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Minimise food safety risks

india Updated: Sep 04, 2006 03:06 IST

The latest round of Cola bashing is a classical case of missing the woods for the trees. When Kerala’s cabinet banned manufacture and sale of Coke and Pepsi, it virtually singled out the high profile MNC products from a long list of contaminated soft drinks. It stayed clear, all through the diatribe, of the fundamental issue of unsafe food and water.

Survey after survey has shown that the levels of pesticides and other contaminants are ridiculously high in milk, tea, fruit juices and vegetables. This means a cup of tea or coffee, a glass of milk, juice or even plain water could be more harmful than the soft drinks banned in many states. That is why, perhaps, Sunita Narain of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) clarifies that her relentless war is not against MNCs but for enactment of credible and enforceable norms of food safety standards.

The graphic shows how our innocuous dal-roti can make us insane or crippled for life. For the record, some residues are thousands of times higher than the safe limits. Almost all food items contain dangerous pollutants, toxins and bacteria. It is depressing that from salads to sweets and from chocolates to betel nut, nothing is safe anymore. The business of food in India is also subsistence, nourishment and health for millions. Along the value chain are lakhs of small and marginal farmers, distributors, traders and retailers.

With processing and value addition becoming vital, every input from water to manure and from pesticides to preservatives (even packaging) has a role to play in food safety.

Several studies by reputed advocacy groups such as CSE and Toxic Link and global organisations like the FAO and WHO have shown that contamination takes place at various stages of the food chain. It is nearly impossible, therefore, to regulate the end product through inspector raj. (See story bottom left) We need fundamental modifications in our approach to food safety. To begin with, we must enforce the new Food Safety and Standards Bill rigorously and notify the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) norms for fizzy drinks.

A preventive approach needs to incorporate agricultural, industrial, environmental and consumer benchmarks into a single food safety policy. Many developed countries are beginning to involve various stakeholders from producers to consumers in the process of regulation and enforcement. It is important to have one empowered body rather than several agencies because our experience shows that everybody’s responsibility is nobody’s responsibility.

It is dangerous and downright stupid to presume that compromise on quality is the price humankind must pay for food security. It’s a common myth that edible commodities can’t be produced profitably without the hidden cost of diseases, deformities and environmental degradation. All we need is awareness, intervention and political will.