March 2016 News

Who'll Check Safety Of Foods In Kashmir Markets?

21 March 2016
Greater Kashmir
Zehru Nissa

Srinagar: The abysmally poor food testing mechanism in Kashmir is allowing consumption of dangerous eatables by people, with officials failing to address the problem that is assuming alarming proportions, stakeholders said on Monday. The adulterated food is leading to multiple diseases among people, including cancer whose rate had doubled in the Valley in the past less than a decade. According to sources, the Valley's lone Food Testing Laboratory at Dalgate here is 'good for nothing.' The so-called Laboratory has archaic equipment while archaic methods are put into practice to test samples of foods sent by the field staff, said a source, privy to the functioning of the FTL. The source said foods and mineral water certified at the Lab as 'fit for consumption' aren't tested for presence of pesticides. 'This lab cannot even detect microbial growth in food samples as there is no microbiology section therein. There is no set-up to test the presence of heavy metals in food or water,' the source said. According to some officials, the Srinagar Food Testing Laboratory gave a clean chit to Maggi Noodles last year when reports of its contamination emerged across India. 'This lab declared it as 'safe' for consumption. However, samples of this noodle lifted from Kashmir markets were sent for testing to Kolkata Central Laboratory-a Government of India-designated lab for food testing-and the results of tests conducted there showed that these samples had dangerous levels of lead and Mono-Sodium Glutamate (MSG), which made it highly dangerous for consumption,' an official said. He said: 'We have no infrastructure to test for MSG, lead, or other contaminants. Our reports are 'good' for a few basic tests only.' He said the officials 'sometimes see mineral water with naked eyes and touch food samples' to give their 'satisfactory reports.' Sources said the Laboratory premises is littered with bottles of packaged water- lifted by the field staff for testing-but no testing is done. 'In water, the commonest contaminations could be pesticides that could have leached from fields into water bodies or underground waters. The other concern could be presence of germs due to contamination of a water body due to human or animal excreta getting into the sources,' said a doctor in Kashmir. But the Laboratory, according to the source, is ill-equipped to test the 'highly dangerous contaminations of heavy metals such as lead, mercury or arsenic.' 'Bottled water testing in our laboratory is as good as checking water by naked eyes. There is no scientific analysis that water is subjected to,' said a Food Safety Officer. In 2015, while the government procured HPLC (High Performance Liquid Chromatography) equipment for detecting presence of pesticides in water and food samples, the same is unused for want of trained technicians and Analytic Standards Material-the consumables needed to carry out pesticide detection tests. While there has been a debate in the Supreme Court on punishing milk adulterators with death penalty, in Kashmir, milk sample testing is limited to quantity of fat and non-fat solids and addition of water, according to official sources. Caustic soda, a common chemical added to milk for increasing its shelf-life goes undetected, they said. 'Some years back, the presence of detergents in some milk samples that made it unfit and dangerous for consumption was detected by the Central Lab Kolkata. However, this was a rare case. Very few samples are sent to the Central Lab for testing due to paucity of funds in the department. And, although milk samples are lifted for testing, the results are but an eye-wash as the department accepts that only a 'few parameters' can be checked at the Laboratory,' the official sources disclosed. The presence of colors in foods has been the most covered aspect of food safety. Although the state is inadequately equipped to handle such cases also, some raids on food outlets and manufacturers recently in Kashmir revealed that dangerous colors meant for industrial use were being added to the foods. 'Dyes such as Tartrazine, Mentanil Yellow, Rhodamine B and Sudan III that are used to dye fabrics were being added to food. These colors have been listed as dangerous chemicals that have been linked to many types of tumors. Many of these chemicals are known to be carcinogens, such as Tartrazine and Sudan III have been found to cause cancers and gene mutations,' a doctor said. In 2015, the Food Safety Department issued a couple of public announcements to 'watch out for artificial ripening chemicals' (sic) in food. The commonest ripening agent, calcium carbide-according to sources-has been found at many 'fruit mandis' but nothing has been done, an official said. Inadequate market checking by the staff and poor infrastructure in place forces FSO to rely on material evidence in case of artificial ripening. 'Only if we find that calcium carbide has been stored at the fruit or vegetable wholesale market, we book the defaulters. There is no testing facility to check for this chemical in edibles,' an official at the Food Safety Organization said. As per the Food Safety and Standards Association of India (FSSAI), artificial ripening agents such as calcium carbide-used in gas welding-has 'strong carcinogenic properties.' Calcium carbide is also often laced with dangerous heavy metals such as arsenic. Infrastructure aside, the Food Safety Organisation is dismally short of manpower. Out 17 sanctioned technical staffers, only three are in place. Greater Kashmir has learnt that there are two posts of Food Analysts and three posts of Assistant Food Analysts sanctioned for the Srinagar Laboratory, but all of these are vacant. 13 posts of lab attendants are also lying vacant in the department, sources said. DrSaleem Khan, Head of the Community Medicine at SMHS Hospital, said safe food is key to a healthy society. 'We need to understand that food safety is a major health concern. We cannot let pesticide-laced food items being consumed freely. These chemicals are wreaking havoc with developing bodies and brains,' he said. Commissioner of Food Safety in J&K, Dr MK Bhandari accepted that food testing in state needs to be strengthened. 'We have already started the process and submitted some proposals. In 2016-17, our focus would be strengthening manpower, testing with addition of new equipment and more funding for sampling,' he said.