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Beyond Food Safety Day

On Tuesday, April 7, as the WHO seeks global attention on food safety for World Health Day, it may be a good time for Indian policy makers to consider ways to ensure one is able to preserve the identity of the products.

E. Kumar Sharma        Last Updated: April 6, 2015  | 20:52 IST

Associate editor E Kumar Sharma
As we head into summer and try to beat the singeing heat and dehydrated skin with a generous helping of luscious mangoes and cool watermelons, let us not throw caution out of the window on food safety. Indulge by all means, but do ensure you know what you eat. After all, let us not forget, calcium carbide, a chemical used to artificially ripen mangoes, is banned in India, but is still freely available and costs less than Rs 100 per kg. It takes just three kg to ripen a tonne of fruit.

Also, it is no rocket science on how to deploy it to produce acetylene gas which quickens the ripening process, acting much like the natural hormone ethylene. Similarly, it is no joy to discover that the watermelon on your dining table is red and sweet because it was injected with synthetic food dye Erythrosin-B. Thanks to technology, it is now possible to quickly ripen fruits in a safer manner using ethylene gas chambers (though companies and some of the fruit pulp manufacturers could get more transparent about spelling it out on their product labels).

Yet, despite the technology upgrade and bans, cheap chemicals continue to be used for ripening and treating fruits and vegetables. On Tuesday, April 7, as the World Health Organisation seeks global attention on food safety for World Health Day, it may be a good time for Indian policy makers to consider ways to ensure one is able to preserve the identity of the products - fruits and vegetables - throughout the supply chain, from the farmer to the end consumer. One important move in this direction is reforming the Agricultural Produce and Marketing Committee (APMC) Rules and bringing in uniformity in provisions across states.

According to the original provisions, farmers have to sell their produce through auctions in mandis or the market yard. A wholesaler or a retailer cannot buy farm output directly from farmers. Some states, including Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Karnataka, Chandigarh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Punjab, and Mizoram, have taken steps to reform agriculture marketing. However, talk to agri producers, and not everyone is satisfied.

Though the Act was amended, there are variations in adoption across states and in some cases rules have been inserted that make the exercise nearly dysfunctional. Plus, like in any regulatory sphere, there is lack of adequate manpower to monitor and inspect, if not having to cope with corruption. Sorting this out will help provide the manpower and resources to check and impose exemplary punishment to those who indulge in unhealthy practices in the food supply chain. This alone, feel some agri producers, is the best solution.

Till then, what are the options for consumers like you and me. Here is what a farm producer suggests: One, a golden rule: there are unscrupulous players in both organised and unorganised sector. With clarity on this, avoid buying fruits before the season; try and attach yourself to a retailer you tend to trust and have a long-term relationship. If you are new to a town, follow simple tests like cut open a ripe mango and check if it is white or green (relatively raw) inside; beware of uniform surface coloured fruits and, the easiest option,  peel off the fruits before consumption.

Fruits to watch out closely: mango, banana, papaya, watermelon and tomatoes. Incidentally, as we all know, exposure to chemicals is only one side of the story on food safety. There are huge risks from dangerous bacteria that could come with contaminated spinach, cabbage and lettuce. Even dairy and frozen foods that are not stored at under five degrees refrigeration requirement.

As most would know temperatures above five degress is an open invitation to bacteria. In its tips for holiday celebrations, ahead of Easter, the US Food and Drug Administration has been cautioning consumers that "even eggs with clean, uncracked shells may occasionally contain bacteria called Salmonella that can cause an intestinal infection". Or the dangers of listeriosis, an illness caused by eating food contaminated with the bacteria called Listeria monocytogenes. We are yet to discuss these more openly and in detail, and are still far from effectively monitoring and checking it. Going beyond the food safety day may be a good starting point.

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