GENTECH archive


Adulterated mustard oil kills

       DEVELOPMENT-INDIA: Officials 'Helpless' as Spurious Oil Kills 50
- opens the door to canola trade.                                       
    By Dev Raj
   NEW DELHI, Sep 6 (IPS) - Few can resist the aroma of fish fried in
   pungent mustard oil. But no one smelt anything fishy about toxic
   mustard oil supplies in the capital until hundreds fell violently ill
   with dropsy - 50 of whom died by Sunday. 
   Although the first dropsy case surfaced on August 5, it was not until
   the fifth of September that federal investigators were ordered to
   probe large-scale adulteration of mustard oil with oil extracted from
   the seeds of the deadly argemone mexicana weed.
   All through August, as deaths and misery mounted, the nationalist,
   ultra-right, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules Delhi state and
   leads the federal ruling coalition was content with blaming 'foreign
   conspirators,' for obvious administrative failure.
   But last Friday, with deaths and hospitalisations unabating, federal
   home minister Lal Krishna Advani had no choice but to order the
   Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to discover whether the
   adulteration was caused by greedy traders or whether there was indeed
   a grand conspiracy by trans-nationalinterests
   The National Secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), D. Raja
   accused the BJP government of bending over backwards to please either
   oil traders or oil importers. ''Either way, ordinary people have as
   usal fallen prey to traders who are the main supporters of the BJP,''
   he said.
   As the government reluctantly banned the sale of mustard oil, it
   cleared the path for the landing of a controversial order for a
   million tonnes of soyabeans from the U.S, suspected to be mixed with
   genetically engineered seed rejected by the European Union.
   Malaysian palmolein, not normally acceptable to the Indian palate
   began to flood the market while Canadian rapeseed oil or 'Canola'
   which is genetically engineered for herbicide tolerance has finally
   got its foot in the door.
   Leading activists concerned with food security such as Dr. Vandana
   Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and
   Ecology (RFSTE) and Devinder Sharma of the Forum for Biotechnology and
   Food Security (FBFS) went with the 'foreign conspiracy' rather than
   the 'local trader,' theory.
   Shiva pointed to how argemone oil has always been used as an additive
   to mustard oil for extra pungency but never in such high proportions.
   While less than one percent addition is acceptable, samples collected
   showed levels of argemone oil of upto 30 percent.
   ''Moreover, automotive oil and polybromides were also found to have
   been used as adulterants, clearly pointing forces more powerful than
   local traders at work,'' Shiva said.
   Sharma said while consumers have paid with their lives and health for
   the alleged conspiracy, the real victims were the farmers who grow
   mustard as well as honest traders who may not have suspected the
   deadly nature of their merchandise.
   ''Small traders simply cannot afford to completely destroy the
   established market for mustard oil although they cannot be absolved of
   indulging in limited adulteration for maximising profits,'' Sharma
   Intriguingly, such was the extent of the adulteration that the
   government had to ban well-known brands of mustard oil including
   ''Dhara'' marketed by the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB),
   known the world over for its role in India's 'white revolution.'
   Said NDDB representative, Anil Hari Mowar, ''We were the first to
   order an inquiry into how the oil we market came to be contaminated -
   there is a strong case for sabotage.''
   But politicians like the CPI's D. Raja and the Congress party's Dr.
   Narendra Nath, who leads the Opposition in the Delhi state Assembly
   who are sure that mustard oil manufacturers may not be so innocent
   after all.
   ''The fact is there has been an unprecedented and unwarranted rise in
   prices of vegetables and other commodities of daily use which could
   not have happened without the blessings of the BJP,'' Raja said.
   ''Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee made a solemn promise on
   Republic Day on August 15 that there would be a crackdown on
   blackmarketeers and hoarders who were artifically hiking prices but
   what actually happened was worse,'' Raja said.
   Said Nath, ''Many Union ministers and the Delhi government in fact
   provided protection to the oil manufacturers and were reluctant to
   take action against them until the courts were forced to intervene.''
   Last week the Delhi High Court ordered its own independent enquiry.
   Nath also blamed the corruption-ridden, Department of Prevention of
   Food Adulteration (PFA) for failing to carry out routine tests which
   could have averted the tragedy. ''There has been seventy percent
   decline sample testing,'' he said.
   Such was the level of corruption indulged in by the officials of the
   PFA that, two years ago, its director Ashok Bakshi ordered suspension
   of all checks and raids without his express permission.
   That leaves Indian consumers at the mercy of oil manufacturers and
   traders who are not bound to obtain certification guaranteeing the
   quality of their products as is the practice in most countries.
   Says M.K. Mandal, Adviser to the government on Agricultural Marketing,
   ''Only ten percent of oil manufactureres opt for the 'Agmark'
   certificate of quality on their products - if the certificate is
   withdrawn they can still sell their prodcuts.''
   The Agmark certifiction is compuslory for all exports and guarantees
   conformity to strict standards alid down by the government. ''The
   Agmark should, in fact, be made compulsory for all food products,''
   Mandal said.
   According to Shailaja Chandra, Additional Director General of Health,
   much depends on the political will that individual state governments
   really have in disciplining manufacturers and traders.
   ''Until then food adulteration will remain a fact of life,'' Chandra
   said pointing to a recent scandal in which milk vendors were found
   'manufacturing' their own milk by mixing up a concoction of vegetable
   oil and detergent.
   ''We have long been demanding a strengthening of the PFA machinery but
   get very little response from the state governments - food products
   are regularly adulterated in this country although this time it has
   been grossly criminal,'' she said.
   Meanwhile, worried housewives are forced to look out for themselves by
   maintaining their own mini testing laboratories in their kitchens.
   ''After the mustard oil deaths, I just cannot afford to take any
   chances,'' said Naintara a Delhi housewife. (END/IPS/rdr/98)

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