The World Food Safety Day is observed every year on June 7 to draw global attention to the contamination of food and water. This year’s theme for the Day is ‘Safe food today for a healthy tomorrow’, which focuses on producing and consuming safe food. Having safe food gives immediate, long-term benefits to people, the planet, and the economy. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, this theme is more relevant. While it is a fact that no food or dietary supplements can prevent or cure Covid-19 infection, safe and healthy diet helps build one’s immunity and fight the virus.
With an estimated 600 million cases of foodborne illnesses annually world over, unsafe food is a threat to human health and economy. It disproportionally affects vulnerable and marginalised people, especially women and children. According to the UN, an estimated 420,000 people die around the world every year after eating contaminated food, and children under 5 years of age account for 40% of the foodborne disease burden, with 125,000 deaths every year.
Reports show that India is home to 40% of the global underweight population and at the same time ranks fifth in global obesity. To deal with this paradox, the country not only needs to fight against food contamination and adulteration, but also needs to tackle both under-nutrition and over-nutrition.
Curbing marketing of junk food
According to a report of Public Health Foundation of India, the disease burden in India due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) increased from 48% to 75% between 1990 and 2016. Knowingly flooding the markets with such unsafe food products, high in fat, sugar and salt, by a few manufacturers with profit motive became evident with the recent exposure of internal documents of the world’s largest packaged food and beverages multinational Nestle.
The leaked internal document acknowledges that 60% of its mainstream product portfolio is unhealthy. According to the document, about 70% of Nestle’s food products and 96% of beverages, excluding pure coffee fails to meet the minimum healthy threshold. In addition, 99% of Nestle’s confectionery and ice cream portfolio also fails to meet the threshold rating.
Food safety, obesity and children
Studies show that there is a possible correlation between obesity and television junk food commercials. Even a short exposure to food advertising on television has a significant influence on children’s buying preferences and habits. According to a study in 2018 by Cancer Research UK, children who are exposed to more than 3 hours of television were comparatively 250% more likely to be ‘junk-food pestering’ their parents than children who watched significantly less television commercials.
Given that advertisement of such unsafe food items is largely unregulated in India, it is high time we learn to adopt and follow best practices in other countries. As per Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) regulation ‘Food products high in saturated fat or trans-fat or added sugar or sodium (HFSS) cannot be sold to school children in school canteens/mess premises/hostel kitchens or in an area within 50 meters from the school gate in any direction’. However, this is limited to only school canteens which are closed for the last 15 months due to Covid-19 pandemic.
Excessive use of chemical fertilizers
Farmers embrace chemical-intensive production practices to enhance output and to fight pests. They often apply excessive amounts of chemical fertilizers and use dangerous pesticides. In a 2019 study by the ministry of agriculture and farmers welfare, it was revealed that the presence of high level of pesticide residues in food commodities were rampant in the country.
Out of a total of 23,660 food samples analysed during the study, pesticide residues were detected in 4,510 samples (19.10%), out of which the residues in 523 samples were found exceeding the maximum limit set by FSSAI. In India, 2.78 million hectare of farmland was under organic cultivation as of March 2020. However, this is only 2% of the 140.1 million ha net sown area in the country. So much more need to be done in promoting organic farming in India and to formulate an inward-looking organic policy.
Food adulteration and contamination
Food adulteration has always remained a big anxiety equally for both consumers and the regulators. According to news reports, more than a third of the food produced in India, including almost 70% of milk sold, are adulterated and substandard. Those that are not adulterated are often either contaminated or spoiled due to lack of proper storage and other infrastructure facilities along the food value chain.
While the stringent food law and setting up of FSSAI and enactment of a more strengthened consumer protection law has paved the way for an efficient regulatory system in the country, much more needs to be done on the ground.
What needs to be done?
To ensure safe food, the country needs to strictly enforce the existing food safety laws and regulations in letter and spirit. The spirit shown by FSSAI to limit the use of industrially produced trans-fat in all oils and restrain the scourge of NCDs is commendable. India’s decision to implement the elimination of trans fats from January 1, 2002, ahead of the WHO deadline of 2023, was exemplary.
Now it is expected that the same spirit be shown towards coming up with a consumer-friendly front-of-package labels (FoPL) at the earliest to enable consumers to identify in a quick, clear and effective way, products high in sugar, sodium, and fats, the critical nutrients associated with the NCD burden.
It is important that consumers bear some responsibility for the safe handling of foods and consumption of safe food. Inculcating the habit of reading food labels while shopping and trying to gain some minimum knowledge about the content of food items purchased to consume would all make a positive impact. More importantly, consumers should learn how to avoid packaged foods and replace it with home cooked healthy and tasty recipes, which the on-going pandemic has already taught many of us.
(George Cheriyan is Director and Simi T.B. is Policy Analyst at CUTS International, a global public policy research and consumer advocacy organisation headquartered in Jaipur, India.)