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'700,000 people dying due to diarrhoea arising out of contaminated food and water in South Asia'
AKHAND | 06 Apr 2015

"Scientific evidence has shown that contamination of food is a serious issue in India as unchecked microbial activity, and the use of pesticides and antibiotics seriously compromise food safety while consumption of junk food and other chemically-laced foods adds to the problem," said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), flagging the nation's key concerns on the eve of the World Health Day.

Food safety is the theme of the 2015 World Health Day. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 2 million people - 1.5 million of them children - die each year in the world due to diarrhoea from contaminated food and water; of the 2 million, nearly 700,000 die in South Asian countries alone. In 2013, about 10 per cent of the deaths in India of children below 5 years were due to diarrhoea.

Use of pesticides

CSE researchers say pesticide use and management in India is largely unregulated and food contaminated with pesticide residues is freely used by unsuspecting consumers. Pesticides are linked to long-term health effects such as endocrine disruption, birth defects and cancer. Besides raw agriculture produce, pesticides have been found in packaged food products such as soft drinks, bottled water and in human tissues in India. "In India, unregistered pesticides are being used – and without maximum limits set on their use. The usage is largely influenced by marketing initiatives of industry," said Bhushan.

Use of antibiotics

Indiscriminate use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic reasons such as growth promotion and mass disease prevention is a common practice in intensive industrialised farm settings in the country. Both residues of antibiotics and resistant bacteria can get transferred to humans through contaminated food. The problem of drug resistance linked with this practice, further makes the food-borne illness difficult to treat.

Street food and packaged food

While microbiological contamination of street food is a concern, its most common replacement is processed and packaged food which is laden with chemical additives. Long-term risks of many of these are not known. Besides chemical additives, ultra-processed junk foods are known to be high in salt, sugar and fats including trans-fats. Considering their established linkages with non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease, it would be more than appropriate to consider these foods as unsafe too.

Adulteration

Controlling adulteration is a big challenge but is of critical importance. A key example is milk which in recent years has been found to be adulterated in most states with water as well as detergents. The water could have been contaminated with bacteria or virus and detergents are toxic to human body.

The organisation demands for Implementation and enforcement of the Food Safety and Standards Act (FSS) and food testing laboratory infrastructure and skills needs to be strengthened. They also suggested that Limits of chemicals or determinants of unsafe food and awareness of people.