The lead contamination and presence of monosodium glutamate (MSG) in the popular Nestle product, Maggi, has led to an uproar in the country but the fact is that this revelation is part of a larger story. We should not lose sight of that even as we debate who should be held responsible for this mess.
Should it be Nestle only or also the statutory regulator, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), which is responsible for collecting and collating data regarding contaminants in food, identifying emerging risks and introducing a rapid alert system, among a host of other responsibilities?
The key take-away from this incident is that it is about time we accepted that the Nestle incident is just the tip of the iceberg; in reality, India’s entire food chain is toxic and probably it may even be too late now to reverse the trend.
Take, for example, milk. A survey by the FSSAI in 33 states found that 68.4% of 1,791 samples were contaminated. Among the substances found were milk powder, fat, glucose, water, bleach and fertiliser. In urban India, nearly 70% of samples were found to be contaminated, compared with 31% of samples in rural areas. The rampant use of fertilisers, pesticides and insecticides in the agricultural sector post-Green Revolution has ensured a slow accumulation of toxins within the water, soil, food and, ultimately, humans.
In fact, in Punjab, there are villages which have become cancer hotspots as a direct result of contaminants. Every year, especially before Diwali, several cases of sweet shops selling adulterated products are reported. A lead-based, carcinogenic dye called metanil yellow is used to give sweets like laddu and some other food items like biryani their inviting colour instead of the permitted tartrazine, which is more expensive.
Metanil yellow is cancer-causing and is known to affect the brain and kidney. A recent study by a group of doctors of the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering and Nutrition in Delhi has revealed that street food in Delhi has high levels of faecal matter. The study showed that food items like samosas, golgappas, burgers and momos, collected from west and central Delhi localities, contained extremely high amounts of E Coli bacteria, which can cause severe infections including typhoid and cholera.
The exact burden of all food-borne illnesses in India has still not been estimated. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based advocacy group, the indiscriminate use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic reasons is leading to the problem of drug resistance, making food-borne ailments difficult to treat. The only solution is strict enforcement of the Food Safety and Standards Act and strengthening of the food testing laboratory infrastructure and skills. It must be ensured that not only the regulator but also the consumer and manufacturer are made aware of the rules.