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A taste of things to come

Enforcement of standards and informed consumer choice work better than bans. Pratik Kanjilal writes.

columns Updated: Apr 06, 2012 21:52 IST
Pratik Kanjilal
Pratik Kanjilal

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has warned - yet again - that you are what you eat. In that case, what am I? About 70% water, I learned in school. Of the rest, I am perhaps 10% staple grains, 17% other homely foods and 0% hamburgers and cola. By CSE's reckoning, I should be as safe as a fire extinguisher.

But I could actually be drop-dead unhealthy since the last 3% of me consists of samosas, chaat, pav bhaji, dosas and parathas. The etymology of paratha is believed to be parat (layer) + atta (dough). Between the parats nestles ghee or hydrogenated fats, the Great Satan of the health-conscious.

The CSE study seems to be limited to junk food packaged by multinational chains. The only Indian brand visible is also a chain, Haldiram's. But the bulk of finger-lickin' good unhealthy food is produced by the informal sector, on the street. It is not advertised or promoted, and still sells out. Like movements against corruption and nuclear power, this sector is difficult to engage with precisely because it is informal. There is no corporate face to heckle, no visible head to cut off. But not to try at all is a cop-out, neglecting the majority who do not patronise food chains.

That's one problem with the debate. The other is that it lost the plot on day one. The CSE report was a sophisticated guided missile locked onto a specific target. It claimed that food corporations are mislabelling or misrepresenting products in a manner which threatens public health. A serious matter in a country which may be heading for a public health crisis, led by an escalation in diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The priorities should have been peer review and confirmatory replication of the study, followed by punitive action against corporations guilty of concealment or misrepresentation. Instead, the matter was referred to the uproar of TV debate, where the missile's guidance chip overheated and it veered off on irrelevant tangents, including the need to ban fast food from schools.

Uttar Pradesh has gone and done that already but bans are a bad idea in principle, whether we're talking books, alcohol or potato chips - which go very well together, incidentally. Enforcement of standards and informed consumer choice serve the purpose better. Instead, there was a lot of sound and fury, after which some corporations named in the CSE report smugly reported that their sales were unaffected.

Does this mean that apart from a vocal minority of bleeding-ulcer progressives, Indians don't care about what they consume? That's difficult to believe, since a 2003 CSE report on pesticides in soft drinks had sparked off public demonstrations. But there's a difference between the two cases. Consumers were shocked to learn that soft drinks were contaminated. But when they order a burger meal, they know what they're asking for.

CSE's report suggests that they don't know the whole truth. But the patron of a paratha stand may know even less. So we need full disclosure for packaged food and better public education about unbranded food. Thus armed, if consumers still choose to assassinate themselves with burgers and bhaturas, they will soon have the right to do so. The government plans to decriminalise premeditated suicide.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Apr 06, 2012 21:47 IST