India’s food safety laws lack solid enforcement

By Matthias Williams and Annie Banerji ,Reuters

NEW DELHI — Bhim can’t understand what he’s done wrong. Before dawn every day he joins hundreds of wholesale traders at Delhi’s Azadpur Mandi, a sprawling, chaotic market where trucks blare Bollywood music, porters haul huge brown sacks of fruit and vegetables and hawkers sell tea and cigarettes. His own trade is in rosy red apples, laced with calcium carbide. Bhim says he’s been adding chemicals to his apples for years to artificially ripen them after a long journey from the Himalayan foothills, despite being told that it causes cancer. As far as he knows, no one has ever died from eating his produce. So he can’t understand why the authorities are pestering him now, and why he has to pay so many bribes to keep his business afloat. “This is an age-old practice, trust me, I know. But suddenly doctors are claiming that it causes cancer. Come now, how is that possible?” he said, wrapped up in a woolen gray cap and anorak on a chilly Saturday morning at the Azadpur Mandi market. “Everyone still does it. The only difference is that it’s done very surreptitiously now. And let me tell you, it will never stop. Why would anyone want to harm their sales?” An interview with a senior food safety official starkly illustrates just how far India has to go to enforce the regulations properly. Although the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has banned the use of calcium carbide as it is carcinogenic, the senior official to whom Reuters spoke said “it is not harmful.” “Unofficially, it happens everywhere,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “How can the ripe fruit be brought from far away areas?” During the interview, the official also had to check with someone on the phone whether calcium carbide was legal or not.

Such attitudes explain why India still struggles to make its food fit for consumption. From rat poison found in vegetables and Diwali-festival sweets laced with caustic soda, to batches of moonshine liquor that kill scores of people at a time — adulteration is rife. A report by the FSSAI in January found that most of the country’s milk was watered down or adulterated with products — including fertilizer, bleach and detergent — used to thicken the milk and help give it a white, frothy appearance. The report caused an outcry in the world’s largest milk producer, where the drink is used for religious rituals and is a source of protein for hundreds of millions of vegetarians. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. The same agency has also found that 13 percent of all food in the world’s second-most-populous country failed to meet its standards. “The problem is so widespread that everything is contaminated,” said Savvy Soumya Misra of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). “If everything has problems, there is no choice but to eat whatever is available.”