There’s a fly in your soup

Joginder Singh ji
(Former Director – CBI)

Food adulteration, which is 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, is something that has been rampant in our country. This is so despite the existence of stringent laws against the malpractice.

The problem of food adulteration has been prevalent since ancient times. The Code of Hammurabi from ancient Babylonia regulated the practices of drinking houses, and called for the death penalty for those found guilty of watering down their beer.

In 15th century Germany any merchant caught selling adulterated saffron in Bavaria was burnt alive.
In 1456 at Nuremberg, two men guilty of adulterating wine were buried alive. Literature from the 16th century mentions brick dust in ginger, unhealthy adulterants in pepper, dishonest weights and counts, artificial colouring, and storage of dried spices in damp cellars to increase weight.

The Food Adulteration Act, 1954, in our country is enforceable by the States. Normally, it is the various health departments that are charged with its implementation. In spite of this, there is hardly a food category, whether it is milk or dairy products, flour or spices, which is safe from adulteration.

The root of the problem lies in the inordinate delays in the disposal of adulteration cases. In a case of adulteration in Ludhiana, it took six years for the accused to be convicted under the Food Adulteration Act. What makes it worse is that he can still appeal the verdict right up to the Supreme Court.

In October 2008, police in Ghaziabad seized 2,500 kg of adulterated khoya — a milk product used in making sweets — from a tractor-trolley. It was transporting the adulterated product from Muradnagar in Uttar Pradesh to Delhi. A week earlier 50 tonnes of adulterated khoya was seized by the police in the same area.

In Ahmedabad in April last year, a child died and 10 others were diagnosed with serious ailments after consuming a particular brand of cold drink. The only action taken was the sealing of the factory producing the drink and sending a sample to a laboratory for analysis.

In June 2009, police in Agra raided a spurious ghee manufacturing unit. They found ghee being manufactured from animal fat. But nobody was caught. The police claim that this was because information about the raid must have leaked out.

In July, 2009, police in Haryana seized around 1,400 kg of different adulterated milk products like cheese, ghee and cream. The foodstuff was adulterated with chemicals. A variety of chemicals such as whitener, caustic soda, hydrogen peroxide were also scooped up in the raid.

Residues of extremely harmful pesticides have also been found in a popular cola drink as well as in popular brands of bottled water sold in Delhi and Mumbai. These reports were based on an independent study conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment, an NGO.

Five traders in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, were booked under the National Security Act for adulteration of ghee in August 2009. It is probably the first such use of the stringent legislation in the State. The ghee adulteration racket is a thriving business, estimated to gross more than Rs 100 crore in Gwalior and its surrounding areas.

Counterfeiting is another allied problem that affects all sorts of food products and medicines in the country. Apart from harming the reputation and the sale value of the legitimate brands, fake products often pose serious health risks to the consumers. The result is that instances of food poisoning are on the rise across the country. The state exchequer also suffers huge losses due to these counterfeiters.

The State Governments and other agencies only wake up to the problem when fatalities are reported. The implementation of food adulteration laws is sporadic at best. If it were done on a regular basis and honestly, many deaths that have taken place due to consumption of adulterated foodstuff or spurious medicines could have been avoided. Though the Supreme Court has banned road-side eateries where most of the time the food is adulterated, the law is brazenly flouted in many places. Even in Delhi people are not aware of the apex court ruling.

I have been told by many people that health officials only conduct inspections at hotels and shops when their owners refuse to pay the monthly bribe. At no other time is accountability fixed or action taken.

Whether it is serving sub-standard food to patients in a hospital or adulterated food in restaurants and other eateries, the possibility of food poisoning is always looming large. Even the rice supplied through the Public Distribution System has often been found to be adulterated. Collecting food samples and sending them for testing after people have died of poisoning is like locking the stables after the horses have fled. Apart from the punishment that those responsible for adulterating food are given by law, it will be ideal to make them also pay for the hospital expenses of the victims in such cases. Health officials who fail to discharge their duties properly could also be forced to do this.

The implementation of the Food Adulteration Act needs to be done honestly and with a missionary zeal if we are to curb this menace. Mere intentions are not enough. They have to be followed up with concrete action.