Off and on, we hear of various instances in the state with regard to impurities being found in packaged drinking water and other forms of processed food like biscuits, cakes and bakery items. These reported cases are but a small fraction of the tough reality that the food we eat is not safe. Earlier, the state government sent out public notifications over the ban of various food products entering the state from Myanmar and followed it up with raids on shops selling such items as canned fish with no indications of contents and ingredients used. However, things have turned right back to square one with the banned articles making their appearance in the consumable food market. There is no denying that a whole lot of unsavory practices continue in the food market sector all across the country with buyers putting in a range of additives that are not meant to be added at all to food consumable products and using underhand practices to make food more appealing to consumers. To cite an example, a report by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) a few years back found that most of the country’s milk was being watered down or adulterated with products ranging from fertilizer, bleach and detergent which were being used to make milk thick and give it a white, frothy look that would entice consumers to buy them.
Incidentally, the FSSAI was only instituted in 2006 to look into and take action over matters related to the quality of food products in the country and is still plagued with an acute shortage of human resources and technical apparatus needed for the task at hand. While the FSSAI has undertaken various studies and drives at times, they are far too less with more attention on the macro level rather than tackling what happens at the micro level in the numerous eating joints and markets that dot the country. To start with the issue of food safety at the micro level, it is a known fact that road-side hotels use left-over oil or mix in used tea leaves with new ones to cut their costs all over the country. Graduating a bit further, fruits and vegetables are often laced with calcium carbide to make them appear shining and fresh. With the transportation process of vegetables and fruits taking a long haul on roads and sometimes crossing numerous states and region, it is an open secret that when starting out, raw fruits and vegetables are loaded in along with chemicals to keep them from rotting. Once they reach their intended destination, another round of chemical brush up takes place to make them appear fresh and colorful.
In Manipur, the revelations of substandard quality food products or those being sold against their shelf life have been brought to public notice by an array of vigilante cum social groups. While the overall message on food safety concern is laudable, it would be wise to be suspicious of the ‘go back outsider’ agenda for many who have been targeted, happen to be non-locals selling the said goods. This is not to condone the practice of selling products beyond their shelf life but to point out that such drives should be not on the identity of people selling them but to put a plug on unsafe items being sold to the public. After all, there is yet to any action being taken up with regard to how fish are being fermented to give the staple ingredient of every Manipuri household: Ngari, when it is common knowledge yet again that the procedures involved are not hygienic or quality controlled. If food safety is to be the core issue as it should be, there needs to be a serious attempt with the Government agency leading from the front and supported by various stakeholders including civil society groups. The Government agencies would have to spread awareness among the general public and sensitize shopkeepers and warehouse staff that food products that have reached their shelf life or expiry dates should not reach the public and keep a check on food items are being stored as unscientific storage systems can also harm food and food products. The public on their part should not take the matter of raiding shops and godowns and seizing items but be alert by checking manufacturing information, expiry dates and notify the authorities.
Leader Writer: Chitra Ahanthem