Context:

In a pushback against the Centre’s plan to mandatorily fortify rice and edible oils with vitamins and minerals, a group of scientists and activists have written to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), warning of the adverse impacts on health and livelihoods.

Relevance:

GS-II: Social Justice (Issues Relating to Poverty & Hunger, Food Security, Issues Related to Children), GS-III: Agriculture (Public Distribution System (PDS))

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Fortification of food
  2. The need for Fortification
  3. What are the benefits of Fortification?
  4. Fortification of Rice and its Distribution under PDS in India
  5. Recent concerns over mandatory fortification of food

Fortification of food

  • Fortification is the addition of key vitamins and minerals such as iron, iodine, zinc, Vitamin A & D to staple foods such as rice, milk and salt to improve their nutritional content.
  • These nutrients may or may not have been originally present in the food before processing.

The need for Fortification

  • 70% of people in India do not consume enough micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals.
  • About 70 percent of pre-school children suffer from anaemia caused by Iron Deficiency and 57 percent of preschool children have sub–clinical Vitamin A deficiency.
  • Neural Tube Defects (NTDs) are the most common congenital malformation with an incidence that varies between 0.5-8/1000 births. It is estimated that 50-70% of these birth defects are preventable. One of the major causes is deficiency of Folic Acid. Thus, deficiency of micronutrients or micronutrient malnutrition, also known as “hidden hunger”, is a serious health risk.
  • Unfortunately, those who are economically disadvantaged do not have access to safe and nutritious food. Others either do not consume a balanced diet or lack variety in the diet because of which they do not get adequate micronutrients.
  • Often, there is considerable loss of nutrients during the processing of food. One of the strategies to address this problem is fortification of food. This method complements other ways to improve nutrition such as such as diversification of diet and supplementation of food.

What are the benefits of Fortification?

  • Since the nutrients are added to staple foods that are widely consumed, this is an excellent method to improve the health of a large section of the population, all at once.
  • Fortification is a safe method of improving nutrition among people. The addition of micronutrients to food does not pose a health risk to people. The quantity added is so small and so well regulated as per prescribed standards that likelihood of an overdose of nutrients is unlikely.
  • It does not require any changes in food habits and patterns of people. It is a socio-culturally acceptable way to deliver nutrients to people.
  • It does not alter the characteristics of the food—the taste, the feel, the look.
  • It can be implemented quickly as well as show results in improvement of health in a relatively short period of time.
  • This method is cost-effective especially if advantage is taken of the existing technology and delivery platforms.
  • The Copenhagen Consensus estimates that every 1 Rupee spent on fortification results in 9 Rupees in benefits to the economy. It requires an initial investment to purchase both the equipment and the vitamin and mineral premix, but overall costs of fortification are extremely low. Even when all program costs are passed on to consumers, the price increase is approximately 1-2%, less than normal price variation. Thus, it has a high benefit-to-cost ratio.

Fortification of Rice and its Distribution under PDS in India

  • The Centrally Sponsored Pilot Scheme on “Fortification of Rice and its Distribution under Public Distribution System (PDS)” has been approved for a period of three years beginning 2019-20.
  • The Pilot Scheme is funded by Government of India in the ratio of 90:10 in respect of North Eastern, Hilly and Island States and 75:25 in respect of the rest of the States.
  • The Pilot Scheme focuses on 15 districts, preferably 1 district per State.
  • The decentralized model of fortification by States/UTs has been approved in the Pilot Scheme with blending at the rice milling stage.
  • The operational responsibilities and identification of the districts for implementation of the Pilot Scheme lie with the States/UTs.
  • States/UTs have been requested to operationalize blending of fortified rice at milling stage and start its distribution through PDS as early as possible.

Recent concerns over mandatory fortification of food

  • Multiple studies show that dietary diversity and higher protein consumption are key to solving undernutrition in India, rather than adding a few synthetic micronutrients which could harm the health of consumers.
  • Studies show that both anaemia and Vitamin A deficiencies are overdiagnosed, meaning that mandatory fortification could lead to hypervitaminosis.
  • It also notes that many of the studies which FSSAI relies on to promote fortification are sponsored by food companies who would benefit from it, leading to conflicts of interest. Studies funded by the Nestle Nutrition Institute and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition were mentioned as cases in point.
  • One major problem with chemical fortification of foods is that nutrients don’t work in isolation but need each other for optimal absorption.
  • Some also argue that mandatory fortification would harm the vast informal economy of Indian farmers and food processors including local oil and rice mills, and instead benefit a small group of multinational corporations who will have sway over a ₹3,000 crore market.
  • Once iron-fortified rice is sold as the remedy to anaemia, the value and the choice of naturally iron-rich foods like millets, varieties of green leafy vegetables, flesh foods, liver, to name a few, will have been suppressed by a policy silence.

-Source: The Hindu

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