Union Budget 2019-2020: Government giving more importance to food fortification

Budgetary allocation for fortified rice scheme in the present budget increased by 18,000 crore

By Sonal Dhingra
Published: Friday 05 July 2019
Photo: Getty Images

This story has been corrected to reflect respective allocations for a scheme in particular and a ministry as a whole. The story was originally published on July 5, 2019.

The Union Budget 2019-2020 saw progress on the issue of food fortification. Under the Centrally Sponsored Scheme on Fortification of Rice and its Distribution under Public Distribution System 2019-2020, a total Rs 42.65 crore has been budgeted, Parliament was informed. This will be part of Rs 192,240.39 crore allocated to the department of food and public distribution, an increase from the Rs 174,159.10 crore budgeted in 2018-19. 

Fortification is a strategy of adding certain micronutrients, ie vitamins and minerals in a food. Many countries have used this strategy in the past to address nutrition deficiencies. India’s National Nutritional strategy, 2017, has listed food fortification as one of the interventions to address anaemia, vitamin A and iodine deficiencies apart from supplementation and dietary diversification.

Malnutrition is a prominent issue in India — 38 per cent of children under five years are stunted ie too short for their age, 36 per cent are underweight and 21 per cent are wasted ie too thin for their height, which is a sign of acute under-nutrition. Fifty-nine per cent women and 53 per cent children are anaemic.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) made standards for fortification in the Food Safety and Standards (Fortification of Foods) Regulations, 2018, for five staples — wheat, rice, milk, oil and salt.

The Union Ministries of Women and Child Development, Human Resource Development and Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution have mandated the distribution of fortified wheat flour, rice, oil and double fortified salt in their schemes — Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and Mid-Day Meal (MDM) and Public Distribution System (PDS) respectively.

It is targeted at 11.8 crore children through MDM, 10.3 crore children, adolescent and women through ICDS, and 81.34 crore through PDS. The use of fortified wheat, rice, oil, and salt is planned to be made mandatory in ICDS and MDM by December 2019 while the same is planned to be made mandatory in the PDS by January 2020.

In this context, the Union Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Ram Vilas Paswan recently announced distribution of fortified rice under PDS on a pilot basis in one district each in 15 states — Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala, to name a few.

The standards are given for wheat and rice fortification with iron, folic acid, and vitamin B12, the deficiency of which cause anaemia. Folic acid intakes also prevent neural tube disorders. Besides, other B vitamins are added — niacin to prevent pellagra, thiamine to prevent beriberi, pyridoxine to prevent nerve disorders and riboflavin for healthy metabolism.

Apart from that, standards are provided for oil and milk fortification with vitamin A and vitamin D, the deficiency of which cause night blindness and rickets respectively; and salt fortification with iron along with iodine to prevent goitre.

The food companies who wish to add micronutrients to these staples sold in the packages will also have to follow the standards set by FSSAI. And if the product is fortified according to the standards, the package will carry an F+ label.

In India, salt fortification with iodine is an example that is often quoted to advocate for fortification. It is important to deliberate upon comparability of salt as a vehicle with other staples. Similarly, the micronutrients added and the deficiencies addressed by each also need to be compared.

There are a few essential aspects that should be considered while planning for a large-scale fortification:

Is there evidence that these micronutrients are deficient across the population and their addition at the suggested level would functionally help those in need without risking unnecessary exposure to those who do not need? For example, vitamin A deficiency is localised and not as common as anaemia. Also, it is argued by many that low levels of addition of micronutrients through food do not address the deficiency and therefore, supplementation is a better approach. 

Another significant dimension is the negative effect on dietary diversification, agricultural practices and biodiversity. For example, there are chances of diets becoming wheat and rice-centric and benefits of millets remaining untapped. 

It is also important to assess the impact of such a move would have on small players such as millers of rice and wheat in the food supply chain and on local procurement of food. Considering the technical and financial barriers, small players may get sidelined.   

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