For 60-year-old Harnam Kaur, consuming a pack of edible oil she bought from a local shop cost her her sight. After investigation, the Delhi resident came to know that argemone in the oil resulted in the loss of her vision permanently.
Harnam’s case is neither first nor unique in India as everyday thousands of people get affected by one or the other deadly diseases by consuming adulterated food products. In items such as milk, khoya, paneer, arhar dal, edible oils, sugar, and chilli and turmeric powder, the quantity of adulteration is high.
However, the irony is that even if the culprit gets caught, he goes scot free in the absence of a stringent punishment under the present law, which prescribes maximum imprisonment of up to six months or a fine of `1,000.
“The change in adulteration laws is the need of the hour. Recommendations have been made, but the government hasn’t done anything. We all are aware of the rampant adulteration in food, but lack of proper punishment and fines had not helped our investigating agencies,” said Ashok Kanchan, Chief Advisor, Food Nutrition and Health Consumer Voice.
But with the government planning to change the law and amending the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to make adulteration a serious crime where the punishment could go up to life in prison, there is hope.
The Centre’s move of amending the law came after the Law Commission of India in its report recommended amendment of Section 272 and 273 of the IPC. The panel, headed by former Supreme Court judge, Justice B S Chauhan, also wants Section 357 of the Criminal Procedure Code to be amended so that courts can order compensation for victims.
The panel was of the opinion that the punishment be graded, depending on the harm caused following consumption of adulterated food and drinks. “It is a welcoming step if the Law Commission has recommended life imprisonment. This will certainly cut down the rate of adulteration,” added Kanchan.
Advocate Ashish Dixit, who fights consumer cases in Delhi courts said: “I have filed 50 cases, but lack of laws makes it a futile exercise to pursue them as in most of them, courts let them off by clapping a meagre fine. The Law Commission’s step is a welcome one.”
In its report, the law panel pointed out how checks and balances taken by the government haven’t yielded any result in the absence of the stronger law. Only West Bengal, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh have amended their IPC provisions 272 and 273 to award life term for milk adulteration.
Convictions were secured in only 1,246 cases in 2015-16, and many food adulteration cases never reached conviction stage. The report shows that `6.9 crore in penalties was collected from errant agencies.
Adulteration in food items becomes more rampant during festivals, owing to a steep rise in demand. Unfortunately, the common man is unaware of the adulterants. The government, however, runs advertisement campaigns to warn people about adulterated food.
According to the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, any food that contains additives that are not permitted is considered to be adulterated. If the permissible limit exceeds, then also the food is considered adulterated.
The nature and quantity of the additives should be printed on the label of the container. ‘Artificially coloured’ must be written on the label if any colouring material has been added. Mixing, substitution, concealing the quality, putting up decomposed food for sale, misbranding or giving false labels and addition of toxic—all these come under adulteration.
The Food Safety and Standards Association of India (FSSAI)—responsible for protecting and promoting public health through regulation and supervision of food safety—tested various foods and found milk, ghee, edible oils, pulses, mineral water, etc to be the most adulterated. Its report states that 49,290 samples were tested across India, of which 8,469 (nearly one-fifth) were adulterated or misbranded.
Data collected by FSSAI shows a steep rise in food fraud, with Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh accounting for more than 90 per cent of the total penalties levied.
The law panel report came after the Supreme Court last year directed the government to examine the feasibility of imposing life imprisonment for adulteration, based on the gravity of the offence in cases.
The maximum punishment for adulteration is life imprisonment, but police don’t have the power to invoke the FSSAI Act. It can only be invoked by the food safety authority in the states.
The apex court’s directive to the Centre had come in a 2012 PIL that sought exemplary punishment for those adulterating milk. The petitioner said that milk, the only source of nourishment for infants and a major part of the diet for growing children, was being adulterated with chemicals such as baking soda.
Swami Achyuthanand Thirth had relied on a report—Executive Summary on National Survey on Milk Adulteration, 2011, released by FSSAI—which concluded that 68.4 per cent of milk being sold in the country was adulterated.
According to the report, the worst performers were Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bengal, Mizoram, Jharkhand and Daman and Diu, where adulteration in milk was found to be up to 100 per cent. It was being adulterated with urea crossing the permissible limit—700 particles per million. Milk was also being made with urea and detergent.
Rice is being adulterated with small grains of stones to increase its weight. Likewise, mustard oil is mixed with crude rice bran oil, spices such as turmeric powder with metanil yellow, which is produced with metanilic acid and diphenylamine.
Turmeric powder mixed with metanil yellow is purely carcinogenic, capable of causing cancer. One of the most frightening instances is low quality khesari dal being added to arhar dal, resulting in paralysis of the lower body. This toxic dal is banned since 1961.
The consumption of adulterated foods may have either immediate or long-term effects, or both. Immediate effects include food poisoning (diarrhoea) and consequently dehydration. Long-term effects are liver and kidney failure, and cancer.
Tragedy Strikes at Mid-Day
Several children have lost their lives after consuming food cooked at their schools
July 2013, Saran district, Bihar:
23 children die from food poisoning after eating their midday meal. It was later discovered that the oil used to make the meal had been contaminated by an organophosphate. The container used to keep the oil had earlier been used to store an organophosphate pesticide.
May 2016, Kanshiram Nagar, Mathura: Four people, including two minor children, die and 200 others, mainly schoolgoing kids, hospitalised, after consuming contaminated milk being severed in the midday meal program in the Pre-middle/primary government School.
Feb 9, 2017, Karimnagar, Telangana: At least 26 students of Government Primary School in Nagula Malyala village were hospitalised when they complained of stomach pain and vomiting after eating the mid-day meals in the school. 67 students had eaten the meals