Inviting trays of laddus at a Sakchi shop on Sunday herald Diwali in Jamshedpur. Picture by Animesh Sengupta
Dig into Diwali mithai at your own risk. Adulteration monitors have reneged on their promise of safety.
Jharkhand’s lone food and drug testing laboratory in Namkum, Ranchi, which was revived only last month after two years, has once again shut its doors for three days in a row and there is little guarantee of it reopening before your festive munch.
So far, 22 random samples of sweets and milk products have been collected from Ranchi, and around a dozen of them from Jamshedpur, Dhanbad and Bokaro. Apart from these, health teams in Deogarh, Sahebganj and a few other districts are also expected to return with more samples soon.
However, the problem is that this state of many woes, incidentally, has just one food analyst. The health department had recently retained J.K. Singh from Bihar on contract basis to run the jinxed Namkum laboratory. But, Singh is on leave these days because of a family tragedy.
As a result, the lab has shut its doors and all the samples collected from across Jharkhand to check harmful chemical adulteration are gathering dust with the health department having no back-up plan or proxy analyst to put the same to test.
According to the National Referral Centre for Lead Poisoning Prevention in India, chemical colours are one of the culprits.
A lead-based, carcinogenic dye called metanil yellow is used to give sweets like laddu and some other food items like biryani their inviting colour instead of the permitted tartrazine, which is more expensive. Metanil yellow is cancer-causing and is known to affect the brain and kidneys.
Similarly, muric acid and lead nitrate in paneer or chhana and formalin in milk are toxic and affect the central nervous system. On a lesser scale, Sudan III — a contaminant often used in gulabjamun — can cause skin irritations.
Now, in the wake of poor planning and absence of specialists, quality control remains a distant dream and revellers can rely on sheer luck not to fall prey to such dangerous adulteration.
Ever since the food and drug testing laboratory debuted in Jharkhand three years ago, it has had more problems than benefits. After running by fits and starts for close to a year, the Rs 2-crore lab went dormant owing to manpower and equipment crunch, besides high electricity bills.
Increasing instances of adulteration, finally, prompted the state health mandarins to revive the lab in October under the Food Safety and Standards Act (2006), which was implemented in January this year. But, no concrete measures were taken to rope in more than one analyst.
State food controller T.P. Burnwal admitted that the lab had remained closed for the better half of a week. “Our food analyst lost his younger brother. He is on leave. It is a problem beyond anyone’s control. We have collected samples, but they could not be tested,” he conceded.
Exigencies never come announced. Why did the health department never think of a back-up plan?
“There is a dearth of qualified food analysts not only in Jharkhand, but across the country. We hired our analyst from Bihar, but there was a tragedy we can’t help. In Odisha too, the food lab is lying closed. The Union government conducts examinations for food analysts every year, but the success rate is very poor. Only those who qualify this exam and have at least three years of working experience can be hired,” Burnwal reasoned.
If the food controller himself is washing his hands of the mess, citizens perhaps have every right to vent their ire.
“Why should we pay for wrong policies and planning at any level? It is the job of the government to stop adulteration of food, not ours. Mithai is an integral part of all festivals, especially Diwali, but we may be risking our lives and that of our near and dear ones because the government is callous,” rued Sudha Choudhary, a Ranchi homemaker.
Will you buy and gift coloured sweets this Diwali?