging the gravity of the situation, the Law Commission recommended a set of stringent measures. It recommended that Sections 272 and 273 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) be amended to make adulteration a serious crime. The commission also said that the fine on adulterators be increased from Rs. 1000 to Rs. 10 lakh, and jail term from six months to imprisonment, till death. To their credit, states such as Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Odisha have implemented the second point.However, more needs to be done and more states have to follow suit.
The government needs to intensify its efforts for creating large-scale awareness campaigns that educate the consumers about the ill-effects of buying counterfeit products and the consumers on their part need to be aware that a small saving that is made by purchasing counterfeits can have life-threatening results.
The need of the hour is to set up systems for regular monitoring through a large number of accredited laboratories. These will check, verify and satisfy that the products available in the marketplace are meeting the quality and safety standards and that are genuine. Such a mechanism should be fast-tracked so that examples are made out of such unscrupulous elements so that it acts as a strong deterrent for those who break the law.
The writer is Chairman FICCI – CASCADE and Sr. VP, ITC Ltd.