For a large number of consumers in at least seven states — Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh — Navaratra celebrations tuned sour, thanks to the administration's failure to ensure the safety of buckwheat (Kuttu) flour sold at retail outlets during this period.
Those in charge of ensuring food safety knew too well that buckwheat is consumed by a large population. Before the Navaratra, they should have undertaken a scientific sample survey to ensure that what is sold in the market is fit for consumption. The absence of any action raises serious doubts about the competence and integrity of those in charge.
The widespread sale of adulterated buckwheat flour also points to total lack of food safety management. Till now, we do not have a comprehensive system of traceability for food products — from the farm to the consumer's table, thereby making identifying adulterant or the contaminant in the food easy and quick.
Today, if only we had such traceability system in place, we would not be groping around in the dark to find out what had turned the buckwheat flour unfit for consumption and at what stage. Was it a case of deliberate adulteration? Or was it a case of pesticide poisoning? Or aflatoxin (toxin produced by mold or fungi) contamination? Buckwheat, being high in fat, is also susceptible to rancidity and its quality goes down with storage. So was it a case of old stock stored in poor conditions?
It seems like we have not learnt any lessons from the terrible dropsy tragedy that affected thousands of consumers and killed at least 40 people in Delhi in August 1998, due to large scale adulteration of mustard oil with argemone. Twelve years hence, the administration is still not geared up to stop the sale of unsafe food or deal with a food crisis of this nature. To the best of my knowledge, we do not even have a standard for Kuttu flour under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act.
Coming to the culprits, they not only have to be prosecuted but also made to cough up substantial amounts as compensation. If only the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006 and the rules framed under it had been in force, then the consumers would have been entitled to quick compensation, varying from R5 lakh to R1 lakh.
The least that the health ministry can do is to file a class action complaint for compensation before the consumer court on behalf of the victims.
SL Sharma: My family and I have suffered on account of substandard Kuttu atta. Are we entitled to any compensation?
Answer: You can file a complaint under the Consumer Protection Act and get compensation. But please keep the proof of purchase (receipt) safe and also any atta remaining with you. I would suggest that all the victims come together and file a class action suit or pressure the government to fight the case.