The Ever-lurking Menace of Food Adulteration

July 30, 2021: A Disturbing Fact: 50% of Bottled Drinking Water Is Contaminated! The DFTQC tested 27 samples of bottled drinking water in FY 2020/21 and found that 16 were contaminated enough to be unfit for consumption. In the same fiscal year, the department filed cases against 100 firms for selling adulterated food products like dairy, spices, animal feed, snacks, edible oil, sweets, and noodles.

Jul 31, 2021: Quality Watchdog Catches 100 Firms for Adulteration. The Department of Food Technology and Quality Control (DFTQC) filed cases against 100 companies in FY 2020-21 for food products adulteration and selling items unfit for human consumption. They include drinking water plants, bakeries and biscuit manufacturers, and oil and ghee producers, and even the state-owned Dairy Development Corporation, whose milk was found to be bad, and its butter, adulterated.

Dec 18, 2021: Food Adulteration Offences Rise Even During Lockdown. The COVID-19 lockdown from April 29, 2021 to September 1, 2021 did not stop dishonest manufacturers from adding prohibited substances in food products. The DFTQC initiated action against 27 companies in the first three months of the fiscal year (July 15, 2021 to October 15, 2021) for mixing adulterants to food products.

May 13, 2022: Cases filed against 64 Industries for Adulteration of Food. The DFTQC took legal action against 64 industries for producing and selling inedible food items and contaminated drinking water. They will be prosecuted under the Black Marketing Act 2032, and if found guilty, can face prison sentences of 10 years. While 19 industries are accused of selling products without labeling, 45 are accused of producing inedible food items.
Well, these headlines and news reports in some major dailies and periodicals say it all! Food adulteration is an ever-present menace that puts at risk the health of our people. Food adulteration means that the quality or nature of a given food item is reduced through addition of adulterants or removal of vital substance (s). Adulteration usually means that small quantities of non-nutritious substances are added intentionally to improve the appearance, texture, or storage properties of the food.

Food is adulterated if:
• It contains inferior or cheaper substance (s.)
• The food has been prepared and packed or kept under unhygienic conditions, resulting in contamination.
• It contains substances that adversely affect health.
• A portion of vital substance from the food item has been removed.
• It is an imitation of some other food substance.

Types of food adulteration:
• Intentional: The adulterants are added as a deliberate act for profit.
• Incidental: Due to negligence, ignorance, or lack of proper facilities.
• Metallic: When metallic substances are added intentionally or accidentally.
Methods of adulteration:
• Mixing: mixing of items like clay, stones, pebbles, sand, marble chips, etc.
• Substitution: cheaper/inferior substances replacing good ones wholly or partially.
• Concealing quality: hiding the standard, such as adding captions of qualitative food to low quality items.
• Decomposed food: found mainly in fruits and vegetables, decomposed items are mixed with fresher ones.
• Misbranding/ false labels: includes duplicate food stuff and change of manufacture and expiry dates.
• Addition of toxicants: adding non-edible substances, such as argemone in mustard oil, low quality preservatives, coloring agents, etc.

Health hazards of food adulteration

Some health hazards of food adulteration are:
• Mineral oil if added to edible oil/fats may increase the risk of nonmelanoma skin cancer..
• Lead chromate if added to turmeric powder (to imbue a bright yellow color) and other spices can cause anemia, brain damage, paralysis, and abortion.
• Lead added to water and foodstuff can lead to lead poisoning, mental retardation, insomnia, constipation, foot drop, and anemia.
• Cobalt added to water and liquors and can cause cardiac damage
• Copper, zinc, and tin if added to foodstuffs can cause colic, vomiting, and diarrhea.
• Mercury in mercury-contaminated fish, or mercury fungicide treated grains, can cause paralysis, brain damage, and death.
• Non-permitted color or excess of permitted food color like metal yellow can cause allergies, hyperactivity, anemia, infertility, liver damage, birth defects, and cancer.

Tests for adulteration of some foodstuff:
• To detect presence of mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other starches in ghee, add 2-3 drops of tincture of iodine to half teaspoon of ghee/butter in a clear glass bowl. Formation of blue color indicates presence of above-mentioned starches.
• To detect presence of TOCP (Triorthocresyl phosphate) in oils and fats, add a little solid yellow butter to a 2 ml of sample of the oil. Immediate formation of red color indicates the presence of TOCP, which is a toxic substance that causes neuropathy and paralysis in the hands and feet, and/or death. Adulteration of oil with this cheap chemical, which is used as fire retardant, plasticizer, or lubricant, has been responsible for several mass poisonings in the past.
• To detect presence of sugar in honey, add a drop of honey to a clear glass of water. If the honey disperses, it indicates the presence of added sugar
• To detect presence of chalk powder in sugar, dissolve 10 g of sugar sample in a transparent glass of water. If the sugar has been mixed with chalk, the adulterant will settle down at the bottom.
• To detect papaya seeds in black pepper, add a small amount of black pepper to a glass of water. If it is pure, all the black pepper will settle on the bottom; if adulterated, the papaya seeds will float on the surface.
• To detect presence of foreign resin in hing (asafetida), burn a small quantity of the hing in a stainless steel spoon. If pure, it will burn like camphor, if not, it will not produce bright flame like camphor.
• To detect presence of saw dust in chili powder, add a sample to water, Pure chili powder will settle at the bottom; if adulterated, the saw dust will float on the surface.
• To differentiate between common salt and iodized salt, add some salt sample to a cut potato, wait for a minute, and then add two drops of lemon juice, If it is iodized salt, there will be a blue color, if not, there will be no blue color.
• To detect presence of artificial color in green peas, put a small amount of pea sample in a glass, mix with water, and let stand for half an hour. If adulterated, there will be clear separation of the color.
• To detect presence of malachite green in vegetables, soak a cotton piece in water or vegetable oil and rub the outer surface of a small part of the vegetable with it. The cotton will turn green if it is adulterated with malachite green, which is an organic compound that is used as a dye, the toxicity of which increases with exposure time, temperature, and concentration. It is reported to cause carcinogenesis, mutagenesis, chromosomal fractures, teratogenecity, and respiratory toxicity.
• To detect presence of adulterants in tea leaves, spread a few of the leaves on a wet filter paper. Wash the filter paper under tap water and observe the stains against light. Pure tea leaves will not leave a stain on the filter paper, while presence of black/brown stains indicate the presence of adulterants like coal tar.

The headlines at the beginning of this article show that food adulteration is a common practice in Nepal, with some examples seen in Kathmandu being: milk mixed with water; vanaspati used as adulterant in ghee; ergot used as adulterant in cereals; chalk-powder in flour; chicory or tamarind seed powder in coffee; papaya in black pepper; brick-powder in chili-powder; wood powder in turmeric and dhania powder, and so on.

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