India’s Unsavory Food Safety System

As food prices rise, farmers turn to desperate and unsafe ways to make ends meet.
India needs to ramp up its food safety regulation to feed its growing population. (Photo: Getty Images)
Feb 13, 2012· 1 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

What do you get when you combine a rapidly growing economy, a billion plus people, and desperate farmers trying to keep up with food inflation?

Bad apples—lots of 'em. According to a report published Monday, India is struggling to deal with a growing food contamination problem, affecting approximately 13 percent of its supply. As Reuters' Matthias Williams and Annie Banerji write, the world's second most populous nation has recently been dealing with everything from vegetables tainted with rat poison to murderous moonshine, killing hundreds and hospitalizing thousands more.

The problem is a logistical one. Much of the produce sold in local markets is sourced from hundreds of miles away, leaving merchants vulnerable to fruit rotting before it can be sold. To combat this, traders intentionally select unripe fruit and later fatten them up with calcium carbide, a cancer-causing chemical that hastens the ripening process from a few weeks to a matter of hours. If the fruit has already gone bad, it can be dipped in artificial colors to help encourage a sale.

Another problem is a lack of enforcement for safety standards. A month ago, a report by India's health agency (FSSAI) found that most Indians are drinking contaminated milk that is either watered down or adulterated with products like fertilizer, bleach, or detergent to thicken the milk and give it a more appetizing appearance. "In China, those people who were found to be contaminating milk with melamine, they were given something as severe as a death sentence," said Savvy Soumya Misra of the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment (CSE) to Reuters. "But here, we're not even giving them any kind of punishment. So how are they supposed to get scared of the authorities?"

Misra raises a valid point. If unscrupulous manufacturers in China are willing to risk execution to profitably spoil food products, what's stopping the same from happening in India, where there is very little punishment at all?

If America's experience can teach the world anything, it's that regulation is necessary when it comes to food. Contamination and recalls will happen; the important thing is that the information is then disseminated as quickly and widely as possible. Manufacturers also need to build relationships with farmers themselves. As the AP's Nirmala George writes, if the Indian government were willing to acquiesce to supermarket giants such as Walmart, Tesco and Carrefour, they could build contracts directly with farmers and use their refrigerated trucks to preserve stocks and bypass middlemen. I'm the last person to endorse anything Walmart, but if it means getting produce to market cheaper, faster, and safer for consumption, the pros may outweigh the cons.

"It's criminal neglect on the part of the government to allow this volume of wastage," said Biraj Patnaik, an adviser to India's Supreme Court on food policy, to the AP in August. "Just cutting back on the waste would make such a dent in bringing down food inflation, making food more affordable, and hence, available to poor families."