Food safety at stake

Pandemic has forced a lot of people to depend on heat-and-eat food products. Some of them are found to have high levels of preservatives and pesticide traces 
illus: express
illus: express

KOCHI: Food safety has gone for a toss in the state following the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak with enforcement and special drives by the Commissionerate of Food Safety have come to nothing but a mere farce. Many heat-and-eat food products, which have been in high demand ever since the pandemic outbreak, have come under the scanner with the food safety authorities detecting the presence of preservatives -- sorbic acid and benzoic acid -- beyond permissible levels set by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). However, apart from random surveillance, the authorities are yet to launch special drives to ensure these products are not sold and the violators are booked.

As part of the surveillance drive carried out by the various food safety offices across the state, several samples of chilli powder, coriander powder and half-cooked chappati were collected from various food safety circles across the state in February.  According to officials, the presence of pesticides in the coriander and chilli powders sold by many leading brands is alarming. 

However, the food safety authorities are unable to book any of the violations as the samples collected are only for surveillance and not statutory samples. Interestingly, despite the alarming lab reports, the commissionerate is yet to call for a special drive to keep these products off the shelves. 

An official of the commissionerate said the use of preservatives in many of the heat-and-eat food items including half-cooked parotta, chappati and pathiri are beyond the permissible levels set by the FSSAI. As per the permissible levels, it’s illegal to use more than 1,000 mg/kg of sorbate in half-cooked food items for preservation. 

Following the lab reports, the Commissioner of Food Safety has issued an advisory urging the public to be careful while purchasing and make use of the food safety labs to ensure the safety of the food products. A senior official of the food safety department said directions have been given to all food safety officers to include all these products while collecting statutory samples. 

“It’s easy for these manufacturers to challenge us in the court as there are loopholes in the food safety Act itself. It’s really hard to book them. We had held discussions with the representatives of these leading brands but they say they are helpless and the government should make interventions in the farming sector and teach them safe agriculture practices to minimise the use of pesticides. But the same manufacturers are exporting these same lines of products which are of good standards in the international market. As of now, we are not planning any special drives,” said the official. 

Ever since the pandemic outbreak and the subsequent lockdown, the food safety authorities have issued umpteen number of food safety registrations to home bakers. “The demand for heat-and-food products has increased since the Covid-19 outbreak and many people are manufacturing half-cooked products at home. Every registered food business operator should take the FOSTAC (Food Safety Training and Certification) training given by us. We give proper training to the food handlers on how to practise food safety,” said the official.  The official said many manufacturing units are in the unorganised sector which is a huge challenge for the food safety authorities to track them down. 

Consumption of unsafe food goes up

The presence of high level of pesticides in food items sold in the state is likely to cause severe health issues including kidney problems, cancer, diabetes etc.  According to health expert and diabetologist Dr Jothydev Kesavadev, ordering food from outside has become the new normal because of the Covid-19 situation. 

As medical professionals, we advise our patients who have contracted Covid-19 to take rest. Cooking is not at all an option as the entire family will be nursing the symptoms of Covid-19. The demand for outside food and half-cooked items has increased because of the pandemic and lockdown. This has become inevitable and part of our lifestyle now. There are pros and cons to this and the only way out is to sensitise the manufacturers and ensure that the preservatives are used within the range.”

He said post pandemic, diabetes among youngsters has spiked. He said that consumption of more preservatives and pesticide-laced food would have an adverse impact on the health and could cause cancer, diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease. 

“People are stressed and the best treatment is ensuring nutritious and safe food. The authorities should be focusing on this and ensure the availability of safe food for consumption. The presence of trans fatty acid is another issue. Deposits of this could trigger diabetes and lead to kidney trouble and heart diseases,” said Kesavadev.

High pesticide process

As per the lab reports, presence of a slew of pesticides - profenofos, chlorpyrifos ethyl, ethion, bifenthrin, etofenprox, tebuconasol, fenpropathrin etc -- were found in the chilli and coriander powders sold in the state by many leading brands. As per the FSSAI standards, the presence of pesticides beyond 0.01 mg/kg is illegal and makes the product unsafe for consumption, but the pesticide levels in many of the samples were manifold and hundreds of percentage more than the limits.

Samples of chilli powder, coriander powder and half-cooked chappati were collected in February

Following the lab reports, the Commissioner of Food Safety has issued an advisory urging the public to be careful while purchasing and make use of the food safety labs

Newly sprung-up home bakers are adding to the problem. With Covid-19 still around, food safety enforcement has taken a back seat. Watch out for what you eat 

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