This year, as part of
the celebrations of World Health Day 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO)
has decided to highlight the importance of food safety. Food safety has become
a growing concern in recent decades. This is not just because of any increased
risk of contamination, which could include biological or toxic contamination,
but because of the increased risk this poses to us because of globalisation and
the huge global food supply chain.
The global food
industry is a behemoth of sorts, and most of the regulations in place to keep a
check on food safety are today antiquated and inadequate. The risk posed from
unsafe food now extends beyond public health and it also poses a grave economic
threat as a single food-borne outbreak can wreak havoc on the supplier
This theme is
especially relevant to India because of her position as a global food supplier
and her hugely agrarian economy. Although the reliance of India's Gross
Domestic Product (GDP) on agriculture has been steadily declining over the past
few decades, food production is still the broadest economic sector.
The human cost from
neglect of food safety
could be more severe to India,
considering that a fifth of the world's population is Indian. India isn't just
a pivotal player in global food supply, it also leads in consumption.
Food safety concerns
and its consequences affect every Indian on some level. While it concerns food
producers, processing units and exporters because of the revenue it generates,
it also concerns Indian consumers because we deserve the same high quality
produce that has come to be expected in developed countries. No population
should be subjected to the ill effects and fatalities of food borne illnesses
simply due to lack of awareness
or lack of any effort to tackle the problem.
Indian Food Safety Concerns
While the food industry is responsible for
maintaining food safety, no corporation with profit interests can be trusted to
work in the public interest. It is the responsibility of government agencies to
formulate and enforce stringent laws and regulations to maintain food
. In the
United States, President Obama introduced the Food Safety Modernization Act
(FSMA) earlier this year, empowering the Food and Drug Administration to deal
with, and, prevent food safety problems, rather than respond to them.
In India, laws to
protect domestic consumers are weak and local enforcement is even weaker.
Mandatory testing of exportable food produce only began recently after protests
from several European nations, Saudi Arabia and Russia about food
contamination. Last year, Saudi Arabia banned the import of Indian green
chillies because of levels of pesticides that were considered unacceptable.
Similarly, Russia demanded phytosanitary certification with stringent lab
testing because of brown rot or Ralstonia solanacearum contamination in
Foods sold directly to consumers can include both
packaged and processed foods
produce. According to many experts, including Savvy Soumya Misra from the New
Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment (CSE), contamination and
adulteration of food is so widespread that there is little that a poorly
staffed regulatory body like the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India
(FSSAI) can do to curtail the problem.
In addition, India's
huge population has a marked socioeconomic divide, with most of the population
struggling to make ends meet and therefore willing to compromise on quality
over quantity. The FSSAI has been introducing some stringent laws to curb such
malpractices and improve food safety but to limited effect. There are also
discrepancies in laws and irregular enforcement problems. An example would
include the banning of calcium carbide, which is often used to artificially
ripen fruits. The substance is suspected of being a carcinogen and although
banned it is still widely used.
Even if regulatory authorities could
ensure the production of safe food, it would still be vulnerable to
contamination on its way to the market! Food transportation involves every
conceivable mode of conveyance from aircraft, shops, barges, railways, trucks
and even animal drawn carts. Foods also need to be shipped and stored under
different conditions, some in specific packaging, in boxes, bundles, wrapped on
pallets or in barrels and dry-sea box containers and often with specific
temperature requirements. With the huge range of food stuffs and food products
and the varied requirements the risk of contamination becomes painfully
obvious. Unfortunately, it is much harder to trace a case of contamination back
to a specific incident, but there have been instances where this has been made
clear. For example, a salmonellosis outbreak in 1994 was blamed on
cross-contamination as the tanker used to transport pasteurized icecream had
previously transported non-pasteurized liquid eggs.
While the ingredients used to prepare food may be of
a higher quality, often contamination results in the end stages while
preparing and serving meals. This is especially problematic in areas with poor
hygiene, poor sanitation and overcrowding.
Street food is
particularly hazardous as there is no enforcement of even basic sanitary and
hygiene practices. This is, in fact, the most common cause of food-borne
infections in India, along with poor quality drinking water. The use of contaminated drinking
, while cooking and the improper or inadequate cooking of
contaminated foods, often results in the spread enteric infections.
The Food Safety and
Standards Act, which was introduced some years ago seeks to improve the quality
of food at restaurants, but it only covers eateries that generate over a
specific turnover. This is because of the vastness of the problem and the scale
of the hotel industry in India. The act is a step in the right direction as it
lays down heavy fines and penalties, including jail sentences for adulteration
and lack of hygiene. The effectiveness of its enforcement and whether it can
cover smaller establishments remains to be seen.
Food Safety Tips for Consumers
Hygiene should be non-negotiable when handling food, whether for consumption or
preparation. Always wash your hands thoroughly before handling any food or
cooking and serving utensils or cutlery. Make sure that there is no infestation
or presence of insects and other pests in the area where food is handled,
stored and consumed.
Beware of Cross Contamination
Always separate raw and cooked
foods and make it a point to store them separately in different containers as
well. This is especially important when dealing with raw meat, poultry and
seafood, but it's also advisable when dealing with other produce. The same
attention should be paid to kitchen surfaces and utensils being used, as the
surface may be contaminated by a raw food and the contaminant could be passed
on to a cooked meal through contact.
While a steak may taste great rare,
make sure that you cook your foods thoroughly, especially when dealing with
meat and seafood. Ideally, you should use a cooking thermometer to ensure that
the temperature is above 70 degrees Celsius.
Food Storage Temperature
Always make it a point to store foods
at the recommended temperature. For example, milk and most dairy products
should be kept refrigerated. Cooked food should be made piping hot before
serving and shouldn't be left out at room temperature for more than two hours.
All perishable and cooked food needs to be refrigerated if being kept, but refrigeration
doesn't mean that a food can be kept indefinitely.
Be Cautious with Water and Raw Ingredients
Always be cautious about the foods that you
buy, whether vegetables or meats and dairy products. Likewise, be careful with
the water you drink and use to cooking, as water is the most common cause of
most food-borne illnesses and contamination in India. Pay heed to the expiry
date information that is provided on the packaging of foods