Director General of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and the Editor of Down To Earth magazine. She is an environmentalist who pushes for changes in policies, practices and mindsets

How do you like your food, sir?

Pesticides and ToxinsMy local vegetable vendor sells ordinary lemons packed in plastic bags. It got me thinking if this is a sign of improving standards of food safety and hygiene. After all if we go to any supermarket in the rich and food-processed world, we will find food neatly packed so that there is no contamination through human hands. Then there is the army of food inspectors, who check everything from the processing plant to the supplies in restaurants. The principle is clear: the higher the concern for food safety, the higher the standards of quality and consequently, the higher the cost of enforcement. Slowly, but surely, small producers get pushed aside. This is how the business of food works.

But is this the right model of food safety for India? It is clear that we need safe food. It is also clear that we cannot afford to hide behind small producers to say that we should not have stringent standards for quality and safety. We cannot also argue that we are a poor developing country and our imperative is to produce large quantities of food and reach it to the large (and unacceptable) number of malnourished. We cannot say this because even if we are poor and hard-pressed to produce more and reach more food to people, we cannot ignore the fact that we are eating bad food, which is making us ill. This is one of the many double burdens we carry.

The other double burden concerns the nature of “unsafe” food. The most noxious of problems is adulteration—when people deliberately add bad stuff to food for profit. In India, milk mixed with urea or chemical colour added to chilli are just the tip of the adulteration iceberg. We know we need effective enforcement against it. But it is also a fact that these scandals are not confined to India. A few years ago, melamine-contaminated milk killed babies in China. Now horsemeat sold as beef is sending Europe into a tizzy. There are unscrupulous people in this business that concerns our body and well-being.

The second worry is regarding the safety of what is added to food when it is processed. This is not adulteration because in this case additives permitted under food standards are used. The question is whether we know enough about their side effects. Invariably and sadly, science finds out the problems too late. For instance, there has been a huge row over dangers of artificial sweeteners, first saccharine and then aspartame. In the world of industrially manufactured food, the problem also is that each product is backed by vested interests that claim it to be safe till proved otherwise.

Often we know very little about the additives allowed in our food. For instance, we eat vanilla thinking it is the real queen of spice, flavouring ice creams and cakes. Little do we know that most of the vanilla in food is made synthetically, and that this chemical, believe it or not, has been harvested from effluent waste of paper mills or coal tar components used in petrochemical plants. It is cheap and it has been passed for human consumption by the food and drug administration of different countries.

The third challenge comes from the toxins in our food—chemicals used during the growing and processing of food which even in miniscule quantities add up to an unacceptable intake of poisons. Exposure to pesticides through our diet leads to chronic diseases. The best way is to manage the food basket—calculate how much and what we eat—to ensure that pesticide limits are set at safe levels. We have no option but to ingest a little poison to get nutrition, but how do we keep it within acceptable limits? This means setting safe pesticide standards for all kinds of food.

Then there are toxins which should not be present in food at all. For instance, a few years ago, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found antibiotics in the honey sold in Indian markets. It was there because industrial honey farmers fed bees antibiotics as a growth promoter and for disease control. Ingesting antibiotics makes us resistant to drugs. CSE needed, and got, standards for antibiotics in honey produced for the domestic market. There is no denying that small producers of honey, who do not have the capacity to handle the additional burden of paperwork and inspectors, can be hit badly. But this does not mean we should allow the use of antibiotics in our food. Or does this mean we change the business of food so that it is safe, yet protects livelihoods?

There is a fourth food challenge, which may just provide answers to this question. Food has to be not just safe, but also nutritious. Today, the world’s panic button has been pressed on the matter of food that is junk—high on empty calories and bad for health. There is more than enough evidence that bad food is directly linked to the explosion of non-communicable diseases in the world. There is enough to say that enough is enough.

The answer is to think of a different model for the food business. It cannot be the one-size-fits-all design of industrial production. It must be based on societal objectives of nutrition, livelihood and safety first and profit later. If we get this right, we will eat right.

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  • Very timely article, it opens

    Very timely article, it opens a real pandora's box!!!

    Plastic is one of the most unhygienic materials. Microbes love plastic. Plastic pipes, plastic bottles, plastic tanks, plastic lunch boxes (all our little ones, slowly poisoned from their lunch boxes!!!), plastic pouches, plastic baby toys, plastic shoes, and the ubiquitous plastic bag, all favour high bacterial growth.

    The affinity of bacteria for plastic is well-documented, in the food and water industry. Although, most of the research in this subject is not advertised or carefully kept under the carpet. The only concern of the industry is to cut the link between bacteria and their liability, and research is not always conducive to cutting that link.

    Even the plastic additives in cement mortar make it a health hazard when used in water engineering, (cement without additives is otherwise quite OK although not as highly hygienic as lime mortar)

    I use a water filter made of clay pots, not plastic, and my children have steel lunch boxes. I use Kolapuri instead of plastic sandals, to avoid the bad smell of bacteria in my shoes (and occasional fungal feet infections, because sometimes plastic shoes give me the rare privilege to get both fungal and bacterial growth!!!) and my flat is white-washed with lime (without adding any fevicol in it contrary to the contemporary bad practice). Except for the kolapuri, all these choices are cheaper than the plastic option in the long run.

    Plastic as a food package is much worse than re-used newspaper bags.

    Human hands are not un-hygienic, if simply washed several times a day, before food, etc.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The US and Europe are the

    The US and Europe are the opposite of what should be followed.

    The US food industry kills every year more food-eaters than AIDS:

    Some people use the term "genocide" about AIDS. But AIDS is comparatively easier to avoid. Who can protect themselves against industrial food in a city? We all need to eat everyday. There is no individual answer but only collective action that can do something.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear all, I like the food,

    Dear all,

    I like the food, which is prepared from local vegetables purchased from local market by the farmers directly. It's an excellent piece of editorial. But, my spouse denied to respond as the question is asked to Sir.


    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Higher standards of food

    Higher standards of food quality should not mean higher quantity of plastic packing.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • You're so right Sunita. We

    You're so right Sunita. We have to think about the small producers and they have to think about us.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Very well written. At this

    Very well written. At this stage we cannot ignore other issues of food safety like gm crops, frozen foods nutraceuticals food labeling and above all misleading advertisements related to food products. All the stake holders be it a small vendor or a big industrialist need to provide safe food to the people of the country. The officials working in this field have to rise up to the occasion

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • As always, you have come up

    As always, you have come up with candid observations. The problem with today's soceity is restlessness and lack of listening abilities.

    I call this quick-fix age. Give them anything in a packet and they think they have got the best. It is an urgent need for the coutry to highlight the good part of our products and the lessons on consuming healthy.

    I for one, switched over to toothpaste of patanjali yogpeeth and I find it a very healthy and pocket friendly alterative to MNC branded toothpaste:)
    Thanks for being at the forefront of awakening India. Sivaram, Counsellor

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I am a subscriber to DTE and

    I am a subscriber to DTE and enjoy reading the CSE Bulletin as it comes into my mailbox. It has helped bring awareness on several issues. My kids also enjoy "Gobar Times". Thanks.

    In reading the above editorial, I just want to point out that in the fifth paragraph, the argument would be strengthened if it could be shown that the synthetically produced vanilla (irrespective of its source) is actually contaminated or unhealthy. I think it is easy and has "shock value" to state that something we eat is produced from coal tar or paper mill effluents! But does that automatically mean that it is bad? Most of the water we drink comes from terribly polluted sources and is then purified to make it acceptable. I think one must be careful not to automatically equate "synthetic" or things produced from "waste products" with "bad"!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Food safety has to do more

    Food safety has to do more with internal mind control rather than the adulteration. Why should we talk of milk adulteration when there is a growing view which supports the concept that motherÔÇÖs milk is the best milk and one species should refrain from consuming milk of other species? Milk intolerance and incorrect linkage of animal milk with calcium and protein benefits is being strongly debated now days. Meat adulteration again bothers those who feel that is good. In our culture, we have always talked of nonviolence and of refraining from nonvegetarian food.
    If the nutritionist from Andhra pradesh Shri Dr Mantena Satyanarayan Raju is to be believed, then the red chilli is one of the ruchi that needs to be eschewed.
    All food products having even permitted additives and preservatives need to be eschewed. Food is one that is live. Let a businessman who feels he can bring preservation in food to do business not be part of our lives. Even the household pickles and sugary candies prepared by our household wives have to be eschewed since they have resorted to sugar and salt as preservative. LetÔÇÖs understand what raw and live food is.
    Junk food is never on the agenda of a food conscious person.
    Can we not think of a life without honey? Why not allow the bees to survive and allow them to do the pollination for our plants, which in itself is a great gift that they give to mankind? Why should we even talk of the non violent honey which talks of not killing the bee for getting honey. I remember Gandhi's definition of stealing as one where in we take to some things which we can afford to take but actually do not require it. Why should demand for honey be so great in the society? Can we not rely on sweet fruits and dates for the sweetness and the nutritional benefits
    Pesticides are indeed becoming a problem. The solution again lies with our mind. Can we think of buying organic food at a premium so that the farmer also gets some more money and avoids the soil and water pollution? There is another way out. Grapes are becoming a commercial crop and lot of poisonous chemicals is used to produce them. Can we think of giving up grapes and take to some non commercial fruit like say Papanas,Jack fruit or berries or star fruit or something about which we are sure that commercialization has not entered into its business?
    There will be people who would like to still consume the above mentioned food and hence some Government regulations may be there, the effectiveness of which can be debated.
    But as far as people like me are concerned, my Nutrition Gurus have taught me to take food directly from nature with the least man made intervention (including the house wifeÔÇÖs intervention).
    Hence despite all chaos around as rightly pointed out in the article, we can think of accepting the reality and still remaining away from its evil consequences and teach the same to others. Ultimately one day, the collective conscious of all of us will compel things to happen as they should happen. We just need to be aware about this moment of the food reality that has been correctly described in the article and thereby to eschew from the errors by following the suggestions of true nonviolent nutritionists gurus who continue to indoctrinate us what nutrition is.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Hi Sunita- Interesting. And

    Hi Sunita- Interesting.
    And the solution you propose-- "It must be based on societal objectives of nutrition, livelihood and safety first and profit later. If we get this right, we will eat right..."

    The story of the food industry has been told well and for those who are aware of the food industry are in a permanent state of anguish. The food industry led by transnational giants seek only one bottom line - profit. Unlikely therefore that in the short -term, the industry will have adopted righteousness in their profit strategies.
    No one will disagree with your proposal that the food industry should not be allowed to continue with a profit making agenda alone and that the business models will have to factor in societal factors. What i would like to know however is whether as a society we are correctly positioned to change our food industry. Availability of food / the next meal still is a priority for over half the population, even though we grow enough food to feed all. The problem is who controls the food chain- from production to influencing what should be eaten and where.It is time we joined the take a re-look at "control" issues of food,re-examine how we can get on track a new "food sovereignty" movement. Radical changes can only be made if the whole system is given a good shake and at the end of the day the consumers and producers will have to shake up the industrial food industry.


    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks for your Editorial

    Thanks for your Editorial highlighting an important issue. But where is the solution. More Standards and Legislation means more 'Inspector Raj'. It will only burden the producers or the traders as they have to pay to more people on monthly basis or the payment rate will go higher with the additional Rule/Standard.
    I would like to refer to the recent order about Gurgaon, where I live. For all large scale construction only recycled/treated waste water has to be used. A senior person of a large Construction House told (in response to the order) that they would have to pay to one more official due to that order. If they do not pay, their work would be stopped on the ground that they were not using recycled water. After the payment is made they can use any water.
    In case of pesticides, it is a well documented fact that the farmers do not use pesticides on the portion of their farms produce from where are used for their own consumption. At times they even avoid chemical fertilizers. Obviously, they very well know the adverse effects of the chemicals. But greed makes them act in inhuman way.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Sunita, Thanks for another

    Sunita, Thanks for another insightful editorial. The problems you identify apply to many developed countries as well; India is not alone in having to address them if we are to have access to safe and healthy food.

    There is, however, a broader problem about food these days that is explored in a 2012 book by Frederick Kaufman called "Bet the Farm. How Food STOPPED Being Food". He investigates the hidden connections between global food and global finance, how the markets in grain futures is linked to food price spikes and the powers that profit from food while the system they support brings starvation to millions. This takes us beyond food safety issues; the need to change deeply destructive global food systems that benefit the greedy few.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Our small industry neeeds to

    Our small industry neeeds to get organised as much as SME Owners must stop exploiting their protection by becoming an alibi for shoddy work. Iit QA must come from within.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms. Sunita Narain: I am

    Dear Ms. Sunita Narain:

    I am sorry but I am little bit disappointed. Deep subject but shallow coverage. Why?? I look forward to articles which are eye-openers and provide concrete directions to policy makers, industries, and relevant stake holders.

    I am also surprised that you did not touch upon various food safety standards such as
    Safe Quality Food (SQF), British Retail Consortium (BRC), International Food Safety (IFS), Food Safety System Certification 22000 (FSSC), Global GAP (Good Agricultural Practices), and ISO 22000 etc etc.

    "It must be based on societal objectives of nutrition, livelihood and safety first and profit later" - Easier said than done !! Please let your next article on the same topic start from here !!

    In any case, thank you for your article.

    Sincerely yours;

    K D Bhardwaj

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sir, I believe Ms.

    Dear Sir,

    I believe Ms. Sunita Narain is a journalist and not a "universal guru" capable of giving "concrete directions" to each and every stakeholder, on a subject as vast and complex as food!

    I expect from a magazine like Down to Earth that they give the public relevant information, put in perspective, so that people can think about issues themselves and make up their mind.

    I don't expect them to provide "solutions", which only a collective effort can achieve, and in providing relevant information to the general public, Down to Earth is certainly doing their bit, as competent media professionals, in this collective endeavour!

    Regarding the importance of the international standards which you enumerate, I don't think they are the central issue here. Indian standards, and particularly how to enforce them, would be more relevant.

    But anyway the food issue can't be solved only by way of standards alone.

    For example, please see in the link below, how the US food industry kills 30,000 people per year, (more than AIDS!), without disregarding any standard:

    Is that the path we should follow?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • In France, 20% of bottled

    In France, 20% of bottled water contains pesticides and drugs:

    The quantities are "within the standard" therefore the water is legally drinkable, say the drinking water companies.

    No problem. Long live standards!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
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