Our Poisoned Chalice

  • Dr Sheikh Mohammad Saleem
  • Publish Date: May 31 2016 3:02PM
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  • Updated Date: May 31 2016 3:02PM
Our Poisoned Chalice

The food we eat is far from safe, but often it is not easy to figure out. Here's a little help

It is a safe bet that all of us, at some point in our lives, have been affected by a foodborne illness. Such diseases, caused by microbial pathogens, biotoxins or chemical contaminants,pose a grave threat to world health. No wonder, food safety is an essential public health issue for all countries.
In this age, as the hectic consumerist economic order makes ever brutal demands on our time, eating safe and healthy is taking a hit. Indeed, the afflictions caused by unhealthy eating that are quite common today were virtually unheard of two generations ago. In this part of the world, it is an observed fact that, on the whole, our grandparents led muchhealthier lives than we do. Many of us blame these “modern” diseases on environmental pollution, ignoring the poison that's food adulteration.
In legal jargon, an adulterated food product is one which fails to meet food safety standards,as they be defined by a federal or regional government. In common parlance, adulteration is the addition of another substance to a raw or processed food item, usually to increase itsquantity, which may result in the loss of quality.
Particularly in developing countries, consumers are often exposed to wilful adulteration of food. Adulteration of milk and milk products, honey, spices, edible oils, and the use of colour to mask product quality are quite common.
Although risks associated with adulteration are generally low, it sparks public outrage, seen as it is as betrayal of public trust in the integrity of food supply. Since middle class families in developing countries spent 60-70% income on food, adulteration is not only a health hazard, it causes financial loss as well.
The adulterant may be a food as well as a non-food item. In the case of meat and meat products, for example, adulterants used include water or ice, carcass of another animal.
In Kashmir, the recent news about milk being adulterated has made us consider the possibility that food adulteration could be a reason for our failing health. It isn't a stretch to say that much of the foodstuff available in the market today is adulterated. Here, milk is commonly diluted with water; this not only reduces its nutritional value, but can also causes erious illnesses if the water used is contaminated. The more hazardous adulterants of milk include starch, caustic soda, sugar, urea, hydrated lime, sodium carbonate, formalin and ammonium sulfate.
Last year, it was revealed that Maggi noodles were contaminated with lead far more than ispermitted by the Food Safety and Drug Administration. In samples collected from Uttar Pradesh, the lead concentration was 17.2 parts per million, nearly seven times the permissible limit.
Here is a ready reckoner on other common food adulterations.

Turmeric, pulses: 
The adulterants are Metanil Yellow and Kesari dal, which are added to enhance the yellow colour. Metanil Yellow is a carcinogen and if consumed over a long period of time can also cause stomach disorders.
Green chilli, peas, 
 Malachite Green is used to accentuate the greenness of the vegetable, while argemone seeds are mixed to add bulk and weight. But it is the dye that is more harmful, known to cause cancer if taken over a long time.

Mustard seeds and oil: 
Argemone and papaya seeds are added for bulk and weight; theycan cause epidemic dropsy and severe glaucoma. Children and old people with poor immunity are especially susceptible.

Paneer, khoya, milk: 
Apart from water, the commonly used adulterant is starch, added to give the foodstuff a thick, rich texture. Unprocessed water and starch can cause stomach disorders. Also, starch greatly reduces the nutritional value of the adulterated food item.

Ice cream: 
The adulterant include pepper oil, ethyl acetate, butraldehyde, washing powder – all poison. Pepper oil is used as a pesticide, while ethyl acetate damages lungs, kidneys and the heart.

Black pepper:
Papaya seeds are used to add bulk which can cause serious liver and stomach disorders.

Coffee powder: 
The common adulterant is Tamarind seeds, chicory powder, which cancause diarrhea, stomach disorders, giddiness and severe joint pain. Cereal starch is also used.
Now it's all well to know about food adulteration. But how do you figure out if the foodstuff you are buying from the market is adulterated or not? Here's a basic guide.

Arhar dal: 
The common adulterant used is Kesari dal. It has a characteristic wedge shape,while bigger Kesari resembles Arhar or Tur. It can be separated by visual examination.

Coffee powder: 
Take about a fourth of a teaspoon of the coffee sample in a test tube and add 3 ml distilled water. Heat the mixture on a spirit lamp until it colourises. Add 33 ml of a solution of potassium permanganate and muratic acid mixed in equal parts to decolourise.Then a drop of 1% aqueous solution of iodine. If the mixture turns blue, the coffee isadulterated with starch.

Black Pepper: 
Papaya seeds, which are used to adulterate black pepper, do not have a smell and are relatively smaller in size. They can be separated by visual examination.

Coriander powder: 
If this spice is adulterated, it is likely been done with sawdust. Take half a teaspoon of the powder, and sprinkle it on water in a bowl. Coriander is sedimented at the bottom while sawdust floats.

To check for Malachite Green on bitter gourd, green chilli and other vegetables, take a small sample and place it on moistened white blotting paper. The colour impression on the paper indicates the use of Malachite Green or any other inexpensiveartificial colours.

Adulterants such as sand, grit, husk, rice bran, talc, etc. can be detected visually and removed by way of sorting, picking and washing.
Many of us believe that we only eat safe and healthy food. We better wake up. The corporatisation of the food industry, especially the way foodstuff is produced and marketed today, has lengthened the food chain, and, thereby, the potential for introducing or exacerbating adulteration.
Although India has enacted several laws against food adulteration, most notably thePrevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954, they are far from properly enforced. Not least due to a lack of trained manpower, and endemic corruption. As a consequence, public health is at the mercy of the profiteers and adulterers poisoning our food.
The need of the hour is for the government to strictly enforce the laws without making excuses. It must insist that all foodstuff be sold only in standard packaging. Also, awareness programmes should be conducted for consumers. On the non-governmental level, civil society groups and NGOs should help identify people and businesses selling adulterated foodstuff, and expose them.  

(Dr Sheikh Mohammad Saleem is Postgraduate Scholar at the Department of Community Medicine, Government Medical College, Srinagar)