Consuming adulterated food brings us all into the focus of dreadful ailments. The inhuman crime of ‘adulteration’ exists ever since immemorial times. Ancient Greeks and Romans artificially coloured their wines. In England, during early periods brewers and butchers fleeced the public with duped scales, along with sub-standard products.

Parliament enacted the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act with effect from June 1955. A food article is branded adulterated if any inferior or cheaper substance has substituted wholly or in its part a genuine food article, downgrading the quality of the product.

The law emphasises that even the packaging material should be free from any injurious substances. Mislabelling and misbranding are also liable to attract the provisions of the law.

Ghee is mixed with animal fat. Expensive coconut oil is mixed with economical cottonseed oil. Adulteration of milk is done without any qualms by adding and removing fat. Selling diluted buffalo milk as cow milk is a common practice in rural areas. Mustard seeds are often extracted along with toxic argemone seeds that contain the alkaloid sanguinarine, notorious for causing dropsy. Kesari dhal ( Lathyrus sativus) that is extensively cultivated in the north serves as a menacing ingredient in the hands of unscrupulous traders who liberally blend it with various pulses.

Consumption of this ominous stuff in the long run may lead to the spine chilling neuromuscular disorder “lathyrism” that will permanently cripple the victim ultimately claiming his life. Several fruits are injected with water in order to push up their weight deceptively.

The government’s knee-jerk response to this alarming menace can be gauged from the fact that even in a heavily populated State as Tamil Nadu annually only a trickle of 4200 samples are seized out of which 761 were found sub-standard.

It is high time a rigorous drive is undertaken to sensitise consumers on their rights, especially in rural areas where awareness is abysmally low. According to the law, the consumer has the every right even to seize the sample from any trader after due information and the product can be tested for its genuineness in a public health laboratory for a fee. If the sample fails to meet the prescribed standard, he can approach the authorities to set the law in motion.

Consumers can be educated on simple spot tests that can be carried out in a household. For instance, the quality of the tea leaves can be determined by transferring a sample to a filter paper followed by treating them with a few drops of water.

On close observation after a few minutes streaks will develop on the filter paper exposing them in the event of artificial colouration. “Lactometer” is a handy instrument that can be employed to check the genuineness of the milk. The purity of the iodised salt can be examined by adding a drop of starch solution to the salt. Failure to develop a blue colour will indicate its dubious quality.

( The author is a retired Chief Chemist, King Institute of Preventive Medicine, Chennai)

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