How do you like your food, sir?

My local vegetable vendor sells ordinary lemons packed in plastic bags. It got me thinking if this is a sign of improving standards of food safety and hygiene. After all if we go to any supermarket in the rich and food-processed world, we will find food neatly packed so that there is no contamination through human hands. Then there is the army of food inspectors, who check everything from the processing plant to the supplies in restaurants. The principle is clear: the higher the concern for food safety, the higher the standards of quality and consequently, the higher the cost of enforcement. Slowly, but surely, small producers get pushed aside. This is how the business of food works.

But is this the right model of food safety for India? It is clear that we need safe food. It is also clear that we cannot afford to hide behind small producers to say that we should not have stringent standards for quality and safety. We cannot also argue that we are a poor developing country and our imperative is to produce large quantities of food and reach it to the large (and unacceptable) number of malnourished. We cannot say this because even if we are poor and hard-pressed to produce more and reach more food to people, we cannot ignore the fact that we are eating bad food, which is making us ill. This is one of the many double burdens we carry.

The other double burden concerns the nature of “unsafe” food. The most noxious of problems is adulteration—when people deliberately add bad stuff to food for profit. In India, milk mixed with urea or chemical colour added to chilli are just the tip of the adulteration iceberg. We know we need effective enforcement against it. But it is also a fact that these scandals are not confined to India. A few years ago, melamine-contaminated milk killed babies in China. Now horsemeat sold as beef is sending Europe into a tizzy. There are unscrupulous people in this business that concerns our body and well-being.

The second worry is regarding the safety of what is added to food when it is processed. This is not adulteration because in this case additives permitted under food standards are used. The question is whether we know enough about their side effects. Invariably and sadly, science finds out the problems too late. For instance, there has been a huge row over dangers of artificial sweeteners, first saccharine and then aspartame. In the world of industrially manufactured food, the problem also is that each product is backed by vested interests that claim it to be safe till proved otherwise.

Often we know very little about the additives allowed in our food. For instance, we eat vanilla thinking it is the real queen of spice, flavouring ice creams and cakes. Little do we know that most of the vanilla in food is made synthetically, and that this chemical, believe it or not, has been harvested from effluent waste of paper mills or coal tar components used in petrochemical plants. It is cheap and it has been passed for human consumption by the food and drug administration of different countries.

The third challenge comes from the toxins in our food—chemicals used during the growing and processing of food which even in miniscule quantities add up to an unacceptable intake of poisons. Exposure to pesticides through our diet leads to chronic diseases. The best way is to manage the food basket—calculate how much and what we eat—to ensure that pesticide limits are set at safe levels. We have no option but to ingest a little poison to get nutrition, but how do we keep it within acceptable limits? This means setting safe pesticide standards for all kinds of food.

Then there are toxins which should not be present in food at all. For instance, a few years ago, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found antibiotics in the honey sold in Indian markets. It was there because industrial honey farmers fed bees antibiotics as a growth promoter and for disease control. Ingesting antibiotics makes us resistant to drugs. CSE needed, and got, standards for antibiotics in honey produced for the domestic market. There is no denying that small producers of honey, who do not have the capacity to handle the additional burden of paperwork and inspectors, can be hit badly. But this does not mean we should allow the use of antibiotics in our food. Or does this mean we change the business of food so that it is safe, yet protects livelihoods?

There is a fourth food challenge, which may just provide answers to this question. Food has to be not just safe, but also nutritious. Today, the world’s panic button has been pressed on the matter of food that is junk—high on empty calories and bad for health. There is more than enough evidence that bad food is directly linked to the explosion of non-communicable diseases in the world. There is enough to say that enough is enough.

The answer is to think of a different model for the food business. It cannot be the one-size-fits-all design of industrial production. It must be based on societal objectives of nutrition, livelihood and safety first and profit later. If we get this right, we will eat right.