Over 30% of the total off-the-shelf food items available in India have been found to be adulterated in tests. Off-the-shelf items are packaged raw food items like milk, ghee, edible oil etc. Adulteration leads to long term health concerns, including cancer and other lifestyle diseases in the country.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare told the Lok Sabha in December last year that the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) found over 45,000 food samples collected from different states between 2014-2016 to be adulterated and mis-branded.

The Ministry said in the Lok Sabha that from 2014 to 2017, 48,332 food samples sold in different states, including milk, ghee, edible oils, rice and fruits, among other items, were found to be adulterated and mis-branded. In 2017, only two states—Tamil Nadu and Goa—have submitted reports; the data for other states is awaited.

Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Punjab are among the states with the highest adulteration. While over 16,000 adulterated food items were found in Uttar Pradesh, some 5,500 adulterated food items were found in Maharashtra between 2014-2017. In Punjab, 3,698 adulterated food items were found, though the state did not provide any data for 2015-16.

However, states like Bihar, Tripura, Assam and Odisha fared well with less than an average of 250 of the total food items tested being found adulterated by the FSSAI testing laboratories.

Dr Shalini Singh, a Delhi-based nutritionist, told The Sunday Guardian: “Adulteration of food items in India is a very common problem, especially in items like milk, spices, flour, ghee, edible oil, etc, as it is very difficult to make out the adulterated content in such products. Also, since these items are basic necessities, manufacturers garner a bigger profit out of these items. Such adulteration causes massive harm to people’s bodies and health, causing long term problems like cancer, hair fall, skin and gut diseases, among other complications.”

She further added that the nutritive value of the food also decreases due to adulteration. Adulterated food consumed by children leaves a long lasting impact that can even show up as early as in their teens, she said.

An FSSAI official said that FSSAI regularly conducts surveillance, monitoring, and inspection of food products to check compliance with the standards laid down under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, and the rules and regulations made thereunder. In cases where food samples are found to be not conforming with the standards, recourse is taken to penal provisions under the Act, the official said, adding that to combat adulteration in commonly adulterated food items such as milk, spices, condiments, honey, water, oils and fats, FSSAI has released a Detect Adulteration with Rapid Test (DART) booklet which is a compilation of common quick tests for detection of food adulterants by citizens themselves, so as to induce awareness among the common citizens.

The FSSAI has 160 food testing laboratories in the country notified under the Food Safety and Standards (FSS) Act, 2006. Out of these laboratories, 142 are NABL (National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories) accredited laboratories notified by FSSAI, while 18 laboratories are referral laboratories notified by FSSAI for referral testing.

The Ministry of Agriculture has also recently issued a directive to check the adulteration of milk and milk products across the country, and the process would include random sampling of at least 500 milk samples from villages to a maximum of 50,000 samples every month.

Despite such efforts, the rate of conviction in cases of adulteration has remained very poor across the country. Just about 10% of the total number of cases registered against companies, shop owners or sellers have reached any conclusion.

Among the total number of 32,500 criminal and civil cases registered by FSSAI between 2014-2017, only 3,533 cases have seen conviction during the same period.