It’s junk, not food

The Maggi episode offers the government a chance to crack down on unhealthy food products
  • PTI

This may shock you. The US President’s Cancer Panel estimates that 41 per cent of all Americans living today will end up suffering from cancer in their lifetime. It is expected that 1 in 2 men and 1 in every 3 women in America will eventually get cancer. The report warns against the pervasive use of chemicals — including, pesticides, insecticides and synthetic ingredients in processed foods.

In Punjab, a 525-page report prepared by the Department of Health and Family Welfare, too, has pointed to the increasing contamination of junk foods with chemicals as a major cause leading to increasing incidence of cancer. Excessive use and abuse of chemicals, including chemical fertilisers and insecticides and also chemical residues from industry, over the past few decades have turned Punjab into a hotspot of cancer.

Reports of the Centre preparing to file a case against Nestle India to seek damages on behalf of the consumers for selling unsafe Maggi noodles and also from the Ahmedabad-based Consumer Education Research Centre (CRC) for planning a legal action against the multinational giant for misleading advertisements are, therefore, more than welcome. Considering that Nestle has spent Rs445 crore last year alone on advertising and sales promotion, and has spent only 5 per cent of this staggering amount on quality tests shows how casual the company has been towards human health.

Banning of Maggi sales by 17 states so far across the country, and the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India (FSSAI) ordering a nationwide recall of nine variants of Maggi from the market should serve as a wake-up call for a massive clean-up act. Not only do other noodle brands — Knorr, Yippee (ITC), 1to3 (Surya), Nissin Cup noodles, Doodles and Ching’s Secret — need to be brought under the scanner, but it is time all kinds of processed foods are checked for quality. This has been long overdue and will go a long way in rebuilding consumer confidence.

Processed foods are rich in fats, sugar, salt, preservatives and chemicals posing a serious health hazard. As the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has shown that noodles alone contains about 60 per cent of the salt requirement that a child needs to consume daily. The accumulation of excess salt in children, therefore, is extremely risky. Studies have now shown that excessive consumption of salt is leading to increasing number of deaths. Worldwide 1.65 million people die from excess sodium consumption.

Along with high intake of sugar and trans fats, childhood obesity is emerging as a huge problem in America with obesity rates among those between 2 and 19 years being as high as 17 per cent. In India, the growing craze for junk foods — these are not foods, but junk — is actually leading to undernutrition and acute malnutrition. There is no denying that many mothers find it convenient to feed children with junk foods, either out of lack of awareness or simple laziness, not knowing that it leads to serious health problems later. Aided with high profile advertising that misleads them to believe that such products are ‘nutritious’, they become easy prey.

A series of investigative reports on hidden hunger by the news web portal Scroll states: “Food is cooked twice at home: rice, roti, dal [mostly masoor since it’s the cheapest], sabzi [mostly potatoes], but never green leafy vegetables or fruit or milk. Meals are interspersed with Maggi, popcorn and a variety of chips, which kill the appetite for a full meal. It isn’t just that children like their taste, there is an economic rationale to rely on junk food. A packet of Maggi noodles costs Rs10 while a meal of rice, dal and vegetables would cost approximately three times that amount.” More consumption of junk food among children leads to malnutrition and stunted growth.

Quoting a CRY study, the report says that 36% children suffer from malnutrition and another 33% are victims of severe acute malnutrition that could lead to abnormalities and even death.

To suggest that children can be kept away from junk foods if they are not sold in the vicinity of the school premises, is certainly not a plausible solution. I have followed very keenly the campaign “Let’s Move!” launched by the US First lady Michelle Obama on fighting junk food advertisements of sugary breakfast cereals, soft drinks and fast food aimed at schoolchildren. Although the US Department of Agriculture has last year phased out advertising from the vending machines, I don’t understand why the US government can’t ban the production and sales of junk foods? If cigarette smoking can be banned in public places, why can’t junk food sales also be banned?

It is also time to take a relook at the colas. A BBC expose had shown that each bigger container of the cold drink that is served in the cinema halls carries 44 spoons of sugar; the smaller containers carry 23 spoons. The next time you are in a cinema hall be careful about what you drink. It may taste refreshing at that moment but not for your body system. The clean-up act, therefore, cannot be completed unless the soft drink industry is also brought under the scanner. In fact, the time has come when health warnings like those inscribed on cigarette packs also needs to be prescribed for some of the processed food products and colas.

A robust food safety system is a crying need. In India, there exists 1 food laboratory for every 88 million people. In China, a food safety lab exists for every 20 lakh people. Infrastructure development does not only mean constructing expressways and highways. It’s time adequate investment is made for food safety with stringent laws that provide for deterrent punishment to erring firms. For a company which spends Rs 445 crore on advertising, paying a maximum fine of Rs10 lakh is a joke. Unless the food safety laws ensure that big players end up coughing out 10 per cent of their annual turnover in penalties, I don’t see the possibility of a strict compliance with food safety laws.