Food for thought : Plastic rice

S. Madhusudhana Rao

It’s a Hamletian dilemma: What to buy and what not to buy when we go to a corner grocery or a supermarket. We don’t know what health risks are lurking behind in the attractively labeled, canned, boxed up or bottled food items.

If health-conscious consumers care to spend a few minutes on reading the contents printed in the smallest possible font on the product wrapper, they know what ingredients have gone in to make the stuff and its nutritional value. But how many buyers bother to read the contents before putting a product in the shopping cart? Many even don’t look at the manufacturing and expiry date. Generally, we take it for granted that whatever is neatly packed, displayed and sold is genuine and won’t cause any adverse health effects after it is consumed.

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S. Madhusudhana Rao

But the recent Maggi noodles episode has proved that there exist disputable differences between claims and reality checks as far as a food product’s contents and their permitted limits for human consumption and quality are concerned. There are hundreds of food products the organized sector manufactures and we consume them without raising a question because we believe the manufacturers strictly follow quality standards, abide by food safety norms set by national and international watchdogs and don’t indulge in false claims. If they are found flouting the rules, the consumers should be concerned because we are the ultimate sufferers. In a way, somebody’s greed costs us our health.

In fact, a close look at what we eat everyday and how it is produced reveals the extent of abuse the natural produce is subjected to at various stages. By now, we are familiar with news reports about excessive use of chemical fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides to maximize yields. Traces of toxic substances find their way into our food chain and end up in our body system.

Fruits are chemically treated to artificially ripen them or prolong their shelf life; drugs are injected into tree trunks to quicken their maturity; toxic powders are mixed with grains and pulses to keep away creepy-crawlies during storage and transport. These are only a few among many other methods used to increase and protect farm produce. However, the downside of it is despite thorough cleaning, toxins that are absorbed by fruits, vegetables and crops during the growth process turn poisonous once ingested. Poultry and animal husbandry industries are no exception. Hormone treatment to fatten chicken and boost milk production in cows and buffaloes is not uncommon.

Tinkering with natural processes will have a profound impact on the farm, dairy and animal produce and the end products we consume – both raw and processed.  Besides, the biggest problem in India is pollution of land and water resources, resulting in high levels of toxins and carcinogens in various foods.

Our food for thought doesn’t end there. Adulteration at source and distribution level and fakes in the market confound consumers. While some adulterants are harmless, others can lead to health problems, particularly among children and the aged whose immunity levels are low. For example, sugar or jaggery syrup in honey doesn’t affect us; but detergent powder in milk does.

Ingenuity is the name of the adulteration game. Many instances of how daily consumption items were faked had come to official notice such as: synthetics added to milk to make it look like full cream milk; recycled machine oils passed on as edible oils; fine brick dust mixed with chilly powder; papaya seeds blended with black pepper; and the like. The biggest business in this category is well or tap water sold as mineral water!

However, the real shocker comes from China. Known as the mass producer of cheap goods –and fakes – its export of plastic rice to many countries, including India, has hit the headlines. The Delhi High Court has even admitted a PIL seeking government action on curbing plastic rice imports from China. The plea will be heard on August 20.

A Malayalam newspaper in Kerala, served out the plastic rice news first, saying huge quantities of rice made from plastic are sold in Kozhikode district. Apparently, it may be going undetected in the market across the country. It seems India is not the only country that is importing plastic rice from China.

A report in The Straits Times of Singapore said last week that plastic rice, made from potatoes and sweet potatoes with synthetic resin molded into the shape of real rice is being exported to countries like India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

The problem with the plastic rice is it undetectable when mixed with natural grains. The proof of fakeness comes out when it is cooked. Plastic rice grains stay hard and the foam that forms during the process looks like a coat of plastic film, according to experts. It is believed that plastic rice is widely sold in rural China. However, eating such rice can seriously damage the human digestive system.

Another Chinese shocker is fake eggs that appear natural but when they are broken, they contain synthetic yolk and gluey white. On YouTube, videos of plastic rice production on a massive scale and, plastic eggs can be seen. You should be forewarned that both are unpalatable.

The recent alert issued by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the country’s regulator, asking all state government to be vigilant assumes importance in view of rising adulteration cases, particularly packaged food stuff. Since it is mostly in the hands of an organized industry, it is easy to deal with the problem. But what about small units that indulge in adulteration and in manufacturing fakes? These are grey areas that go unnoticed.

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