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 country's economy.
AdvertisementThis 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 safety standards. 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 potatoes.
Foods sold directly to consumers can include both packaged and processed foods and fresh 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 water, 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.