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Fake, sub-standard and the adulterated

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Under scanner: Chennai Corporation officials during an inspection in Arumbakkam recently. Government agencies have stepped up raids against expired and spurious food products.
Under scanner: Chennai Corporation officials during an inspection in Arumbakkam recently. Government agencies have stepped up raids against expired and spurious food products.
Ajai Sreevatsan, R. Sujatha and Deepa H Ramakrishnan

Consumer activists stress need for system to lodge complaints easily, initiate action against violators

CHENNAI: When it comes to packaged food, retail outlets now offer a wide choice. The freedom to choose has, however, not been accompanied by measures to curb adulterated, fake and sub-standard products. With the manufacturer-supplier-consumer chain getting more and more complex, spurious and expired food items are increasingly becoming a problem.

In the past three months, health officers of the Chennai Corporation have raided and destroyed over four tonnes of expired food items, including jams, milk products, cakes, biscuits, Basmati rice, chips, dosa batter and meat.

Corporation Commissioner Rajesh Lakhoni says, “Consumers who have a problem with a perishable item sold in a store can call or SMS 1913 to lodge a complaint. Even without complaints, our Food Inspectors and Sanitary Inspectors regularly pick up samples and conduct raids. So far, we have been concentrating on retail outlets. Now, we will be scaling up our operations and looking at the storage and manufacturing points.”

M. Thuyamurthy, an RTI activist, says there are godowns spread across north Chennai dedicated to manufacturing fake packaging material that are then filled with low quality food items. “Oil duplication is rampant in most places, but it is very difficult to prove because only samples taken by the Health Officer are valid,” he adds.

The distinguishing features that the consumer should look for in packaged food products are the ISI mark, Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) serial number, the company's name and address, the manufacturing and the ‘best before' dates.

Hepatologist K. Narayanaswamy says food made from poor quality ingredients damages the gastrointestinal tract. Reducing the cost of food by using sub-standard ingredients could cause mild to moderate irritation in the digestive tract, resulting in diarrhoea and vomiting.

P.Anbarasu, Deputy Director General, BIS, says that while the agency has prepared close to 22,000 standards, compliance is voluntary. “Only 1,000 food products are under certification (products with ISI mark) and 82 have mandatory certification. The existing regulatory mechanisms are pretty weak and even compliance with this limited set is not fully enforced.”

The agency also has a code of practice for food hygiene and food advertising. There are detailed guidelines on the nature of labelling of pre-packaged food but most of them are voluntary.

Consumer activists stress the need to put in place a system in which customers can easily lodge complaints and get a response.

S. Saroja, Co-ordinator of Citizen Consumer Civic Action Group, says most people are not aware of their rights as consumers. “When a person buys a small quantity of foodgrain from a shop, she is given a bill on a small piece of paper which will not stand as evidence in a court of law. People must opt for branded food products and ask for a bill with the shop's name on it,” she says.

As an example, she cites the case of a consumer who bought a bottle of aerated drink which had a foreign particle in it. The consumer sent two e-mails to the manufacturer but has not got a response. When he approached the King's Institute, the only government authorised testing centre, he was told to produce the bill and pay Rs.1,250 fee for testing the contents. According to Mr.Abarasu, once the Food Safety and Standards Act (2006) comes into force, adulteration and expired items sales can be tackled in a coordinated manner. “The government is in the process of appointing a Food Safety Commissioner. Once the Act is implemented, all food related establishments can operate only under a licence.”

The general secretary of the Tamizhaga Vanigar Sangangalin Kootamaipu, V.P.Mani, said that following the recent raids by various government agencies, the traders' body has issued directions to vendors asking them to keep goods meant for returning separately. “In case of branded biscuit packets, companies take returns only after a month. If we sell expired products to consumers, they will not come back to our shops. We do not support sale of expired or fake products.”

“The association has also asked vendors to stock just the right amount of goods that they can sell.”

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