Is your sandwich safe enough?

May 24, 2016 12:00 am | Updated September 12, 2016 08:22 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

Photo for representative purpose only.

Photo for representative purpose only.

Your daily bread could contain cancer-causing chemicals, including potassium bromate and potassium iodate — substances that are banned in many countries, but not in India due to slack food regulations, warns a new report released by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) here on Monday.

The CSE’s study tested bread sold in Delhi and found residues of potassium bromate/iodate in commonly consumed varieties of the food item.

The use of potassium bromate — classified as a category 2B carcinogen (possibly carcinogenic to humans) — is banned in most countries. Potassium iodate contributes to thyroid-related diseases. The CSE has now recommended the immediate ban of these two chemicals to prevent their routine exposure to the Indian population. Hours after the report was released, Union Health Minister J.P. Nadda said, however, there was “no need to panic”. Directing officials to look into the report and investigate the matter, the Minister said: “We will have a detailed report.’’

Treatment of flour

The study, conducted by the CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory (PML), says Indian bread manufacturers use potassium bromate and potassium iodate to treat flour while making bread.

The PML tested 38 commonly available branded varieties of pre-packaged breads, pav and buns, ready-to-eat burger bread and ready-to-eat pizza breads of popular fast food outlets in Delhi.

“We found 84 per cent samples positive with potassium bromate/iodate. We re-confirmed the presence of potassium bromate/iodate in a few samples through an external third-party laboratory. We checked labels and talked to industry officials and scientists. Our study confirms the widespread use of potassium bromate/iodate as well as the presence of bromate/iodate residues in the final product,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general, CSE and head of the CSE lab.

What has the world done on potassium bromate/iodate?

In 1999, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified potassium bromate as possibly carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to humans. It was found to cause tumour of the kidney and thyroid, and cancer of the abdominal lining in laboratory animals.

Banned in many countries

Considering potassium bromate as a ‘genotoxic carcinogen’, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives in 1992 said “use of potassium bromate as a flour treatment agent was not appropriate”. The EU had already banned its use in 1990 and so did the U.K. Subsequently, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Nigeria, Peru and Columbia also decided against its use.

“Globally, potassium bromate was allowed to be used on the assumption that the bromate residues would not be present in the end product. This assumption failed across the world. Residues were being detected even after reducing the allowed limits of use and, therefore, countries started banning it. Our study confirms that residues of potassium bromate are present in bread sold in India,” Mr. Bhushan said.

However, food safety regulations in the country allow for use of potassium bromate as flour treatment agent in bread and other bakery products.

Potassium bromate is a powerful oxidising agent, use of which makes bread fluffy, soft and gives it a good finish. Under ideal baking conditions, bromate converts into bromide, which is harmless. However, this does not seem to happen in practice. While there is not much labelling required on non-packaged fast foods, pre-packaged products have to disclose the flour treatment agent used.

“Industry members and experts told us that potassium bromate is widely used as it is allowed by the law and offers high-quality finish to the final product. When the CSE contacted companies whose products were found to contain potassium bromate or potassium iodate, six out of 12 came forward to deny the use of these chemicals,” says Amit Khurana, programme manager, Food Safety and Toxins team at CSE.

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