CSE’s national conference on food safety and environmental toxins kicks off
Puts the limelight on lax regulations, weak enforcement
Marks a decade of work by CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Lab, which did seminal studies on endosulfan toxicity in Kerala, mercury contamination in Sonbhadra, and pesticide residue pollution in soft drinks
New Delhi, February 20, 2013: At a beginning of a two-day conference here on Food Safety and Environmental Toxins, organized by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), most speakers were of the opinion that food safety regulatory structures in India were either too weak or simply ignored. T Ramasami, secretary, department of science and technology, addressing the gathering of scientists, civil society activists, regulators, health experts and media from across the country, said that the “government needed to provide a policy and regulatory framework and enforcement structure”. According to him, India will have to concentrate on improving public health in future, and in doing this, the role of public service institutions such as CSE and its Lab would be critical.
In fact, this conference is being organized to also mark a decade of work by CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Lab, which has been instrumental in carrying out some seminal studies in testing for toxins in food and environment. Tracing the history of the work done by the Lab, CSE director general Sunita Narain said: “If you can use science for building public confidence, you can use science to make a difference.”
Keshav Desiraju, secretary, department of health and family welfare, speaking in the same session, pointed out that while there is a resistance to regulations and regulatory controls, what is needed is a regulatory approach that targets manufacturers on one hand, and a public which demands quality in products on the other. “If there is good reason to believe that food is not meeting standards, then consumer and advocacy groups can take up the cause. It won’t be easy, as industry is against us, and it caters differently for abroad and India. We would need to involve schools, young people,” he said.
On its first day, the conference covered subjects such as pesticides and pesticide regulations, community struggles and the role of independent labs, and junk food and non-communicable diseases. The key speakers included S Dave, chairperson, CODEX Alimentarius Commission; K Srinath Reddy, president, Public Health Foundation of India; E A S Sarma, coordinator, Forum for Better Visakha, Vishakhapatnam; and G V Ramanjenuyulu, executive director, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad, among others.
The CSE Lab: A decade of public service
CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Lab, or PML, is an independent analytical, research and development laboratory that determines pesticide residues, and conducts water quality analysis and ambient air monitoring. It disseminates the information resulting from these scientific analyses, with the aim of raising public awareness about pollution and its health impacts. Says Chandra Bhushan, CSE’s deputy director general and the head of the Lab: “The mission of the Lab is to catalyze communities and NGOs to fight polluters across the country by supporting them with scientific proof and documentation of pollution and its health impacts.”
Beginning with a landmark study on endosulfan contamination in Kerala, the Lab has done path-breaking research on a range of issues -- pesticide contamination in bottled water and soft drinks, pesticide residues in the blood of Punjab farmers, fatty acid profile of edible oils, antibiotics in honey, nutritional analysis of junk food, and most recently, mercury contamination in Uttar Pradesh’s Sonbhadra district. The lab’s study on soft drinks led to the setting up of the country’s first Joint Parliamentary Committee on issues of public health.
In 2012, the Lab had released the results of its Sonbhadra study, which had found high levels of mercury in the environment as well as bodies of local people in Uttar Pradesh’s second largest district. Mercury was detected in samples of water, soil, cereals and fish, as well as blood, nails and hair of people living in the area. Says Chandra Bhushan: “What we had found was frightening – signs of mercury poisoning that bring to the mind memories of the devastating mercury contamination in Minamata in Japan.”