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Unmasking the new food syndicate

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An agency of the central government is serving as administrative cover for an inter-connected group of international donor agencies, multinational corporations, international policy and advocacy groups, Indian industries and Indian non-government organisations, all bent on bringing the next wave of industrialisation to food and its sales.

The FSSAI communication to consumers highlights the look, texture, weight and size of vegetables. Good organic produce however is never uniform and is frequently ‘blemished’, which the FSSAI warns against buying.

This next wave of industrial food is based on existing and new genetic engineering and manipulation technologies, none of which there is adequate regulation for (nor, for some of these technologies, even recognition of). The justification created for claiming these technologies are needed is the shift from ‘hunger’ to the successors of ‘malnutrition’ which are: ‘hidden hunger’ and ‘micronutrient deficiency’. This shift is seen as having the potential to open up a vast and very lucrative new area of the food sector.

Because of the growing (slowly but steadily) tendency of consumers towards organically grown staple food crops and horticulture, and because of the growing opposition to genetically modified seed and food, the food industry in India is following a new strategy through this central government agency. The strategy includes:
1. Defining what ‘safe’ food is and defining what ‘nutrition’ is.
2. Strengthening and deepening the consumer markets for industrially grown and controlled crops from which processed and packaged food products are manufactured.
3. Protecting the businesses of Indian food (and beverage) companies and foreign food MNCs through legislation.
4. Consolidating the ‘back end’ of industrial retail and processed food – which is the interest of the agricultural biotechnology (agbiotech) corporations, the fertiliser and pesticides companies, the farming machinery industry, the food processing machinery industry, the food logistics sector.
5. Facilitating the further integration in India of the food and pharmaceutical industries through the promotion of food ‘fortification’ and food ‘supplements’.

Buy milk pasteurised, buy it packaged and buy it sealed says FSSAI. Milk is considered by the FSSAI’s international collaborators and local ‘nutrition coalitions’ to be the ideal medium for food ‘fortification’. Using what material? There are no answers.

The agency that has taken the responsibility for seeing this strategy through is the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). It was established under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (No.34 of 2006). The FSSAI is described as having been “created for laying down science based standards for articles of food and to regulate their manufacture, storage, distribution, sale and import to ensure availability of safe and wholesome food for human consumption”.

The 2006 Act subsumed central acts like the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954, Fruit Products Order 1955, and the Meat Food Products Order 1973. Other legislations like the Vegetable Oil Products (Control) Order 1947, Edible Oils Packaging (Regulation) Order 1988, Solvent Extracted Oil, De-Oiled Meal and Edible Flour (Control) Order 1967, Milk and Milk Products Order 1992 were repealed when the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 commenced.

It is during the last two years in particular that the FSSAI has become very much more visible and active. This heightened visibility is a result of the FSSAI using the powers it has directly through the 2006 Act, but also because of its widening alliances with the food and beverages industry, with the dairy and milk products industry and with the global ‘nutrition’ consortia.

Edible oils must be packaged says FSSAI. The oil ‘ghani’ is scarcely seen nowadays, but its produce was fresher and gave households more confidence about the purity of the produce than blended oils can. Edible oils from GM oilseeds or GM vegetable oil sources are being imported with no safety oversight whatsoever, but FSSAI’s insistence that packaged edible oil is ‘safe’ discriminates against oil pressed at small scale from local oilseeds that may be entirely organic.

Today the FSSAI is very close to becoming a single reference point for all matters relating to food safety and standards, and is also very close to becoming the most important arbiter of what is considered ‘nutrition’ and what is considered ‘safe food’ in India. Because of the growth in recent years of the processed and packaged food industry (not the same as agriculture, horticulture, collection of forest products, inland and coastal small fisheries) the importance of a single reference point agency increases even more.

The largest formal industry associations – CII, Assocham and FICCI – estimate that in 2017 the retail or store value of packaged and processed foods (and beverages) was about 2,048,000 crore rupees (about US$ 320 billion) in 2016. This enormous estimate is thought by the industry to be able to rise much more to around 3,400,000 crore rupees (about US$ 540 billion) by 2021-22 provided of course changes are made in regulation, called ‘ease of doing business’ (the calamitous benchmark of the World Bank). The FSSAI is to be seen as a critical part of the overall apparatus to reach this gigantic sum in the next five or six years.

It is entirely possible if the FSSAI and its accomplice government agencies and ministries are permitted by us to get away with it. The same industry associations (interest clubs of companies and investors) say that the FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) sector in India has grown in rupee terms at an average of about 11% a year for the last decade and that four out of every 10 rupees spent on FMCGs are spent on food and beverages.

With practically no remaining restrictions on foreign direct investment (FDI) in the food and retail sector, and with the former Foreign Investment Promotion Board (under the Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance) being replaced as an ‘ease of doing business’ change with the Foreign Investment Facilitation Portal (under the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, Ministry of Commerce and Industry) the central government has done its bit to level – dangerously for both consumer health and for environmental well-being – the playing field.

For cereals and pulses too the FSSAI wants consumers to buy packaged, uniformly sized and fortified produce. The don’ts are fair but the dos only fulfil the agbiotech-pharma agenda.

The web of inter-connections that together exert great power over the food industry – and because of it over agriculture, horticulture, forestry products and fisheries – can be seen in how the FSSAI is set up and which agencies it advises. Its administrative ministry is the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The FSSAI works closely with the Ministry of Women and Child Development (its object being the Integrated Child Development Services, ICDS, which provides food, pre-school education, and primary healthcare to children under 6 years of age and their mothers), with the Department of School Education and Literacy of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (its object being the Mid-Day Meal Scheme).

The FSSAI relies on the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (Ministry of Commerce and Industry) to bring in (through the FDI route) or encourage private sector units that will prepare and deliver the material for food ‘fortification’ and food ‘supplements’. It coordinates with the Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries (Ministry of Agriculture) concerning the dairy industry – working directly with the National Dairy Development Board to ‘fortify’ milk. It synchronises its rules and regulations with the Ministry of Food Processing Industries, which is the single point of reference for an industry that has become gigantic.

Frozen foods are energy sinks and are the very antithesis of healthy meal ingredients. But FSSAI has a place for them in its advice to consumers.

Furthermore the FSSAI works in tandem with the Department of Biotechnology (Ministry of Science and Technology) and the Department of Health Research (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare) in a joint effort to bring in and to develop biotechnology, genetic engineering and gene modification, and to find ways to publicise justifications (contrary to the great mass of scientific study that show GMOs to be harmful to humans, animals, soil and insects) for the use of these technologies and methods.

Thus although the FSSAI is considered by the Union Government of India to be an agency that has replaced multi-level, multi-departmental areas of control to a single line of command, just like the Foreign Investment Facilitation Portal or the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, these are agencies which do their work in concert, and that concert is played to the tune of the global agbiotech industry, the global food retailers, the e-commerce merchants and all their Indian corporate partners, subsidiaries and otherwise serfs.

Where genetically modified seed and crop, genetic engineering and gene manipulation in food ingredients and therefore food products are concerned, the FSSAI adopts the principle of lying low and saying nothing. In this its behaviour is consistent with that of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC, under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, but over which the Department of Biotechnology has controlling influence) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (responsible for the formulation, coordination and promotion of biomedical research and which is administered by the Department of Health Research, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare), both of which lie lower and say even less.

Even condiments and spices are passed by FSSAI as good to consume provided they are packed, packaged and sealed. In this way, the agency is preparing the ground for outlawing non-packaged, freshly ground and prepared foods and spices.

Such incoherence may partly explain why while the FSSAI collaborates with the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (which is under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry) towards its idea of ‘safe food’ and ‘nutrition’, the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (also under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry) was asked by the Ministry of Environment to stop imports of GM soybean for food or feed without the approval of the GEAC.

The Coalition for a GM-free India¬†has noted a string of imports of agricultural produce which should have been halted at the sea ports of entry and tested for whether they were GM/GE. The FSSAI has inspection sites at 21 locations including six sea ports. But the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) tested seed samples in Gujarat and found them to be genetically modified, while the Soybean Processors’ Association of India has raised serious concerns about the alleged import of GM soybean and farmers in Maharashtra complained about GM soyabean being cultivated for the last three years in Yavatmal.

There can be no excuse of any kind for these imports having taken place (and these are only the ones we have learnt about – seeds for planting can be imported via airfrieght at any international air cargo terminal in India). Till today, the Department of Consumer Affairs (Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution) has a well-publicised programme and campaign of consumer awareness – on such matters as maximum retail price, expiry date of food products, batch number and correct weight – but not on whether a food product has ingredients from GM crop and why it is important for a consumer to know this.

This is deliberately withholding information from consumers about food and food products that government agencies are certifying and permitting to be sold. While for organic foods there is a new regulation requiring quality assurance and traceability – under the Food Safety and Standards (Organic Foods) Regulations, 2017 – which attest to a product’s ‘organic status’ and its ‘organic integrity’, there is none whatsoever for products that have a GM ingredient.

“Essential nutrients”, “daily requirement”, “fight infections”, “strong and healthy”. The FSSAI uses the marketing gibberish of the infant and baby foods industry to daze consumers into believing that food ‘fortification’ is essential.

Under its ‘Safe and Nutritious Food’ programme, the FSSAI seeks to direct home consumers and institutional buyers of food products (such as company staff canteens) in all manner of standards relating to fresh, processed and packaged foods, edible oils, dairy products, meats and beverages. The FSSAI talks about standards for goat and sheep milk, chhana and paneer, whey cheese, cheese in brine, dairy permeate powder, refined vegetable oil, synthetic syrup and sharbat, coconut milk and coconut cream, wheat bran, non-fermented soybean products, processing aides for use in various food categories, limits for heavy metals, standards relating to pulses, millet, cornflakes, degermed maize, formulated supplements for children, honey, beeswax, additives in various food categories, tolerance limits of antibiotic and pharmacologically active substances.

But not a word about GMOs, over which we have had scarcely any regulation, and none at all about synthetic biology (also known as GMOs 2.0), which are not even close to being recognised as needing immediate regulation in India. Both generations of GMO survive by inventing and exaggerating claims of experimental science whose human, toxicological and environmental safety has not been studied thoroughly, by an absence of labelling to stringencies that are demanded of organic produce, by putting industry in control of food systems, by threatening biodiversity.

Some examples from elsewhere in the world are ‘probiotic yoghurt’ made out of engineered bacteria and other microorganisms which are intended to change bacteria inhabiting the human digestive tract, ‘gene sprays’ that can be sprayed directly onto crops in the feld to manipulate the genetics of pests and the terrible ‘gene drives’ which permanently ‘drive’ a genetic trait through a species to change the entire population forever by making it dependent on chemicals or to go extinct.

Warnings about allergies and additives. Why not about GM ingredients?

The FSSAI and its host ministry, the GEAC and its host ministry, every administrative apparatus of the Union Government and of the state governments are silent on this matter. They are just as silent on the question: of what materials are these so-called ‘fortification’ made?

The international donor agencies working with the FSSAI and being consulted by the agency on ‘safe food’, ‘nutrition’ and food fortification are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Clinton Health Access Initiative, the Coalition for Food and Nutrition Security, the Food Fortification Initiative, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, the Iodine Global Network, Nutrition International, PATH, the Tata Trusts, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organisation and the World Bank. Each has an agenda that goes far beyond ‘food safety’. One or more of them undoubtedly has the answer.

All the conditions that are pointed to (wasting, stunting, chronic under-nutrition, anaemia) as needing remedies from food ‘fortification’ and ‘supplements’ can be easily remedied through more sensible crop cultivation choices and diets that are agro-ecologically and culturally sound. But food has long been a means of control, and this is the work that FSSAI does beyond and behind the ‘safety’ and ‘standards’ part of its mandate.

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In Europe, a vote for the right to keep GM out

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The 'no' vote has given the European Parliament an excellent chance to improve EU legislation and give member states genuine tools to protect the environment and promote genuinely sustainable farming. Image: Friends of the Earth Europe

The ‘no’ vote has given the European Parliament an excellent chance to improve EU legislation and give member states genuine tools to protect the environment and promote genuinely sustainable farming. Image: Friends of the Earth Europe

Members of the European Parliament have defeated a European Commission proposal to prevent member states from banning genetically modified crops on health and/or environmental grounds. The result of this vote means that national bans on GM crops, for environmental or health reasons, are allowed even if the EU approves genetically modified (GM) crops for cultivation.

The European Food and Safety Authority had approved GM for use in the EU, but a number of countries opposed to GM (like France) demanded the right to block crops under a principle known as ‘subsidiarity’, or devolution to individual countries.

The Greens/European Free Alliance has said that the vote by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) strengthens the grounds on which EU member countries could opt out from GMO authorisations under the proposed new system.

In a statement the Greens/European Free Alliance said: “No must mean no: countries wanting to opt out of GM authorisations must have a totally legally watertight framework for doing so. MEPs have also voted for the inclusion of mandatory measures to prevent the contamination of non-GM crops, with the myriad of issues this raises. The committee also rejected a proposal from EU governments, which would have obliged member states to directly request that corporations take them out of the scope of their GMO applications, before being allowed to opt out.”

However, the Greens are still very concerned that the new opt out scheme is a slippery slope for easing EU GMO authorisations and does not fundamentally change the flawed EU approval process in itself. Organisations, scientists, academics, political fronts and citizens’ alliances who do not want GM crop or food in their regions and countries nonetheless see an urgent need to reform the EU’s GMO authorisation process. On 03 November 2014, signatures from more than 160,000 European citizens were presented to the vice-chair of the Environment Committee calling on him to close these loopholes.

Eight EU countries have banned the cultivation of GM crops (others have not commercially grown such crops). The only crop permitted, Monsanto's GM maize, is restricted to some areas of Spain and four other countries. Image: Friends of the Earth Europe

Eight EU countries have banned the cultivation of GM crops (others have not commercially grown such crops). The only crop permitted, Monsanto’s GM maize, is restricted to some areas of Spain and four other countries. Image: Friends of the Earth Europe

Currently, authorisations proceed in spite of flawed risk assessments and the consistent opposition of a majority of EU member states in Council and, importantly, a clear majority of EU citizens. They have warned against a trade-off of easier EU authorisations against easier national bans. For the EU, the next step must be an EU-wide total ban and total rejection of GM crop, food, seed and technology in all its forms, otherwise the new proposal for EU GMO approvals is a Trojan horse which risks finally opening the door to GMOs despite citizens’ opposition, and which will keep open the route for GM/biotech companies to appeal against such bans (a route that European Greens and the many groups that have rejected GM want to shut once and for all).

Such a next step – which is the logical and moral next step for the European Parliament to take – is necessary to overturn completely the current arrangement which treats biotech companies and corporations at the same level as governments. Under the arrangement that existed till now (the ramifications of this week’s ‘no’ vote must still be examined) an EU member country which does not want GMO to be grown on its territory must request the biotech company (through the European Commission) that its territory be excluded from the geographical scope of the EU authorisation. Only if the country has applied for a ‘territorial exemption’ and been refused by the company is the country allowed to then implement a ban on GMO on its territory.

How utterly contemptuous of a country’s sovereign rights this arrangement was, and how it found its way into procedure illustrates dramatically the power and influence that the GM and biotech industry has come to wield in the EU – the decision of the geographical scope of an EU authorisation gave more weight to biotech/GM companies than to governments!

In the debate about GM crops, the argument that the biotech industry and their supporters always fall back on is that whether we like it or not, we are going to need them to feed the world. Genetic modification has, they assure us, the potential to produce crops with all sorts of wonderful traits: tolerance of drought, cold, salinity and flooding, resistance to insect pests, extra nutritional value, and more.

“But for the last 20 years, GM has singularly failed to convert that potential into reality,” the Institute for Science in Society has explained. “Almost all the GM crops grown have been modified to have one of two traits: tolerance of glyphosate-based herbicides and the ability to produce a Bt-toxin that can kill corn- and cotton pests. In the meantime, conventional breeding, often employing modern techniques such as marker-assisted breeding, has continued to deliver the goods. If our real goal is to feed the world, we should be taking resources away from GM and devoting them to other agricultural research that is less glamorous-sounding but more effective.”

Does KFC want 13-month-old infants in India to eat its chicken?

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A schoolgirl walks under the KFC advertisement in Bengaluru (Bangalore). This hoarding is visible to all traffic on one of the city’s major roads, Richmond Road.

Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in India is advertising a chicken meal that costs 35 rupees (USD 0.67, EUR 0.51). Hoardings such as this one are visible now in all the major metropolitan cities (Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Delhi) and KFC has taken outdoor advertising space along major roads in these cities.

This hoarding advertises “Real chicken” for 35 Indian rupees, “KFC wow! price menu”. In small letters on the lower bottom right of the hoarding the advertisement also says: “Products contain added monosodium glutamate. Not recommended for infants below 12 months”.

There are two culprits here at work to further the interests of the junk food/fast food industry. One is the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India which is nowhere near as vigilant as it ought to be, especially given its ‘Advisory on Misbranding/ Misleading claims’ which invokes the Food Safety and Standards (FSS) Act, 2006, Rules & Regulations, 2011. This has said: “(2) The various false claims made by the Food Business Operator about food articles and consequent violation, if any, are punishable under the provisions fo FSS Act, 2006; (3) Violations related to food items, seriously jeopardize public health as well lead to unfair gains to Food Business; (4) Misleading advertisement related to food items are imputed with malafide intent on the part of person making the claim and is normally made to misguide a consumer to purchase food item without disclosing the complete details on the advertisement. Companies (Corporate bodies including firm or other association, individual) are also covered u/s 66, FSS Act, 2006.”

The objectionable disclaimer is in small letters on the lower right edge of the hoarding, unnoticeable to passing traffic.

The other culprit is KFC and its parent company, Yum! Brands, Inc. Just how important is India to Yum! Brands? Consider the statement by the company’s chairman and chief executive officer, David C Novak (available right now on the company website) in which he has mentioned India and its market:

” …we have made incredible progress in India, opening 101 new restaurants in 2011. Ten years ago, we were essentially just beginning with KFC in India, and now it’s our second leading country for new unit development. In fact, we’re so excited about our prospects in India, and its impact on the future growth of Yum!, that we’re going to break it out as a separate division for 2012 reporting directly to me. It’s encouraging to see that our new unit progress with KFC in India is very similar to what we saw in China during its first 10 years. Our India team has identified the key elements driving success in China and are adapting these strategies in India to leverage our iconic brands and build concepts with broad appeal.”

No thank you. We want 0 such restaurants per 1,000,000 people

India’s business and financial English-language dailies, since they function as mouthpieces of industry and propaganda sheets for industry and trade associations, and since they function as uncritical endorsers of the current ruling regime’s reckless gallop into ruin, have had only laudatory noises to make about the invasion under way by KFC and similar global junk food peddlers.

The Economic Times published a gushing interview with Muktesh Pant, CEO of Yum! Restaurants International, which is described as running “the international operations of US quick restaurant chains Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell restaurants”. The newspaper asked: “How is the Indian restaurant market evolving, compared to say China?” and Pant answered: “If you compare the stats of the two countries, the consumer class of 300 million in China has an access to 3,000+ KFCs, while the consumer class of 100 million in India has access to only about 140 KFC outlets. Hence, there is a huge potential for us to leverage our expertise in the untapped market. Our aim is to have 1,000 outlets in India by 2015 and China has helped us provide a blueprint for this rapid growth.”

The influence of KFC on the diet of India’s urban schoolchildren? See the schoolbuses driving past the hoarding.

The same gushing interview contained answers from Niren Chaudhary, president of Yum! Restaurants India, who was described as “reporting directly to Yum! Brands, Inc, Chairman & CEO David Novak after the world’s largest restaurant company last week made India only the third country after the US and China with a standalone reporting division”. How fabulously exciting for all the 13-month-old infants wetting their diapers in anticipation of their next KFC portion.

The question was: “Will it translate into faster expansion and more hires?” And Chaudhary’s answer: “Our goal is to double our store base to at least 1,000 stores, employing 50,000 people, in three years. The new structure is a change in reporting relationship and reflects the importance of India as a future growth opportunity.”

Now we know why the KFC advertisements say what they do (and hide much). This CEO Pant is reported to have studied at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, and if so that particular IIT – and the IITs and IIMs of Bharat – have much to answer for.