Jaydev Jana All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy - Paracelsus (1493-1541)
The rapid development of food technology and food-processing industries has raised the risk of contamination by additives. Ironically enough, the Green Revolution has spawned other sources of food contamination, through pesticides and agro-chemicals. Moreover, unscrupulous traders adulterate food to increase the margin of profit. Freshwater fish contains mercury from industrial effluents; poultry chicken and eggs are contaminated with hormones that can lead to prostate cancer. Every bite of food is contaminated with pesticides. Indeed, we eat at our peril.
Natural poisons can have a chronic pharmacological effect. However, many of these toxic elements can act as a protection against animals feeding on them. At least 5,000 species of marine fish are known to be contaminated. Moreover, there are natural contaminants of food as for example bacteria, fungi and other toxins.
The use of pesticides in India began in 1948 with small-scale import of DDT (for malaria control) and BHC (for locust control). They have been used in agriculture since 1949. The country uses around 30,000 tons of pesticides annually, more than 70 per cent of which consists of “organochlorine compounds”. Of the pesticides used, only 0.1 per cent hit the targeted pests and the rest pollute the soil, waterbodies and finally enter our food chain. Around 20 per cent of food products contain pesticide residues beyond the Maximum Residue Level (MRL) - the maximum concentration of a pesticide expressed in part per million (PPM) that is legally permitted in a food commodity - compared to only 2 per cent globally. While the regulating agency that is tasked to enforce MRLs does not monitor residues, the agency that is supposed to check contamination cannot regulate the presence of pesticides in food. It is a classic case of non-accountability.
The Indian Council of Medical Research found DDT in 82 per cent of the 2205 milk samples collected randomly from 12 states. Under the central scheme, ‘Monitoring of Pesticide Residues at National Level’, as many as 16,790 samples, collected from various wholesale and retail markets, had been analysed in 25 laboratories. Around 509 samples of vegetables, spices, rice, wheat, pulses and other food items were found to contain pesticide residues beyond the MRL. Almost all vegetables samples showed high MRL throughout the year, especially so in the rainy season. Among the vegetables, capsicum, green chilli and cauliflower had higher level of MRLs, while cabbage, brinjal, tomato, okra, bitter gourd, cucumber, green peas and coriander leaves had pesticide residues but not as high. Among fruits, grapes had the highest levels of pesticide residues. Though samples of milk, meat and surface water did not contain pesticides above the MRLs, six out of 776 fish samples were found to have pesticides above the stipulated level. Almost all foods items of our daily consumption are contaminated with pesticide residues.
The use of antibiotics in farms has contributed to the emergence and spread of resistant bacteria. To rear broiler chicken, antibiotics are fed throughout their lifecycle of 35-42 days. Regular exposure to sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics promotes the development of resistant bacteria in the gut. The resistant bacteria can be transmuted to those who eat chicken through the phenomenon known as “horizontal transfer”. Around 75 per cent of antibiotics used are not absorbed by animals and excreted in their wastes, posing a serious risk to public health. Both resistant bacteria and antibiotic residues also enter the food-chain through the soil and water. Even vegetarians can be affected from farm bacteria that is transferred to those who do not eat chicken or are vegetarians.
Food safety is also threatened by numerous contaminants that emanate from industrial pollution. The Deadly Trio - mercury (Hg), cadmium (Cd_ and lead (Pb) - and the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been potential hazards. Food toxicity is caused by industrial pollutants. Lead is also a cumulative poison and once it is absorbed, it tends to accumulate in the body.
Food additives - preservatives, colouring agents, flavour enhancers, sweetening agents, emulsifiers, antioxidants etc - are now integral to processed food. These exogenous substances, of both natural and artificial origin, are intentionally added to make food attractive to consumers by enhancing both organoleptic (sensory) and non-organoleptic (non-sensory) characteristics.
In strictly legal terms, food additives that do not conform to standards are not permitted. The names of approved food additives and their technical purposes have been mentioned in the Food Safety and Standards (Food Products Standards and Food Additives) Regulations, 2011. Certain additives have been linked to cancer, digestive problems, heart diseases, allergies, even obesity. Even natural additives may be harmful for certain individuals. Accepted Daily Intake (ADI) is a measure of the amount of an additive in food that can be ingested - daily, over a lifetime - without any health risk.
Processed food is not wholesome and ought not to be consumed by children; experts have now established a link between processed food and childhood hyperactivity. Junk food contains little or no protein, vitamins or minerals but is rich in salt, fat and energy. There is need to regulate junk food as robust evidence links such consumption to non-communicable diseases (NCD) such as diabetes, hypertension and heart diseases. Childhood obesity is no less a matter of serious concern.
Adulterated food can lead to dropsy, infertility, lathryrism, glaucoma, brain, liver and kidney damage, cancer, skin diseases, cardiac ailment and even death. The Union health ministry has reported that one-fifth of food items in the market, tested in government laboratories in the financial year 2012-13, were either substandard or adulterated. The food items tested ranged from everyday items such as food grains, edible oils/fats, milk and milk products, sugar and sugar based confectionery, fruit juices, and spices to ready-to-eat packed food available in grocery shops.
Food can hardly be ‘pure’ if we adhere to the meaning of the term as mentioned in the dictionary. But it can be ‘safe’. However, to meet the growing menace of toxicological hazards of food, a multi-dimensional approach is essential by strengthening the activities of regulating agencies, along with empowering the enforcement authorities and also by alerting consumers to be conscious of what they are eating and how much. Consumers should not be alarmed unnecessarily. Sound scientific analysis and dissemination of the right information should be the foundation of food safety regulation. As Bertrand Russell had once remarked - “Man is a credulous animal, and must believe in something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.”