Thursday, December 10, 2009

Food corruption in India and China

Suman Sahai

The list of food scares in China just over the past one year includes drug-tainted fish, industrial dye in egg yolks to colour them red, pork tainted with a banned feed additive and melamine laced milk powder. The melamine scandal which is the most recent, involved the adulterating of infant formula with the industrial chemical melamine, which can cause kidney stones and kidney failure. Melamine, used in the manufacture of plastics, was mixed with milk powder to show higher protein levels on measurement, in order to get higher prices for the allegedly ‘rich’ milk.

The melamine milk powder was discovered just before the Beijing Olympics, but the Chinese government buried the story so as not to create a scandal ahead of the Olympics when China was showcasing its prowess to the world. But soon after, legal proceedings were instituted and just a few days ago, two people were executed for their involvement in the melamine scandal that killed six and sickened over 300,000 people, some critically. Most of those taken ill were babies and children. The two accused received the death penalty for producing and selling toxic food and for endangering public safety. Apart from them, 19 other people have been jailed in this connection.

In another instance a few months ago, China executed a former director of the food and drug agency for approving fake medicine in exchange for cash. During the tenure of the disgraced drug controller, the state food and drug administration had from 1997 to 2006, approved six untested drugs that turned out to be fake. It was also found that some drug-makers had used falsified documents to apply for approvals, with the knowledge of the drug controller, in order to by pass safety tests.

Compare this with the situation in India where it is common knowledge that milk is adulterated with urea and industrial chemicals and made into a lethal brew risking the health and safety of consumers ranging from children to convalescents and pregnant mothers. Spurious drugs are so prevalent that according to newspaper reports it is impossible to ascertain the authenticity of drugs, even life saving drugs, in smaller towns and cities.

Not just this, people die routinely after drinking adulterated alcohol, or go blind or are paralysed. Pictures of wailing women seated next to corpses, victims of ‘hooch tragedies’

are commonplace. Children are periodically taken ill with food poisoning after eating their mid day meal in school, supplied free by the government. Guests at temple feasts ,

weddings and religious ceremonies are regularly found to have been taken violently ill or poisoned because of some adulterant. The adulteration of food in India is on a scale that can only be described as epic.

This is despite the fact that we have a law on food safety which prescribes food standards and heavy penalties for violators. The Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006 spells out in great detail the standards and permissible and banned additives. But all this might as well exist in the ether for all the difference it makes to ensure the safety of food on the market. Contractors and suppliers of food are the worst culprits of breaking the law in ways which are criminal. Government agencies that place such orders are complicit but this malpractice is raging in the private sector as well. Nobody is ever punished.

When talk turns to corruption, there is a large section of the Indian middle class that switches off, saying it is tired of hearing this ‘corruption talk’. Every society is corrupt, so we need not flagellate ourselves. Wasn’t the Prime Minister of this European state charged with corruption, and did not the British MPs inflate their bills? The Chinese are as bad as us they claim, if not worse. This may all be true but the difference is that we in India do not punish our guilty, We condone corruption and let it happen repeatedly and in the case of food adulteration, we over look the fact that innocent lives are lost because of greedy people. The difference between us and them is that when the guilty in other countries pay a severe pricefor their crimes. In the case of China, corrupt people who harm others are executed. In India they wear gold rings on their fingers and go scot free.

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