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Understanding food safety

Do we need to fear our food? After reading about hormonal additives in milk, antibiotics in meats, irradiated food and other similar reports on food contamination - unfortunately the answer to that question is yes.

india Updated: Jul 06, 2012 17:38 IST

Do we need to fear our food? After reading about hormonal additives in milk, antibiotics in meats, irradiated food and other similar reports on food contamination - unfortunately the answer to that question is yes. Recent studies tell us that even going back to basics - fresh fruits and vegetables, is not without some risks. In this article we discuss the contamination of fruits and vegetables due to the use of chemicals as pesticides, ripening and storage agents.

Though there are still many unknowns about how the wide variety of chemicals we encounter in our daily lives may affect our health, research has shown that children and expectant mothers remain the most vulnerable to their impact. Due to the greater intake of food relative to bodyweight in children, bioaccumulation effects can prove to be especially harmful. Neurotoxins and other chemicals that originate from pesticides pose the biggest threat to the developing human brain and nervous system. This makes it critical for parents to be aware of the dangers of toxins in food and understandhow to maintain food safety.

"The use of pesticides does not begin and end at the farm," explains Rajiv Betne, SeniorProgramme Coordinator, Toxics Link, an environmental organization working on issues of chemical safety and waste."Chemicals are applied to grains, fruits and vegetables at every step in the process that brings them from the farmer's fields to our tables, most commonly for maintaining them during transportation and storage and for ripening."

Food safety in India is regulated by the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. The Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of India is the administrative ministry for the implementation of this Actthroughthe Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).

Though maximum residual levels of pesticides have been stipulated under Act, the haphazard use of chemicals and the large scale of the agriculture sector have made it difficult to monitor and regulate the permitted levels. "More recently, studies are being conducted to find out the combined effects of various chemicals in our food. Even if each one is within its tolerance limit, do we know whatthe effect of the cocktail of those chemicals is in our bodies?" questions Rajeev.

Is eating organic produce the answer? It would be - in an ideal world, where everyone is exactly what they claim to be. Instead of treating it as the latest fad, we would do well to understand what exactly organic farming means and why it could be a healthy alternative to commercial agricultural produce. Organic farmingrelies on natural farming methods and ecological processes, without genetically modified seeds, or chemicals used as fertilisers, pesticides, additives or preservatives.

Ashmeet Kapoor, Founder and CEO, I Say Organic explains, "Organic farming practices focus on seasonal and local produce. The farms are all close by and not too much time is spent in transit that would require chemicals to maintain the yield."
With organic farms mushrooming in all corners of the country, questions can be raised about their credibility. "There is a strict monitoring process of organic farms by agencies such as Control Union and Vedic Organic Certification. In fact processes such as testing of soil, produce and other parameters arecarried out by the certifying agencies for at least 3 years before validating the farm," says Ashmeet.

Organic or not, you can follow some simple tips to reduce your and your family's exposure to chemicals in fresh produce.

1. Choose your vendor carefully. A large store may have a supply chain that relies on long term storage to extend shelf life as opposed to a small vendor who can only afford to buy local produce.
2. Buy seasonal and local. If you are buying mangoes in December, you can be sure that they have been in storage and have been maintained using chemicals. Buying from local farmers' markets gets you the freshest produce possible. It also makes your food "greener" by reducing the wasted fuel, pollution, and greenhouse gases created by long-distance transit.
3. If it is too good to look at, it is probably not true. Hormonal additives such as oxytocin are sometimes injected to give fruits and vegetables a larger and brighter appearance. "Sometimes people get put off organic produce because it is not very bright and shiny, irregularly shaped and some vegetables could even be spotty. But they need to understand that these irregularities only indicate that it is entirely natural", explains Ashmeet.
4. Wash all fresh produce properly and peel all that can be peeled. You may not be able to get rid of all chemicals but it is still the best safeguard.
5. Some fruits and vegetables tend to retain a higher level of pesticide residue, such as peaches, apples, bell peppers, strawberries, pears spinach, lettuce and potatoes. You can reduce your exposure to pesticides by buying organic for the high-pesticide items. Others such as pineapple, mango, asparagus, bananas, cabbage, broccoli and papaya showed comparably lower pesticide residue.

"Whatever safeguards we follow while buying fruits and vegetables, the fact is that the change must take place at the source - the farms," emphasises Rajiv Betne. "Demand safe food - there has to be increased pressure on regulatory authorities to ensure strict monitoring and safety standards at par with international guidelines."

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