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By Sakuntala Narasimhan

A report in an American journal that Indian spices and ‘cultural powders’ caused lead poisoning in children, seemed to lack the scientific rigour expected of such studies, but the issue of standards of safety to be followed in the manufacture of food stuffs is a very relevant one

Google search for ‘Lead poisoning in children’ and you get 1.210 million entries on the web. Prominent among these is one that says ‘Indian spices consumption adds to lead poisoning in children’. The item refers to a recent study conducted by doctors at Boston’s Children’s Hospital which found, in a two-year period (2006-8), ‘four cases of lead poisoning in children exposed to imported Indian spices and cultural powders’.   

The report, which appeared in the American journal Pediatrics in March 2010, was also picked up by other media outlets. A follow-up investigation raises questions like, ‘Should there be better government regulation of these imports, or better public information campaigns in immigrant communities?’ 

Delve deeper into the details of this study and media responses to the findings, and several anomalies surface. Lead has been known to cause serious and often permanent physiological damage in children, ranging from cognitive impairment and attention deficiency syndrome to delinquent behaviour in adolescence and brain damage. Lead paint on toys, for instance, has been indicted and banned, and lead water pipes are no longer in use.  

While these correlations with high blood lead levels are not disputed, the American study includes some curious particulars – many  samples of Indian spices, like asafoetida (hing), tested in the Boston area, contained  high lead content (22 out of 86 samples) while ‘ceremonial powders’ applied on children (henna, kohl, sindur) showed unacceptably high lead content (in 46 out of 71 samples). 

Ponder over these details about Indian spices and ‘religious’ (or ‘ceremonial’) powders.  

How many children among Indian immigrants in the US have henna or kumkum put on them, and how often? Sindur is only used by married women of certain communities, and is not applied on children.  

The study also adds that the lead content in Indian brands was ‘twice that in foreign brands’. What foreign brands manufacture sindur or kohl and henna? No details are available.  

The report also mentions ‘71 ceremonial powders and 86 spices’. That many varieties (or brands) of spices may be on the market, but 71 ‘religious powders’? Even if this refers to brands, are there that many, and in the American market? 

There are two issues here. One is a generalisation of the kind that medical studies do not consider acceptable (four children found with high blood lead levels in a two-year period). The doctors who carried out the study presume that the ‘powders could have rubbed off on the children’s hands and got ingested’. How much got rubbed off, how often, and do the mothers of all these children wear sindur or kohl? Was there a control group, and were other variables monitored? If asafoetida had high lead content, how much would a child have to ingest before its blood lead level rises? How much asafoetida does the average Indian family use in its daily menu?

The other issue is the more important one: Are there standards of safety laid down for spices and cosmetics? Does anyone monitor their content and quality? The answer is yes.  

Once upon a time, in grandma’s generation, spices were ground at home, with a pestle and mortar or grinding stone, chilli was often grown in one’s backyard and powdered as fresh masala, and one knew what went into each dish. In the last three decades packaged spices have become popular and the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) has come up with standards for monitoring the quality of these branded spices.  

There are now standards laid down for cardamom, black pepper, turmeric, curry powder, and a host of other spices and packaged spices have to conform to these norms. We also have the Agmark stamp for agricultural products (including dairy products like ghee) and the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act (PFA) which lays down guidelines on what is permitted and what isn’t.  

A number of legal safeguards have been put in place to curb unethical practices in the sale of branded items thanks to persistent initiatives spearheaded by groups like the Consumer Guidance Society of India (1) (CGSI, at Mumbai, which is the oldest consumer protection group in the country, now in its fifth decade of activism) and the Consumer Education and Research Centre (2) (CERC) at Ahmedabad (now 30 years  old) which became the first NGO to begin independent, third party testing of food products at its laboratory.

It is now mandatory to list not only the ingredients on each package but also specify what kind of permitted synthetic colours have gone into the product (peas used to be coloured bright green and jilebi used to be bright yellow before laws were passed during 1970-1990, forbidding the use of colours and chemicals known to be harmful). 

CERC’s laboratory was a pioneer in terms of carrying out and publicising a series of tests on food items, and following up with lobbying for tighter legislation. Chilli powder and haldi (turmeric) brands were tested, for instance, in 1998, and the results published in CERC’s bi-monthly magazine Insight, (3) to create awareness among consumers and pull up the errant manufacturers. Publication of these test reports has often been followed by official action (new or revised legislation, or better implementation) to protect consumers’ interests. 

For the first time ever, independent testing was undertaken on behalf of the consumer by CERC’s food laboratory by purchasing a number of specimens (30-40) of each brand from the open market in different cities (through CERC’s trustees based in different regions of the country) and sent to the laboratory in Ahmedabad where brand name labels were removed and replaced by coded labels to ensure impartial testing. Samples of each brand (whether of masala, powdered spices or other food items) were tested under parameters drawn up by BIS or other relevant authorities, and the results released through test reports, published first in Insight and subsequently picked up by the media (including radio and TV). These laboratory tests evaluate not only content and ingredients but also the weight of the package against the printed claim (so that consumers know which brands sell at less than the declared quantity). These were all measures to protect the consumer and ensure a fair deal for buyers. 

As per the PFA Act, no one is supposed to sell powdered spices unless they are packed. (4) This Act also lays down maximum permissible limits for heavy metal content. With exports of packaged food growing significantly in the last two decades (around 15% of India’s exports are made up of agricultural and allied products), the Spice Board is now a member of the National Codex Committee which monitors the rules applicable to global movement of packaged food items. 

In July-August 2007, Insight also reported on the US Food and Drug Administration rejecting the import of a well-known brand of biscuits manufactured in India on grounds that unsafe colours had been used in the product.(5)  

The problem is not one of sub-standard products sent out from India, but one of multiple and confusing standards drawn up by different countries and by different monitoring bodies even within the country. The US has a set of guidelines that is different from that followed in European Union countries (and within the EU, again, there is no uniformity) and these two in turn differ from the norms that our own statutory bodies apply. (6) 

Many of our branded spices that are exported have ISO  (international standards) certification and accreditation, but the machinery that is needed to set up monitoring processes for becoming eligible for ISO certification are expensive, which means that “size matters”, as it does in most economic processes under globalisation – the large businesses survive and thrive because they can afford to invest in the sophisticated processes called for in acquiring ISO or other international accreditation, while the small players and operators get squeezed out (as in retail business, for instance) because their operating margins are modest at best.  

And that is precisely one of the main arguments against ‘free market’ theories of neo-liberal economics, because the human tragedy underlying the disappearance of the corner store, the family kirana shop or street vendor of vegetables who goes out of business unable to compete with the retail store dominating the neighbourhood, is lost sight of, especially in developing countries like ours where employment generation has connotations extending beyond that of economic returns or ‘low prices’. Low in terms of what – what about the social, environmental or other long term costs that cannot be reckoned in rupees? (7) 

Extend that argument to the global canvas and you have situations like the American study that indicts Indian spices because a Third World country’s products are suspect, or assumed to be sub-standard. There are also those who question the rationale behind standardisation of items like food and spices because by definition certain ingredients cannot be measured and evaluated. How does one measure the pungency of chillies (there is, indeed, a measure available, (8) but there is an unavoidable dimension of ‘sensory’ perception, of colour, aroma, taste etc that cannot be reduced to numbers and percentages). 

Some of the comments posted on the internet alongside the report on the American study about high lead levels in the blood of Indian children, and the need to ‘create awareness’ among immigrant families about the hazards of spices and ‘cultural powders’, understandably question the ‘findings’. ‘Total bakwaas’, says one comment, about Indian spices being unacceptably high in lead content, while another says the findings are ‘laughable – why doesn’t the study focus on the ill effects of junk food promoted by Americans overseas, instead of pointing fingers at Indian spices?’  

Which brings us to the stance that international groups like the association for feminist economics have sought to focus on – that one cannot look at the economics of a transaction in isolation, one has to have a multi-dimensional assessment that includes social and ethical considerations too, whether one is looking at a multinational corporation operating globally or a small trader trying to export garments. When globalisation promotes impersonal transactions, ethics need to be buttressed by legislation, and that is true for consumers’ rights within a country as much as those in a foreign land. 

Five centuries ago, seafarers from the West came to India looking for spices and developed trade that led to colonisation. Today the West seeks to indict Indian products, alleging that ‘foreign brands’ are safer. Are there any moves by Indians in authority or as NGO representatives to examine this study and either initiate proceedings to address the problem (if there is one) or refute the findings? The Indian media does not even seem to have taken note of this ‘study’ or its ramifications. 

Never mind whether immigrant children are in danger of developing high lead levels in their blood, it is equally important to ensure that the health of children within our country are also safeguarded to the same extent. Adulteration is unacceptable, as is the presence of heavy metals or chemicals that could cause harm. Some years ago, CGSI exposed the fact that some surma brands contained unacceptably high levels of lead. Leaded petrol is now banned by law. Chilli power should not have sawdust added to increase bulk and generate profits.   

How does one ensure all this? Individually we cannot be testing each product for safety or monitor standards, but collectively we could strengthen consumer groups that take up such monitoring projects and create awareness. What are consumer groups except a collective of citizens like you and I? Safety comes not so much from legal safeguards but from enforcing those safeguards, and for that, vigilance on the part of every user is what makes a difference. 

Insight was the first to test bottled water brands and put out results that showed that samples of even a leading brand were contaminated with bacteria. That was in 1998. A leading national news magazine picked up the report as its lead story. And yet, that brand continues to sell, with foreigners clutching bottled water for dear life when they come visiting, and urban Indians choosing bottled water as “safe”. How safe? We do not bother to take that additional step to look at the details of the information available. In a nation that perfected the weapon of boycott to drive out the British rulers, what could we not do if we decided to use boycott as a means of ensuring safety in items we pay for and ingest! 

Let’s face it, we have become a nation of consumers, not consumer-protection oriented citizenry. We covet phoren stuff, based on a subconscious colonial mindset that assumes that indigenous is synonymous with sub-standard, and branded means “better” (a foreign brand is even better). Not necessarily. Many of CERC’s test reports show that the most expensive brands are not always the best buys. And the cheapest are not necessarily the worst either. And yet, popular support for organisations like CGSI and CERC is woefully low. As one visiting American consumer activist exclaimed, “You are a billion plus, what could you not achieve, if only a small percentage of the population decided to band together and demand better deals in terms of quality and safety in products!” 

That is the crux. Whether it is ‘religious powders’ used by expatriate Indians or chilli powder used by the housewives of Bengaluru. 

(Sakuntala Narasimhan is a Bangalore based columnist-author specialising in gender and development. She is also an award winning consumer protection activist) 

Endnotes 

(1) www.cgsiindia.org 

(2) www.cercindia.org 

(3) Insight, vol 19, no 2, dated March-April 1999, lead story, pages 6-10. The test report on turmeric (haldi) powder appeared in issue dated July-August 1998 

(4) However, loose powders are still sold and bought, and in CERC’s test in fact, one of the branded samples did not perform as well as the loose variety. 

(5) Insight, vol 27, no 4,  July-August 2007, pages 31-32 

(6) For chilli powder for instance, the US standards require that 95% of the powder should pass through a 425 micron sieve, whereas the BIS standard specifies that the entire powder should pass through a 500 micron sieve. 

(7) Note that well-known American brands of packaged food (Knorr, famous for its soups, for instance) are now selling ‘Indian masala preparations’ and ‘ready mixes’ (including typical items like mutter paneer) in the Indian market – and make capital out of our subconscious preference for “phoren” brands, even in indigenous foods – and rewind, to 70-80 years ago, when Gandhiji led the Swaraj movement in which tens of thousands of Indians made bonfires of imported cloth (even if it was expensive, gossamer French chiffons and fine mill-made cloth from Manchester) and chose instead coarse khadi, not because it was cheap, or softer, but because other, ethical considerations had to have, under Gandhian ideals, higher priority. Today, under “free market mechanisms” (which are anything but free – but that would need a significant digression in itself) only profits count, nothing else.  

(8) There exists a Scoville index for pungency, under which British, international and Indian norms have been drawn up. The BIS has adopted the International Organisation for Standards (ISO) norm for this.

Infochange News & Features, April 2010