Food Safety and the Use of Plastic

Iris C F Gomes

Dr Pramod Dhubale is one of those conscientious citizens who has returned to India after about twenty years in America and finds that it is constricted in a cycle of corruption and apathy. This is a situation that allows for a flagrant disregard of rules and laws set in place to safeguard public health.

Dr Dhubale has a B Pharm from L M College of Pharmacy, Ahmedabad, and has earned his doctoral degree in pharmaceutics from the University of Illinois, Chicago. He has been involved in research, as well as the development and manufacture of injectables, capsules, tablets, liquids, aerosols and ointments. After working with major pharmaceutical companies, he set up his own company Ximaa Pharm Tech, Inc. in the USA, that saw to quality control, regulatory affairs and employee training.

After thirty odd years in the US, Dr Dhubale returned to India to find, to his dismay, that there were several food safety issues in the country that were continuing as a matter routine occurrence. What sparked his one man campaign was the use of a particular pesticide called endosulphan, which was used about ten years ago in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka on crops like cashew and cotton. The developed countries had already banned the pesticide and its continued use in India lead to farmers developing skin problems, developmental problems in young persons and congenital deformities in children. The plight of these people affected Dr Dhubale greatly. He commiserated with the conundrum these rural people found themselves in owing to their abject poverty and ineducation.

In addition to this issue, as a pharmacist Dr Dhubale has been engaged in the manufacture of plastic bags for the packaging of injections and so understands the implications of varied types of plastics on human health. When in Goa, he discovered that children were consuming snacks packed in plastic that was obviously not food grade and what people do not realise is that such plastic is carcinogenic. Furthermore, he found there were labels inside the packets causing contamination.

Citing the example of the now banned Maggi Noodles, Dr Dhubale explained how and why extraneous substances, in this case the excessive lead claimed to have been found in the noodles (over the limit of 0.01parts per million), are banned and elements are limited by the FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India). The effects of this lead consumption are felt gradually, leading to brain, kidney and liver disorders and can pass from a pregnant woman to her child leading to congenital disorders.

Exponential economic growth in India has created a market for packaged foods to meet the demands of fast paced living. This change is evident not only in urban areas, but rural areas too. While people want the instant food that comes wrapped in plastic, they are not equipped with the knowledge that it is next to impossible to dispose of it. This has manifested itself in the form of a widespread garbage disposal problem, as neither is most plastic biodegradable (biodegradation can take centuries or a few years, depending on the variety), nor can it be burned without negative repercussions to the environment. In its manufacture, recycling and decomposition, plastic releases toxins into the air.

The Second World War saw a greater demand for plastic ‘Because during war they wanted some material to transport medical supplies to war sites,’ explains Dr Dhubale. During wartime and the decade after that materials such as polyethylene, polystyrene, polypropylene and many other types of plastic were developed. Dr Dhubale says, ‘In the early 1960s, pharmaceutical manufacturing associations came together to screen different plastic materials to test them to ascertain toxicity levels, biological properties and chemical properties. Based on the results they developed safe plastic.’

Most plastics are derived from petroleum products. There are many other compounds that are added to make them finished products. Antioxidants are added because oxidation can destroy the product; heat stabilisers maintain flexibility; lubricants make the surface smoother and help remove the product from their moulds; plasticisers increase flexibility and durability; fillers add body to the product and pigments are used for colouring. These components are basically organic in nature and can cause cancer and interfere with the endocrine system. Their propensity to cause this damage must not be present in the finished product. Dr Dhubale says, ‘To ensure this, there are rules and regulations and they have to meet the Indian standards of specifications.’

The two basic types of plastic are thermoset plastic, which cannot be resoftened after heating once, and thermoplastic, which can be softened for reuse and is therefore recyclable. The many varieties of plastic such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyvinylidene chloride, etc. have different properties that render them conducive to be used for a particular purpose more than others. For example, polyvinylidene chloride is used in food packaging, and plumbing pipes are made from polyvinyl chloride.

The plastic for containers is chosen so as to be non-reactive to the product it is to contain. ‘The product itself can cause extraction of material from the plastic. There is another phenomenon called leaching. Leaching is the permeation of the plastic into the product’, says Dr Dhubale.

In 2006 the Food Safety Standards Act was passed which brought into existence the FSSAI to govern food safety standards. One of the many restrictions is on type of plastic utilised, and the packages cannot have labels inside that come into contact with the product. This is because the ink on the labels can be extracted and affect the product within. This ink contains lead, arsenic, copper, zinc, mercury, selenium, chromium, etc. in harmful amounts. ‘Basically, these products are worse than Maggi noodles!’ says Dr Dhubale, handling the packet of chips in a see-through plastic bag. The main consumers are children.

Though Dr Dhubale complained about these food products to the FSSAI and the FDA, no action was taken. It was only when the WHO, From Farm to Plate Make Food Safe theme began being propagated that some initiative was taken by Goa’s Health Minister, Francis D’Souza, at the behest of Dr Dhubale. The packages of savouries from certain manufacturers were destroyed, however those that were already out in the market remained available for sale.

Unperturbed by negligible efforts by the FSSAI and the FDA to deter manufacturers of food products from flouting packaging regulations, Dr Dhubale continues his own personal drive for food safety and plastic use. He advises people to maintain proper hygiene in cooking, and where cancer is concerned he says prevention is better than cure and the best way to prevent it is to arm oneself with knowledge.