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How Safe is our Food ?

People throng a street food market in Bengaluru 
At a Glance
  • Recent raids have found numerous instances of food adulteration and contamination across India.
  • From formalin in fish to sulphuric acid in paneer, the findings have shocked the country and jolted authorities into action.
  • Read on to know how to keep yourself and your family safe from the dangers posed by toxic food.
India has been battling food adulteration for a long time, but now it seems like things have reached a tipping point. A recent series of raids across Punjab has unearthed unprecedented amounts of spurious milk and dairy products in Patiala, Amritsar and Mohali, and has led to a major shortage of paneer (cottage cheese) in the city. The revelation that their beloved paneer might have ingredients like detergent and urea came as a huge shock. Punjab’s misery is shared by fish-loving Goa and Kerala, where the discovery of formalin (a preservative made with formaldehyde) in preserved fish has spooked buyers and generated massive controversy over the past couple of months.
With incidents like these adulteration is now firmly under the scanner of authorities, primarily the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
India’s war on food contamination
The discovery of formalin in fish started a chain reaction that led to a series of raids across the country. Large consignments of carbide-ripened mangoes were seized from markets across Karnataka. Adulterated ghee manufacturing units were discovered in Madurai where vanaspati diluted with cooking oil and ghee flavour were packaged as genuine ghee. Expired raw material was found to be used in Kashmir for making Eid sweets. Rumours of carcass meat of dogs and cats being sold with packaged meat proved true in Kolkata. Even the popular snack pani puri came under attack after surprise checks in Gujarat’s Vadodara and Ahmedabad cities found that the puri, water and chutney did not meet food standard guidelines.
In the wake of these devastating discoveries, authorities and lawmakers sprang into action. Across the country, state administrations have authorised raids on food vendors. Officials are being instructed to conduct stringent checks and impose fines on vendors selling low-quality or adulterated items.
A parliamentary panel, criticising the FSSAI over weak enforcement of food safety laws, has, among other directives, recommended that the food regulator be restructured, technically skilled people with domain expertise be hired on a full-time basis, and food safety departments be set up in every state.
For its part, the FSSAI, under pressure from the Supreme Court, proposed several amendmentsto the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006, including potential life imprisonment and a fine of Rs.10 lakh on those found indulging in food adulteration. The regulator also launched an ‘Eat Right’ movement to encourage citizens to make better choices around the food they buy and consume.
However the problem of contaminated food won’t go away overnight. So how can you do your bit to keep yourself and your family safe from adulteration?
While ordinary consumers may not have the means to conduct complex purity tests on food items, there are some basic precautions that we can all take to determine what’s safe and what isn’t.
1. Check for FSSAI validation
You always look for a Hallmark on your jewellery, then why not a validation of your food? The next time you shop for food, look for an FSSAI license number, a detailed list of ingredients and their percentages, and the expiration date on the package.
Use your discretion when buying non-certified, loose food items from local stores. These may be cheaper, but can lead to hefty medical bills in the long run.
2. Don’t fall for manufacturers’ ‘health food’ claims
Don’t fall in the marketing trap of the ‘healthier option’ or something that ‘tastes like sugar but is not sugar’. Ingredients used to create healthier options have been found to do more harm than the natural product. Look up the claims made by the manufacturers before buying.
3. Check the purity of your food
The FSSAI’s guide outlines ways to test the purity of every day food items from oils to grains, spices, fruits and vegetables and beverages right in your kitchen. Simply access the Detect Adulteration With Rapid Test (DART) Book that covers more than 50 tests that can be performed easily in any household.
Food contamination is not a new issue: it’s been around for as long as one can remember. However, even as criminals get smarter, consumers can stay one step ahead simply by being more aware of what they are putting on their plates.