While microbial contamination is a major cause for making food unsafe, there are other factors at play as well
The recent incident of a customer finding a lizard floating in his cold drink at a McDonald’s outlet in Sola, Ahmedabad, has sent shock waves through the community. While the outlet has been sealed, the incident shows a major lapse in the safety protocol by the staff. The question that arises is: if such a thing can happen at a multinational chain, what can you expect at smaller outlets and food carts?
Today is World Food Safety Day as designated by the World Health Organization (WHO). The day is observed annually on June 7 to mobilize action to prevent, detect and manage foodborne risks and improve human health. Globally, one in ten people are affected by foodborne diseases annually.
Contamination and allergies
When we talk about unsafe food, we usually think of food that has harmful microorganisms like bacteria, viruses or parasites, that can cause various diseases and food poisoning. Says well-known Ahmedabad-based medical practitioner, Dr Raghu Satyanarayan: “In summer and monsoon season, people are more susceptible to catch stomach infections. You can suffer from vomiting, diarrhea and even gastroenteritis by eating contaminated food. Hepatitis A and E and typhoid fever are other diseases caused by consuming unsafe food.” His advice on eating out is to eat food that is hot, since bacteria cannot survive in food that has been cooked properly. It’s better to avoid raw, cold food like salads and buttermilk.
Food can also be unsafe if you have an allergy to a particular food. “Allergy to milk and milk products (lactose intolerance) is the most common food allergy. People having celiac disease are allergic to the gluten in wheat. Peanuts and seafood, particularly prawns, can also cause allergies,” explains Dr Satyanarayan.
Menace of adulteration
Food adulteration can be defined as the addition or subtraction of any substance that affects the quality of the food adversely. Adulteration may be intentional, for economic gain, such as adding stones to rice. Or, it could be unintentional due to contamination during storage or distribution (as in the lizard case mentioned above).
Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC), an Ahmedabad-based NGO actively works towards raising awareness about adulteration. “The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has come out with test kits to detect adulteration easily at home. These kits containing basic chemicals and small instruments can be used to test over 100 products for common adulterants. The food items that can be tested include milk, butter, ghee, oil, sugar, honey, jaggery, grains, pulses, spices and beverages,” says Anusha Iyer, advocacy manager and associate editor at CERC.
Another aspect of food safety
There is another important aspect of food safety, which is consumption of foods high in fat, salt and sugar, called HFSS foods. Frequent consumption of such foods can lead to obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease.
“India is a multilingual country and also faces problems of literacy. Vulnerable consumers may not be able to read and understand labels. Hence, CERC has been urging the authorities to place a warning symbol prominently on the front of packets of foods high in either fat, salt or sugar. Such a symbol will catch the eye of consumers and ensure that they make healthy food choices. Adoption of such a warning symbol would also motivate the food industry to be more responsible towards making their products healthier,” says Anusha.
Another initiative of CERC is exposing misleading advertisements of food products. “For instance, roasted snacks are very popular these days but does the consumer know that they may be high in salt? Digestive biscuits are touted to be healthy for their fibre content. A label survey of eight major brands of digestive biscuits was undertaken by CERC. The survey revealed that most of the biscuits had very high sugar and fat content and seven out of eight brands did not mention the salt content on the label,” elaborates Anusha.
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