April 04, 2020
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Lethal Condiments

Beware, you may be eating your way through a slow, but sure poisoning

Lethal Condiments

IN February this year, S. Ajay Kumar, a food inspector with the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation, bought a kilo of goat liver from a local market. While it was being cooked, the liver gave off a strong odour of bleaching powder. His suspicion aroused, Kumar tasted a morsel. So did his daughter. Both were laid up for four days with diarrhoea and vomiting. Bleaching powder, he says, is commonly used to arrest the process of dehydration in meat after slaughter, which leads to a loss in weight and results in a drop in profits.

Four years ago, Anil Agarwal, director of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, started seeing black spots. Doctors, suspecting a fungal infection, advised an immediate operation, lest he turn blind. But Agarwal flew to the US for a second opinion. Doctors diagnosed it as a rare kind of cancer, earlier cases of which had been linked to pesticides. Agarwal returned home and did a study. Indians, he found, had the highest levels of pesticide residues in their bodies. He is convinced that was how he got cancer.

Not just mustard oil. Beef, cereals, chicken, eggs, fish, fruits, milk, mutton, oil, pulses, spices, vegetables, water, you-name-it is being adulterated, contaminated, spiked under our very noses.

There is poison in our food. But all we can do is grin and gulp it. "There are no natural deaths now. I am convinced every death is caused by the adulteration of food," says Dr T. Venkatesh of the St. John’s Medical College, Bangalore, with some finality.

There may be more than a touch of exaggeration in that claim. Thanks to the average Indian body’s immunity—and the adulter-ant’s profit motive—not all adulteration causes death. But it pretty much conveys the picture of the clinical nature in which unscrupulous traders and farmers, aided by lameduck food and municipal laws, are making a killing. And an ignorant, hapless nation, banking on more than hope and immunity, is being left with no option but to consume.

No food item is beyond the pilferers’ ken. Sugar is adulterated with chalk powder. Supari with saccharin. Vinegar with mineral acid. Common salt with white powdered stone. Saffron with coloured tendrils of maize cob.Heeng with soap stone. Mustard seeds with ragi. Ghee with mashed potatoes. Chilli powder with brick powder. Black pepper with papaya seeds. Dhania powder with sawdust. Coconut burfis with cancer-causing colouring agents. And edible oils with mineral oils, castor oils and the flavour of the month: Argemone mexicana.

AS The Indian Express commented at the height of the dropsy crisis: "That a mafia dealing in cooking oils could consciously, willfully, coldbloodedly put substances known to be extremely toxic to human health, whether it be the oil of the Argemone mexicana, polybromides or plain motor oil, and sell the noxious mixture as ‘edible oil’, reflects how complete and total is the moral degeneration of the times. Their blind, unscrupulous pursuit of profit has led to widespread fear, panic and grief."

Sale of mustard oil has been banned in Delhi—and UP, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and the seven North-Eastern states. Delhi health minister Harsh Vardhan has demanded death penalty for the guilty. Customers are even shunning vegetable and groundnut oils. Opportunistic retailers are cashing in, selling imported pal-molein oils. And the Hilsa fish, which is normally sold for Rs 140 a kg, is going abegging at Rs 80 a kg, with Puja round the corner.

Not just mustard oil. Dropsy caught the nation’s fancy because it began in Delhi (September 5 toll: 44, indisposed 1,500). But while the capital feeds on the conspiracy theories, in India that is Bharat, millions are eating and drinking very, very normal, seemingly harmless food items with scarcely any idea of the poison inside them and what it is doing to them. And, possibly, to future generations of Indians.

Milk: Researchers at the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, found residues of oxytetracycline—antibiotics used to treat diseased animals which can cause hormonal imbalances—in 71 out of 97 individual buffalo milk samples.

Fruits and vegetables: Studies by the University of Agriculture Sciences, Bangalore, showed high levels of toxic metals like lead, nickel, cadmium and chromium in vegetables, fruits and cereals sold in leading markets.High chromium intake can damage kidneys.

Edible oil: A survey conducted by the National Dairy Development Board in Rajkot and Bangalore markets found that 90 per cent of edible oils were adulterated. Studies by the Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL), Mysore, found levels of nickel higher than safety norms in some good brands of vanaspati oil.

Rice: A study conducted in Calcutta found grains were routinely soaked in red oxide, which can cause chronic liver disease, to impart the reddish tint that catches customers’ attention.

Dal: DFRL director Dr S.S. Arya says the armed forces have had problems with the adulteration of tur dal with kesar dal. Kesar dal has a substance called Beta oxylallanin which causes nervous debility and paralysis.

Meat and fish: Copper sulphate, like bleaching powder, is routinely used in Kerala to clot the blood of the animal to pre-empt weight-loss due to bleeding. Ammonium sulphate is coated on fish to create an impression of freshness.

Scientists at the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), Mysore, estimate that the most common category of contamination is of unprocessed food—fruits and vegetables, ice cream and cotton candy laced with various unpermitted colours. They have several bacteria like Escherichia coli, Salmonella or Aspergillus flavus which produce toxins in the human body, and are perhaps the most common cause of gastro-enteritis.

BUT Sudershan R.V. and Ramesh V. Bhatt of the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), Hyderabad, say that in recent years, unscrupulous traders are using newer adulterants and contaminants which are unlikely to be detected by analysts to hoodwink consumers. These include Turkish lentils sold as red-gram dal and Australian vetch sold as masur dal. But poison could be entering our bloodstreams from a most unlikely source, pesticides. Even before birth.

As Nityanand Jaya-raman, Asia Toxics Campaigner of Greenpeace International, says: "Leave aside brinjals and hamburgers, pesticides of the worst kind have invaded even the first meal of a human child. Human breast milk, particularly in India, is gradually becoming a toxic cocktail. Indian breast milk has the highest levels worldwide of DDT and DDE (a DDT derivative that is thought to have an abetting effect on multiplication of breast cancer cells). Mean levels of total DDT in breast milk is 17.18 parts per million in Ludhiana; and 26.66 ppm in Faridkot. Compare that to 0.321 ppm in Australia, 2.65 ppm in Brazil, and 0.564 in the US."

Food, particularly meat and fish, could be the most significant route of exposure. A survey of 15,000 births at two maternity hospitals attached to Jaipur Medical College found 115 gross congenital defects among newborns, including 17 defects of male genitals and 18 brain defects. The highest incidence of brain defects occurred in pregnancies conceived in March and November, coinciding with the arrival of harvested crops in the market.

While milk is the most adulterated commodity, analysts say it is only third on the high-risk group. And this, although in some startling cases, the main adulterants of milk have been found to be caustic soda, urea, hydrogen peroxide, and formalin. Even imported palmolein oil has been used to adulterate milk in some areas and two popular brands of detergents including the colour-less liquid "Ezee" have reportedly been used.

But purely in terms of profile, adulterated edible oil is clearly the leading player, as Calcutta potato vendor Sadhan Roy found out the hard way. He woke up one July morning 10 years ago to feel his limbs growing numb. By day’s end, the potato vendor felt light and wobbly and his sandals slipped out from his feet. Fumbling in trying to slip into the sandals again, he panicked. "I thought, oh my god, what’s happening?" he wondered. The grim answer: Roy was one of the 592 people in crowded Behala on the city’s outskirts who had been maimed after consuming rapeseed oil spiked with tricresyl orthophosphate, a tasteless, odourless plastic industry thinner, and extremely toxic if consumed. When he returned home, he had lost the use of his legs.

Adulteration of groundnut and coconut oil with castor oil is a common problem, while in the case of mustard oil, linseed oil is the most-used adulterant. Which is why many don’t think much of the government’s theory that mustard oil was adulterated with Argemone oil in Delhi, although the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre in Lucknow found sanguinarine, the fatal compound in Argemone mexicana, in 30 per cent of the tested samples, including those of trusted brands like Dhara.

But how did the offending evil get into mustard oil, and on such a vast scale? This question has baffled many and has aroused much speculation. Says toxicologist S.K. Khanna of the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre (ITRC) in Lucknow: "I don’t suspect the farmer. For one, though the weed grows around the mustard fields, it matures a good three months after mustard. Only a stupid farmer will wait for that long. For another, it has to be added in appreciable quantities for the farmer to make a profit. But it doesn’t grow in abundance."

The same alibi applies to the oil manufacturer. Which makes way for a conspiracy theory, that the oil was intentionally poisoned to create a mass scare so that a ready market for imported oils could be carved. Another theory is that the adulteration may have been instigated by importers of edible oils like palmolein oil and soyabean oil which were recently taken off the restricted list. Once people lose confidence in the domestic oils, so goes the speculation, it would be easy to market imported oils. But nothing—not adulterated milk, not adulterated meat, not adulterated oil, nothing—illustrates what the average hapless Indian is up against than the condition of drinking water supplied to homes. No city really supplies you with safe drinking water. Studies suggest that municipal water quality in most cities falls below WHO standards and could cause various ailments. Sample the following findings:

l A study by the Indian Council of Medical Research of municipal water in a south Delhi colony found armies of E coli, excess chlorine and other foreign matter floating in it. It was declared undrinkable.

l A study by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences found ground-water in Delhi’s Gulmohar Park colony laced with more than the permissible levels of fluorides. Consumed for long, it can cause an untreatable disease called fluorosis.

l According to the Consumer Protection Council of Kerala, consumers are drinking adulterated water through the pipelines. No brand of ice cream sold in Kerala has the ISI mark because the water used does not meet the basic requirements.

l A study conducted by students of microbiology, Mount Carmel College in Bangalore, warns that outbreaks of gastro-enteritis and cholera could be attributed to contaminated drinking water.

INDEED, people’s confidence in municipal water can be gauged by the increasing sales of water purifiers and mineral water. When even our politicians drink mineral water, how can we be expected to drink municipal water? Ironically, however, even mineral water hasn’t been spared by the toxic jumblers. A study by the Ahmedabad-based Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC) found that only three of the 13 brands tested agreed with the specifications. They all had arsenic levels above the maximum limit of 0.05 ppm and none of the brands were bacteria-free as claimed.

There are purifiers to make water drinkable. But what about "fresh" fruits and vegetables that have probably the highest amounts of pesticides and heavy metal content in the world? Unless you buy your vegetables from an organic shop, you cannot avoid pesticides.

Vegetablesare also contaminated with heavy metals like copper, lead and cadmium which are known to cause a host of disorders. Lead toxicity can lead to high blood pressure and kidney failure. "Since lead pollution can impair the growth of children’s brains, we could in all reality be looking at a scenario where several million Indian children would be adversely affected in their Intelligence Quotient (IQ) by this menace. The health risks involved are in fact so serious that there can be no safe or acceptable level for lead poisoning," says Admiral O.S. Dawson, former chief of naval staff, who heads Project Lead-Free.

In the wake of high levels of pesticide and fungicide residues found in vegetables and other crops like sunflower, the Indian Council For Agricultural Research has, at CFTRI’s behest, evolved new guidelines for farmers on spraying pesticides.

Another important source of contaminants is meat and meat products. We have no idea about the animal which finally lands up on our plate. Whether it was diseased, what was the level of heavy metals, antibiotics and pesticide residues in its body. Nor about how and where it was butchered, how the raw meat was preserved, and how old was it when it was finally cooked. We never think about these issues till one day we fall prey to a toxin in our favourite non-veg dish. Consuming improperly preserved or frozen meat can invite many tummy troubles. Ditto for eggs, pork, sea-food, and other non-veg preparations.

Non-permitted colours and preservatives are perhaps the most widely contaminants but the least studied. There are few studies available but presumably non-permitted colours such as metanil yellow used in laddoos and jalebis and ice candy, rho-damin B in karachi halwa, Orange 11 in rasgulla, blue VRS in coloured sweets, blotting paper in kulfi and auramine in sugarcoated saunf are all hazardous to health. They may cause degeneration of testes, cancer, kidney disorders, bone and eye abnormalities and mental retardation.

Excess doses of preservatives in juices, meat products, biscuits, confectionaries and sweets can be deleterious to consumers. Says Dr M.N. Krishnamurthy of the CFTRI, Mysore: "We are now doing a survey on the intake of food colours because limits have not been fixed for all colours. The safety levels of intake vary from one colour to another, but in a large number of cases colours not permitted under the Prevention of Food Adulteration (PFA) Act are being used, particularly in the unorganised sector."

IF these contaminants are so versatile in their designs, why do physicians never take them seriously? Simply because they do not know about them. Unless one is told, nobody suspects any thing suspicious in their food. If you have diarrhoea, or nausea, or a behavioural disorder, or even cancer, it is quite improbable that the doctor will link it to contaminants in food. Physicians are trained to look at pathogens as primary agents of disease. Others are incidental. Furthermore, the entire discipline of environmental toxicology suffers from statistics and probabilities. There are vague associations, but no clear cause-effect links, not least because there have been very few studies on the effect of such contaminants on humans. Most studies are on animals.

Notwithstanding the greyness, it cannot be denied that these adulterants and contaminants can poison our bodies. But who is supposed to ensure that they end up in humans surreptitiously via what we think is healthy food? The government of course. The PFA Act of 1954 is meant to protect us from such hazards. Unfortunately the government has failed on all fronts. CFTRI director Dr V. Prakash says the lack of mandate under the PFA Act for unprocessed food makes it impossible to check levels of contamination in vegetables and fruits.

  •  The PFA Act has failed to check the overuse of pesticides, many of which were long banned in the West.

  •  It turned a blind eye to adulteration. Instead of using the 1988 Behala incident to chalk out a strategy for future disasters, it just ignored it and hence the recent tragedy.
  •  It never enforced the PFA laws and rarely prosecuted the offender. It never involved the scientists and public in a concerted attempt to study and check adulteration. Not surprisingly, we know so little about the various contaminants found in our food. The state could have at least created awareness amongst food producers and the public about these hazards.

  •  It never did any risk analysis of toxic substances in our food. Says nutritionist Ramesh Bhatt of NIN: "For instance, we still do not know much about the various colouring agents and have no idea how to set threshold limits in different foods.

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