Fruits and vegetables are highly nutritious and form as key food commodity in the human consumption especially during summer season. As the summer season bids arrival in the valley, succulent fruit of varied climacteric fruits have surfaced the markets too early.
Many fruits are harvested in unripe conditions itself and are allowed to ripen by the natural release of ethylene, which is a ripening hormone in the fruit itself. But, these fruits like Mangoes, Bananas, Papayas, Chiku, Dates and Tomatoes are artificially ripened using artificial ripening agents.
Chemicals like calcium carbide, ethephon and oxytocin are purportedly being used in fruit and vegetable Mandis and farms for simulated ripening. While ripening using the ethylene gas does not seem to have any harmful effects up to certain limits, there are chemicals like Calcium Carbide which have significant ramifications for human health.
Menace of Masala and Carpet
Calcium Carbide (CaC2) popularly known as ‘Carpet’ is most frequently used for artificial ripening of fruits. When it comes in contact with moisture it produces an unsaturated hydrocarbon gas namely acetylene, which is analogous in nature to the natural ripening agent ethylene. It is the cheapest artificial ripening agent available, with mere Rs 100/kg sufficient enough to ripen over 100 dozen of raw mangoes.
It is a well known carcinogen, irrespective of quantity consumed; it is known to have harmful effects on the liver and other parts of the body as contains traces of arsenic and phosphorus hydride which produces numerous severe and chronic health effects.
Common symptoms of arsenic or phosphorus poisoning include vomiting, thirst, and weakness, burning sensation in the chest and abdomen, diarrhoea, irritation or burning of the eyes irritation in the mouth, nose and throat. Higher and prolonged exposure to the chemical could lead to peptic ulcer and build-up of fluids in the lungs.
Another chemical ethylene (C2H4, also known as Ethene or carbide gas) or ‘Masala’ by the suppliers is a gaseous organic compound a natural plant hormone, which assists in the process of ripening. Commercially, Ethylene is the most produced organic compound in the world and is used in many industrial applications.
While calcium carbide is banned, but FSSAI has clarified ambiguity regarding the use of ethylene in its Second Amendment Regulation, 2016 and included of use of Ethylene gas for ripening of fruits in low concentration of 10-100 ppm exogenously to trigger their ripening and declared it safe in the concentration varying from 0.001- 0.01% depending upon the crop, variety and maturity.
However, it is advised to the vendors to use it under controlled temperature and humidity levels besides monitoring the levels of carbon dioxide in ripening rooms. Externally applied Ethylene triggers the natural ripening process of apple, avocado, banana, mango, papaya, pineapple and guava.
In humans, acetylene is not intensely toxic if it is below the permitted levels, whereas if it exceeds the limits, its inhalation can cause unconsciousness and may affect the neurological system by inducing prolonged hypoxia i.e. deficiency of oxygen.
Many countries including India has allowed the use of Ethylene and Ethephon for ripening of fruits as it is less harmful if compared with Calcium carbide. But many petitions have been filed to ban these chemicals too due to the indiscriminate use by the traders and the farmers as they lack the knowledge of their proper use.
But they reason
Though the Government has installed the heating system at Narwal in Jammu and Parimpora in Kashmir to ripe the fruits so as to make these healthier not hazardous but they are reportedly being termed non-functional and limited capacity that affect the seasonal business of the fruit dealers and suppliers.
It is commonly claimed by the fruit suppliers that a significant amount of fruits become undesirable after the process of natural ripening with high weight loss, desiccation and uneven ripening. Thus in absence or dearth of ripening chambers at Mandi Stores, artificial ripening is the only remedy for them.
They do not wait for nature to take its own course of action due to the time and risks involved and thus jump in with unnatural measures. For fruit vendors stocking up of immature fruits is a waste of storage space, waste of time and thus a loss in revenue for suppliers and dealers in the agribusiness. Faster the fruits and vegetables ripen, faster can their marketing be done and faster will the profits be generated.
Moreover, fruit vendors and suppliers claim that artificial ripening not only helps to generate faster revenue for the agriculture industry but also helps keeps prices of these fruits in control. This is because if the demand of these fruits exceeds the supply, it does not take much time for the prices to rocket sky high levels. Thus to accomplish the demand of the consumers many traders resort to the artificial methods of ripening fruits and vegetables.
As mentioned, for fruit traders, the reason for using chemicals is to hasten the ripening process in order to cash-in timely. However, as reportedly claimed by the fruit dealers and suppliers if the authorities do not make available ripening facilities and other services they proceed with the unnatural practices.
The fruit traders often declare that they are using approved chemicals in small quantity, but it is improbable to keep control and check every fruit seller. There urgent need of strategies and measures to curb and contain excessive use of these substances. Following are some of the measures that may help in keeping a check on this menace.
The fruit traders and sellers need to be made aware of the health hazards and instilled with a sense of moral responsibility to the society through awareness of compliance and penalties and punishments for contravention in print and mass media. Restrictions should be strictly imposed and execution of the law should be non-compromising.
Surveillance and vigilance teams should be commissioned before the arrival of climacteric fruit season to trace influx of banned chemicals through tracing chain on the information of vendors. This may be intensified by closure of all non-registered fruit vendors.
For long term solution environmentally safe new compounds which are not harmful to human health must be discovered and tested with collaboration of Agricultural Horticultural Research Institutes. Additionally, more modernised ripening chambers at Mandies should be provided by the government to discourage use of banned chemicals.
Till the time legal authorities come up with a way to effectively stop and prevent this unhealthy and unethical practice, consumers will have to be vigilant and educated. Only increased awareness and activism from the consumers will have the required impact on the market. So it is advisable to update ourselves with the knowledge of healthy food culture and while buying fruits and vegetables following observations be made:
Colour of the fruit: An easily identifiable sign of artificially ripened fruit is that it will have an unnaturally bright colour compared to a naturally ripened one.
Also, in an artificially ripened fruit like mango there will be patches of green that are clearly distinguishable from the yellow and unlike a naturally ripened mango that has a uniform blend of yellow and green.
Similarly, artificially ripened bananas are lemon yellow and their stalks are green compared naturally ripened ones that are dark yellow with small brown or black spots and black stalks.
Taste and aroma: Artificially ripened fruits lack true taste and aroma, while tasting slight burning aftertaste is felt in the mouth with a burning down the throat sensation. While naturally ripened fruits have sweet taste with a lot of juice content.
Texture and colour of the pulp: When cut open, the pulp of a naturally ripened fruit (like papaya, mango) will be uniformly bright reddish-yellow as compared to an artificially ripened one with light and dark yellow pulp.
In addition to the judicious choice and conscious approach by the educated consumer, The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has listed some steps to be followed at home to reduce the level of risk of contamination with harmful chemicals to ensure food safety.
It is advised to select fruits and vegetables without spots or necrosis (lesions) and any abnormality, fruits and vegetables thoroughly with water, preferably running potable water, before eating and cooking.
Encourage peeling of fruits before consumption and vegetables before cooking; it will reduce exposure to pesticide. Also, to minimise the hazards of pesticide residues, the outer leaves of leafy vegetables such as lettuce and cabbage should be discard.
It is advisable to purchase fruits and vegetables from known (registered) dealers and also not to buy fruits when they arrive in the market before the due period that is early and offseason.
Artificial fruit ripening is a complicated concern particularly in developing countries like India. It needs collective contribution and participation of the entire society, administration agencies, policymakers, fruit-sellers, farmers, scientists and consumers to find an effective, valuable and a viable way out for this serious problem.