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Food adulteration major cause for concern; QA system can minimise risk
Monday, 14 January, 2013, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Neeraj Balani
Are you getting attracted to the delectable and luscious colour of the sweets displayed at the sweet shop or the taste of that spicy deep yellow coloured pakoda? And have you ever wondered why whenever you make it at home, you never get that same yellow colour?

Food is the basic necessity of life. One works hard and earns to satisfy hunger and relax (enjoy) later. But at the end of the day, many of us are not sure of what we eat. We may be eating a dangerous dye, sawdust, soapstone, industrial starch, and aluminium foil and an endless list to add on! Adulterated foods and drinks are common sources of infection. Often, we invite diseases rather than good health.

the addition of substances which are injurious to health or by the removal of substances which are nutritious. It is defined as the act of intentionally debasing the quality of food offered for sale either by the admixture or substitution of inferior substances or by the removal of some valuable ingredient.

Adulterated food
Adulteration is a major issue in the world and is of concern among consumers. Food is said to be adulterated if it meets any of following:

Contains any “poisonous or deleterious substance” that may render it injurious to health
Contains any added poisonous or deleterious substance that is unsafe
Is contained by packaging that is composed, in whole or in part, of any poisonous or deleterious substance that may render the contents injurious to health
Bears or contains a pesticide chemical residue that is unsafe
Bears or contains an unsafe food additive
Food is adulterated if its quality is lowered or affected by Bears or contains an unsafe new animal drug
Bears or contains an unsafe colour additive
Consists, in whole or in part, of “any filthy, putrid or decomposed substance” or is otherwise unfit for food
Has been prepared, packed or held under unsanitary conditions (insect, rodent or bird infestation) whereby it may have become contaminated with filth or rendered injurious to health
Has been irradiated and the irradiation processing was not done in conformity with a regulation permitting irradiation of the food in question
Contains a dietary ingredient that presents a significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury under the conditions of use recommended in labelling
Has had a valuable constituent removed, in whole or in part, or replaced with another substance
Has been damaged or its inferiority has been concealed in any manner
Contains a substance to increase the product's bulk or weight, reduce its quality or strength or make it appear of greater value than it is (i.e., “economic adulteration”)
Adulterated food is dangerous because it may be toxic and can affect health and it could deprive nutrients essential for proper growth and development. Very often food is adulterated by merchants and traders who are unscrupulous and want to make a quick profit. But shortages and increasing prices, consumer demands for variety in foods, a lack of awareness, negligence, indifference and lethargy among consumers and inadequate enforcement of food laws and food safety measures also lead to food adulteration. Some of the common adulterated daily foods are milk and milk products, atta, edible oils, cereals, condiments (whole and ground), pulses, coffee, tea, confectionery, baking powder, vinegar, besan and curry powder.

Minimising risks
Significant resources are dedicated to minimising these risks, generally through a variety of industry Quality Assurance (QA) Systems. As global food sourcing and international manufacturing sites have skyrocketed, adulteration management is an increasingly complex proposition, and quality and safety systems are challenged to keep pace.

Contamination and adulteration are distinct threats. While both involve the presence of something that should not be in a food product, contamination is unintentional and generally predictable (manufacturers are aware of potential risks that need to be controlled, though clearly a quality lapse has occurred in a contamination event) whereas economically motivated adulteration, however, involves purposeful and intentional replacement of the expected food substance with a cheaper one, including simply diluting the expected substance with a solvent such as water. An important element is that such replacement or dilution occurs without the knowledge of the seller. Consequently, this creates a singularity in the food safety system, insofar as nobody (aside from the perpetrator) is able to evaluate any consequences for the safety of consumers due to the exposure to the said cheaper adulterant. Furthermore, to ensure repeat business, economically motivated adulteration is often designed to avoid detection by standard QA testing.

India itself has seen the cases of adulteration of milk, ghee (saturated fat), cottage cheese, sweets, olive oil, honey, saffron, orange juice, coffee and apple juice are the most likely food ingredients to be targets for food fraud, adulteration is not a new threat. Notorious examples include episodes where industrial oil has been sold as cooking oil, with devastating results. Such was the case in Morocco in 1959, when olive oil was adulterated with lubricating oil used in jet engines, and in Spain in 1981, when hundreds of people died from toxic oil syndrome that resulted from the sale of denatured rapeseed oil labelled as olive oil. More to add to episodes of adulteration have included melamine in pet food in 2007 in China and milk products in 2008.

In cases of economically motivated adulteration, the incentive is purely profit; there is no intent to harm. When people (or animals) are sickened or die, that reveals evidence of tampering, increasing the likelihood of getting caught and preventing further profits—an undesirable outcome to economic adulterers. Adulteration puts everyone (industry, regulators, consumers—society as a whole) at the mercy of the adulterer’s scientific knowledge (or lack thereof). As only that party knows what has been added, adulteration introduces new and prior unknown risks into the food supply without any oversight by anyone, including industry and regulators. Through adulteration, the identity of the food is altered and food safety collapses into that single element: the adulterer’s knowledge.

Of course, the critical nature of existing quality systems should not be discounted; they are indispensable to ensuring the safety and quality of our food. However, as we cannot test products into safety (production processes have to be designed for safety), we also cannot rely only on quality systems and safety nets built on the assumption of predictable threats and risks. In an increasingly complex and global food supply chain, the collective response of industry, government and others must evolve to incorporate new, undefined threats. An essential supplement to quality and safety systems that anchors them in reality is periodic testing to verify the authenticity of food ingredients—proof that food ingredients are what they say they are. Knowledge of food ingredients’ authenticity—their identity, quality and purity—should be considered fundamental, yet it is often taken for granted. This is where public quality standards can serve both industry and consumers.

Food quality control services
In India, there is a three-tier system for ensuring food quality and safety. It includes Government of India; state/UT governments; and local bodies.
The ministry of health and family welfare is responsible for ensuring safe food to the consumers. Keeping this in view, a legislation called Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954, was enacted. The objective envisaged in this legislation was to ensure pure and wholesome food to the consumers and to prevent fraud or deception. The Act has been amended thrice in 1964, 1976 and in 1986 with the objective of plugging the loopholes and making the punishments more stringent and empowering consumers and voluntary organisations to play an effective role in its implementation.
Besides, framing of rules and standards, the following activities are undertaken by the ministry of health and family welfare.
Keeping close liaison with state/local bodies for uniform implementation of food laws.
Monitoring of activities of the states by collecting periodical reports on working of food laws, getting the reports of food poisoning cases and visiting the states from time to time.
Arranging periodical training programme for senior officer/inspector/analysts.
Creating consumer awareness about the programme by holding exhibitions/seminars/training programme and publishing pamphlet.
Approving labels of infant milk substitute and infant food, so as to safeguard the health of infants.
Coordinating with international bodies like ISO/FAO/WHO and Codex.
Carrying out survey-cum-monitoring activities on food contaminants like colours.
Giving administrative/financial/technical support to four Central food laboratories situated in Kolkata, Ghaziabad, Mysore and Pune and providing technical guidance to the food laboratories set up by the states/local bodies.
Holding activities connected with national monitoring agency vested with powers to decide policy issues on food irradiation.
Formulation of manual on food analysis method.

Enhancing standards
One of the most powerful uses of quality standards is in testing for identity. To keep pace with the threat of adulteration, the development of more specific identity testing for food ingredients is a central focus in USP’s efforts regarding food ingredient standards. Rather than adding tests for each potential adulterant for a food ingredient, a more efficient approach is to better define what something is. Chasing whatever the next food adulterant will always put industry, regulators and others one step behind unscrupulous food adulterers, who are constantly engaged in finding new ways to gain illicit profit. Particular categories of food ingredients may be at greater risk, based on such considerations as consumer demand, economic value and the existence of scientific/analytical testing weaknesses that may be exploited.

Consumer end
Food adulteration occurs in rural as well as urban areas. So the first option is to buy branded and ISI-marked products. Even if these branded items cost a little extra, it is worth paying the extra amount for quality then to pay for doctor fees and medicines. If you have purchased any branded item and doubt its quality, you can at least approach the company concerned. Always remember to preserve your grocery bills so that the company can take necessary steps regarding the complaint

If any person manufactures for sale, store, import, or distribute any article of food which is adulterated or misbranded, he is liable under the PFA Act to be punished with imprisonment and fined. If you find that any food is adulterated, then do not keep silent. Complain to prevention of food adulteration department in your city / town / district and report to the newspapers and make more and more people aware to take joint action.
Economically motivated adulteration poses a host of risks—from business, legal and public health perspectives. The sobering reality is that every safeguard in place in our global multibillion food industry is null and void if one cannot confirm the authenticity of the food ingredients that make up a product. Once an unknown substance enters the food supply chain, everything we do to manage risk goes out of the window, and we can only hope for the best. In an industry that touches us all, with so much to lose, that simply cannot suffice.

Food adulteration is not unique to one country, but is a growing concern worldwide. Food manufacturers and producers must be vigilant in their efforts to curb this growing issue in our global food network. Together, we can work to detect and control adulteration. The effectiveness of the food safety system has to be monitored closely of how these efforts can pay dividends to the future of global food safety.

(The author is director, food & beverage, Radisson Blu Hotel, New Delhi)
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