It may be surprising that the food we eat could be contaminated. Even the ingredients used in preparing food could be contaminated. Generally, contaminants are substances that make the food products unsafe for human consumption.
As per the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, contaminants can include any substandard food i.e. food of inferior quality; misbranded food, i.e. packages or advertisements displaying false or deceptive claims; or food containing extraneous matter, i.e. non-permitted ingredients or additives; food containing pesticides in excess of quantities specified by regulations; un-hygienically processed food; or food infected with bacteria, virus or fungi; or infested with worms, weevils or insects.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has defined a list of contaminants, toxins and chemical residues under the regulations for the purpose of food testing. FSSAI has also listed prohibited substances, such as coloring agents, starch, pepper oil, injectable dyes etc. under the regulations for prohibition and sale of substances. Tartrazine, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), diacetyl, and acrylamide are some of the dangerous substances being used as food additives that are prohibited under Indian and international regulations. Likewise, some common chemical substances include formalin, carbamide, ammonium sulfate, hydrogen peroxide, sodium bicarbonate, boric acid, and coal tar dyes.
Common Food, their Contaminants, and Associated Health Hazards
Contaminants can be added to food intentionally, largely for financial gains, such as the addition of extraneous materials to food ingredients. Contamination can also occur unintentionally, i.e. incidental that occurs accidentally or due to carelessness or ignorance. These include spillover from pesticides and fertilizers, rodent droppings, insect larvae, and heavy metal contamination of food. Although any one type of food can have more than one adulterant, the examples given below show only one type of adulterant for illustrative purposes.
Table 1: Food, contaminants and their health hazards
|Rice and other food grains||Extraneous materials (sand, stones, gravel, and other filth)||Can cause physical damage to teeth and gums; causes vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea, if swallowed|
|Turmeric, yellow dals, and pulses||Metanil Yellow (a non-permitted yellow food color)||It is toxic to the brain and spinal cord; long-term exposure can cause liver cancer|
|Green vegetables||Malachite Green (green colored dye)||It is injurious to the liver; long-term exposure can cause lung cancer|
|Mustard seeds/oil and other edible oils||Argemone (prickly poppy) seeds, argemone oil, and mineral oil||Can cause epidemic dropsy (swelling of the legs) and severe glaucoma (disease of the eye due to increased pressure)|
|Paneer, khoya, milk, and milk products||Starch||Decreases the nutritional value of food; long-term consumption can cause pancreatic cancer|
|Ice cream||Washing powder||Severe abdominal pain and abnormal liver function|
|Black pepper||Papaya seeds||Stomach irritation and liver damage|
|Tea leaves/powder||Exhausted tea leaves||Liver cirrhosis; long-term use can cause cancer|
|Coffee powder||Chicory powder||Diarrhea, stomach irritation, vomiting, dizziness, and severe joint pains|
What about the Health Hazards of Heavy Metal Contaminants?
Heavy metals, particularly lead, cadmium, and mercury are a major threat to human health. Some examples are given below:
- Lead can enter the body from polluted air and contaminated food. It causes brain damage.
- Cadmium can enter the body through food and can cause kidney damage.
- Mercury can enter the body by consuming sea fish and can cause poisoning, especially in pregnant women and babies.
Therefore, it is essential that the level of these metals in food items should be within the maximum safety limits so that they do not adversely affect the health of individuals, especially young children, who are most vulnerable.
What is the Role of FSSAI in Preventing Food Contamination?
The Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 has a safety net for the consumer against various types of contaminants. This Act ensures that the defaulter is fined or jailed or both, depending on the severity of the damage inflicted on the health of the consumer. In extreme cases, if the consumer dies as a result of contaminated food, the food business operator (FBO) may be fined up to a maximum of Rs. 10 lakhs along with life-term imprisonment. Therefore, FBOs should be aware of food contamination issues, so that they can operate as per the legal requirements of the above Act.
Contamination can occur in small amounts over a long period of time, where it can go undetected. However, the cumulative effect is evident from the fact that various types of cancers can arise depending on the type of adulterant that enters the body. Therefore, stringent regulations like the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, is very important for tackling the issue of food contamination. At the same time, the consumers must be vigilant about this scourge and should be aware of their legal rights in case food contamination has caused grievous harm to their health.
How Can We Help?
Arbro Pharmaceuticals Pvt. Ltd. has NABL accredited and FSSAI approved laboratories with state-of-the-art instruments for testing food samples. Our dedicated scientific staff are always abreast of the latest developments in the scientific arena and are well versed with the latest techniques and instrumentations to carry out testing of chemical constituents of various types of foodstuffs on a regular basis. If you would like to use our testing services, please feel free to contact us through the contact form or call us now on +91-11-45754575. We will be happy to provide you a proposal for testing contaminants in your food samples.
- The Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. Available at: http://lawmin.nic.in/ld/P-ACT/2006/The%20Food%20Safety%20and%20Standards%20Act,%202006.pdf
- Järup L. Hazards of heavy metal contamination. British Medical Bulletin 2003; 68(1): 167-182.