NEW DELHI: Utsav Madan, a West Delhi resident, bought a packet of Moong Dal from a departmental store. As he boiled it the water turned a deep yellow. The artificial colour on the lentils wore off.
Debashish, a Thane resident, bought a box of sweets from a restaurant. The restaurant was smelly. The sweets were sour and too old to eat.
Both Utsav and Debashish were victims of food adulteration. Across the country consumers have complained about the quality of the food they are buying. These include milk and dairy products, spices and cereals. But unlike the hue and cry that breaks out when questions are asked on the quality of popular branded products, like ‘Maggi’ noodles in 2015, they rarely merit government attention.
Data from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has now shown that state administrations choose to overlook not only complaints, but also evidence, of impure food.
An analysis of the FSSAI data shows authorities have tested similar sample sizes of edibles (around 80,000 per year) from across India while the number of ‘samples found adulterated’ has constantly risen in the same period.
The food and grocery business as grown at the same time, as has the size of the population. Food safety officers in the states are required to take food samples and send them for analysis in laboratories.
A total of 84,537 adulterated food samples were collected from all the states in the year 2014-15; in 2015-16, 77,941 samples were collected and in 2016-17 the number was 80,463.
In contrast, the number of adulterated food samples rose from 14,716 in the year 2014-15 to 16,133 in 2015-16 and to 16,659 in the year 2016-17.
“There are many issues. The departments in most states are short-staffed. There are only about 30-40 or 50 food inspectors in each state that is too little given the demand. There are thousands of dairies and groceries and restaurants in any big city,” said Naresh Kadyan, a consumer rights activist who has been campaigning for right quality of milk.
Advocate Umesh Sharma said the enforcement of law is poor. “We can’t rule out the nexus among the stakeholders. The issue is directly related to the public health and government should take some serious initiatives to implement the food safety rules,” he said.
Even for those found guilty punishment is a rarity. The number of convictions was only 1402 in the year 2014-15, 540 in 2015-16 and 1591 in 2016-17. In most cases the authorities impose fines.
In the year 2014-15, total fines collected was `11.28 crore, in 2015-16 it was `21.65 crore and in 2016-17 it was `15.90 crore.
“(Food adulteration) is a bailable offence and the accused have never got arrested. Basically, the food safety department is like a toothless tiger,” said Naresh Kadyan, the consumer activist.
The Law Commission has recommended that sections 272 and 273 of the Indian Penal Code be amended to make adulteration a serious crime.
Depending on the gravity of the offence, punishment could be up to life in prison. The panel, headed by former Supreme Court judge B S Chauhan, also wanted Section 357 of the Criminal Procedure Code to be amended so that courts can order compensation for victims. The law commission said the minimum punishment should start with six months in jail.
“To combat adulteration in food items like milk, spices, honey, water, oil and other such items FSSAI has released guidelines,” said an officer of the authority.
A senior official of the FSSAI said it is not only artificial colours and putrefaction that are considered to be impure food. Food that contains additives that exceed permissible limits also fail tests.
Officials said that while adulteration in food items becomes more rampant during festive season due to high demand, there were only a few such instances that have been in public focus in recent years.
Despite this, even the limited samples tested in the last three years clearly show that more and more food is being made artificially unfit for consumption.