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Food-borne illness alarm

New Delhi: Food-borne diseases in India extract an economic cost of about $28 billion, or over three times the Union health ministry's budget for 2017, an international team of researchers has suggested in a study presented to the government on Tuesday.

The study by researchers at the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya and the Wageningen University in The Netherlands has also predicted that the number of people in India who become ill from food-borne diseases may rise from 100 million in 2010 to over 150 million by 2030.

The assessment, described as the first-ever effort in the country to estimate the economic costs of unhygienic or poor quality food, has indicated that urban households and rich rural households are likely to be disproportionately affected by food-borne diseases than other households.

Increasing income and urbanisation are shifting food consumption patterns towards animal sourced foods, fruits and vegetables which carry a higher risk than cooked staples such as cereals. The report said the country's public funding priorities do not reflect the substantive investments needed to bring its food safety system up to standard.

"Our estimates take into account the costs to treat illnesses and the costs resulting from loss of economic productivity from food-borne diseases," said Delia Grace, an epidemiologist at ILRI who presented the findings at a conference of health ministers from across India.

The estimate of $28 billion (Rs178,000 crore) is more than three times the health ministry's initially allocated expenditure budget of Rs 48,353 crore for 2017-18.

Grace said the estimate takes into account two broad categories of illnesses - the most common ones such as diarrhea or other gastrointestinal disturbances and relatively rare conditions such as neurocysticercosis, or tapeworm infection of the brain that can cause seizures.

The analysis has suggested that richer households across the country appear more vulnerable to food-borne diseases because of their higher consumption of meat, fruit and vegetables.

Union health minister Jagat Prakash Nadda, addressing the state health ministers, said the Centre is keen to help states strengthen food safety systems. "Finance will not be a constraint - each state should have at least one government food laboratory of high quality," the minister said.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), in an agenda note circulated ahead of the ministerial meeting, underscored the shortfall of food safety officers in almost all states. In Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, and Telangana, the numbers of officers is less than 10 percent of their requirements.

A senior FSSAI official, addressing the conference and citing a lack of adequate responses from the states, said the Centre had sanctioned 62 mobile food laboratories, but the agency has received state proposals for only 30.

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