Eye-wash food testing in Kashmir. Archaic equipment, no food analysts, public health at risk

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Instant convenience Quick-to-serve noodles is a favourite with hostellers. Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

The Food Analysis Lab in Srinagar is no more than an eye-wash in the name of food testing. With no real testing done on foods, milk, spices, juices and other edibles, health of citizens is at great risk. As the popular snack brand, Maggi Noodles, shook the faith of millions of consumers, a look at other items consumed daily in the state might be shocking, but for the tests. The Srinagar Lab has equipment and staff of the order of a college science lab. Out of the 17 sanctioned technical staff, only three are in place. GK has learnt that there are two posts of Food Analysts and three posts of Assistant Food Analysts sanctioned for the Srinagar lab, and ironically all are vacant. Thirteen posts of lab attendants are also lying vacant in the department. The department, in wake of reports of food adulterations and quality complaints pouring in every day, must have been bustling with activity. Contrarily, it presents a look of a deserted lab, with just a couple of apron-clad employees fiddling their way round the rudimentary and archaic looking equipment.

According to official sources, the lab has flimsy infrastructure that is not adequate to test the food samples for even the common impurities. No tests for checking for colors, chemicals, lead, pesticides, MSG and other impurities and adulterants are conducted at the lab.

The primitive equipment at the lab, according to sources, makes the process of testing, time-consuming and prone to errors. “Oil testing takes four hours for a single test with the manual refractometer that the lab has. Then there are other parameters that the cooking oil needs to be checked for. That would mean that for two days they would have to check one sample only,” a source at the lab said.

As a result, GK has learnt that, the lab usually tests for ‘one or two parameters only’, such a labelling, packaging and fungal growth due to the huge influx of food samples sent for testing, and issues the certificate. “We get more than 300 samples a month. We do not have the manpower to test even 50 samples,” said an officer.

Although, there is a provision for sending the samples for advanced testing to the Central Lab, designated by FSSAI, the matter is, however, a complex one. If the Designated Officer feels that the test report given by the Srinagar lab is ‘not satisfactory’, then, the sample can be sent to the Central Lab.

“When the Srinagar lab has not tested for colors, harmful chemicals, detergents etc. how can the lab say that a particular sample is satisfactory or not satisfactory. The question of standards and satisfaction from incomplete, inadequate test results is based on a fantasy rather than science,” a health expert said.

A Food Safety Officer working in a south Kashmir district, said, “Food testing and analysis is not a serious business in J&K. Otherwise, their FSOs would have been facilitated with facilities that make market checks, inspections and sample lifting possible.” He said that there are no funds for paying for the food items to be tested and do the requisite documentation.

“We are forced to buy cheap Rs. 5-10 biscuits and juice bottles because we have to pay from our pockets,” an FSO of central Kashmir district said. Apparently, the department employees have not even received their salary, for the past six months.

The matter of infrastructure and man-power shortcomings of this lab, is not an issue that has just come to light. In 2012, a double bench of High Court, headed by the Chief Justice, ordered the state to fulfil the shortages of manpower and equipment.

In May 2013, again, the Cheif Justice gave directions to the Commissioner Food Safety, to ensure, that the equipment and technical staff are in place. However, all directions and shortcomings of the department and the lab are not being addressed, according to departmental sources.

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