Safe food is integral to providing nutrition security. It is unfortunate that in India today citizens are not confident about the safety of the food they eat. Rich and poor alike wonder whether their milk is synthetic, their vegetables laden with pesticides/ artificial colour or their fruits with calcium carbide. Microbes however pose the most ‘visible’ threat as they result in immediate symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and/or abdominal cramps resulting in a specific food being incriminated. Chemical hazards like residues of pesticides, antibiotics, chemicals leaching from food packaging material (plastics, newspapers), cooking and storage utensils, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) like dioxins do not result in acute toxic effects and hence are taken less seriously. However, they need to be tackled on a priority basis due to their long term damaging effects on the body organs, hormones, nerves, DNA and of course, the risk of cancer.
Although laws and regulations are in place, there is very little monitoring and surveillance. As unsafe food is such a massive problem in India, it is utopian to expect a purely punitive government regulatory mechanism to be effective. Hence the focus these days is to follow a preventive approach where the food producers, processing industry and the consumer are participants in the regulatory process and prevent food from getting contaminated in the first place.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has undertaken a massive effort for capacity building of all stakeholders. It’s initiative – ‘Safe and Nutritious Food (SNF)’ is aimed at ensuring safety of food served at home, in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, religious places and even the street (http://snfportal.in).
Another initiative – ‘Food Safety Connect’ links the consumer directly to the regulatory authority. The consumer is now being empowered to share concerns regarding the quality or safety of a packaged food item or the premises of a food service establishment on their website (https://foodlicensing.fssai.gov.in/cmsweb/HOME.aspx) or via a mobile app.
New and innovative techniques are being used to assess and manage risks. Statistics, for instance, is being used for predictive modelling of microbiological outcomes. Predictive microbiology now offers risk managers scientific tools to estimate the consequences of different food handling and processing conditions on growth, survival and inactivation of pathogenic microorganisms. They will for instance, be able to predict if milk is still safe after being transported at a particular temperature for a specified length of time, or if the power shortage for an hour would have led to the spoilage of meat kept in chillers at a meat processing plant or a retail shop. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses predictive microbiology to manage risks across the food chain using computational resources and sophisticated statistical packages (https://portal.errc.ars.usda.gov). Databases like ComBase are now available for big and small food companies providing information on how microbes respond to different environmental conditions and how the microbe levels change over the course of time.
A lot more research and effort is needed in India before the consumer regains lost confidence in our food supply. All stakeholders need to be aware and be involved in this monumental task. As a consumer I look forward to the day that I can eat whatever my heart desires without the fear of developing an illness!
Dr Pulkit Mathur
Lady Irwin College
University of Delhi