With festival season on, experts offer tips to guard against fake and adulterated products that are seeing a surge
The COVID-19 pandemic has squeezed supplies and increased the demand on e-commerce as people are wary of going to stores for purchases. This means you need to be more vigilant while buying packaged items now.
Six months ago 30,000 kilograms of fake cumin powder made from stone powder and broom bits was seized. A month ago 300 kilograms of khoya was seized crossing many State borders as it made its way from Delhi to Bhopal to Mumbai. The fake khoya is made from milk that contains melamine, a nitrogen-rich compound that increases the protein count falsely in dairy products. Other common adulterants in food items include high doses of sulphur dioxide in sugar, washing soda and chalk powder in jaggery, brick and saw dust in chilli powder, and soap stone powder in asafoetida.
Nakul Pasricha, president ASPA (Authentication Solution Provider’s Association), quotes from the State of Counterfeiting in India 2020 report that reveals a whopping 24% increase in counterfeiting incidents in the country since 2018. “The burden of discerning the authenticity of products has fallen on the customer,” he says.
Suresh Sati, the founder-director of Fake Free India Foundation, agrees, “The counterfeiters have exploited the pandemic this year as an opportunity to further push a parallel illicit economy.” He says it’s almost impossible to identify a fake product on the shelf, adding that adulteration is dangerous for health in the long run. There are inspection challenges because of online shopping, where it’s even more difficult to track the offenders.
Check the packaging
When you are picking up stuff directly off the shelf, examine the packaging carefully because product labelling reveals many secrets. There are both subtle and visible differences in the logo, size, and colours used, or minor spelling errors. Many brands use anti-counterfeiting solutions such as special packaging layers and features, security holograms, SMS verification, QR code, or a scratch code. Look for the FSSAI mark that grants a license to authentic manufacturers and products. Check the nutrition label carefully. Fake items usually have some discrepancy in listing the ingredients with either something extra or missing. Check manufacturing and expiry date. If the date seems to be way too long ago or if it is damaged or not clearly visible, then that is likely recycled packaging with fake contents.
Be alert to the contents
Note inconsistency in the texture, smell, and colour of the product because a responsible and reputed brand would never compromise on the quality of their products, says Pasricha. Chemical dyes copper sulphate, malachite green, oxytocin saccharin wax are commonly injected in vegetables that make them shine. If a food item has an unnatural glow and looks glossy (like wax coated apples or a packet of frozen shiny peas), you should probably avoid it.
Always demand a proper bill for the product purchased. It helps to be suspicious of deals that sound too good to be true, says Sati. Download the Smart Consumer App launched by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and FSSAI to get accurate information about packaged food items.
Shop safe online
While making an online purchase, beware of illegitimate websites. Spam mails often redirect you to fake sites, says Pasricha. He advocates shopping only with authorised vendors, who have lock icons as their security certificate. Better still, purchase from the brand’s own website.
You can lodge a complaint with…
- The police station of the jurisdiction where you find the adulterated product
- The Health Inspector or senior officials of the public health department at the district/State level or health officials of Corporations, municipalities and urban local bodies
- The district commissioner
- The district or State consumer forum such as the Tamil Nadu State Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission, Chennai, which also gives online links for district forums to lodge local complaints
- FSSAI through the online platform Food Safety Voice or call on dedicated 24X7 toll free helpline number 1800112100
- The last resort is to file a case in consumer court.
The number of raids Sati has conducted on behalf of companies and brands in the last four decades. From his experience, sweets see the maximum adulterations, followed by cumin powder, edible oil, tomato sauce, vinegar, tea, salt, milk, sugar, khoya, ghee, paneer, chocolates, pan masala, alcohol.
The number of food samples analysed in 2019 by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) under the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, of which 15.8% were found to be sub-standard, 3.7% unsafe, and 9% with labelling defects.
Side effects of adulterants
Chronic ingestion of melamine can lead to kidney and bladder stones due to crystal formation.
Sulphur dioxide can increase sneezing, sore throat, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and suffocation especially in those with existing respiratory problems like asthma, chronic bronchitis or any other lung diseases
Bulk adulterants like washing soda, chalk/brick/soap stone/ saw dust powder added to food items can impact the digestive system in the long run.
Prolonged use of metanil yellow (used to colour low quality dal and turmeric) may cause neurological impairment
The chemical dyes are carcinogenic that have the potential to cause different types of cancer
(Source: Database, National Center for Biotechnology Informatics, US and NIH journals)
The doc says
Madurai-based physician and diabetologist, Dr.Sudhir Rajasekaran, says products adulterated with colouring pigments and other agents can be harmful in humans following long-term repeated ingestion. The contaminating ingredients are mostly added in small quantities to the products and do not directly affect the organs, he says. It is absorbed in the blood and circulated to various organs and, therefore the impact of deposits is felt over a period of time.
In rare cases, there can be instant reaction like skin rashes or stomach disorder due to existing allergies or health condition