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March 4, 2021

Inflation and adulteration


March 4, 2021

LAHORE: Food prices have remained the major contributor to inflation in Pakistan in recent years. Some increase because of higher costs, others due to short supplies, and most owing to engineered release of commodities by the hoarders and black-marketers.

Food perhaps is the only item that is common in the budgets of all household in the country. The reason that impacts poor more is that after buying groceries to make two or in some cases even one hardly square meal, they are left with nothing to even think about spending on anything else. It's hard to believe, but true.

As the incomes increase, so do the budgetary needs ranging from high quality food to worldly comforts like better housing, branded clothing, air conditioning, and personal conveyance depending on the level of riches. This is the reason the governments the world over make all-out efforts to keep the food prices stable.

In Pakistan, consumers are hit by the dilemma of high prices and low quality of food. Majority of them poor are forced to buy adulterated food commodities. This debased food itself is more expensive than the pure food. For instance a family buying one litre of milk diluted with water only actually gets from half to three quarters of a litre of actual milk.

An increase in price of adulterated product only adds to the suffering of the consumer. Water is a neutral adulterant and may not be injurious for the consumer as it is consumed after boiling. But when red chilli powder is mixed with red brick dust its consumption impacts the health of the consumer.

All the provincial governments claim they strictly check quality of the edibles. They do raid few outlets or check food vendors and destroy the substandard foods besides imposing fines but the practice of adulteration is so widespread that consumers feel no relief. The raids are conducted at bigger outlets where malpractices are much less than in the markets that are exclusive for the poor.

The richer segments of society that have some voice make efforts to procure expensive quality packaged food. The poor do not usually have the resources to buy packaged food items. They buy small quantities on daily basis like 250 grams of oil or ghee, 250 grams of sugar, 250 grams of pulses, 50 grams of chili, half kilogram rice, etc. The price is higher for small quantity and the quality is inferior.

Unscrupulous vendors sell substandard candies and other confectionaries in poor localities, because they know no one is going to catch them. The products sold in small quantities have no expiry date or assurance of quality.

The affluent segment of society prefers imported items where at least all the ingredients are clearly mentioned on the packing. The labels clearly mention that the only food colours have been used in the preparation.

The quality and purity of the edible items is crucial for the general health of the consumers. A number of them get ill after consuming expired edible items. This is injustice to those that pay the rate for a healthy consumable product but are swindled by the manufacturers who might have sold them expired items.

Reforming manufacturers would require transparent and strict regulation. As only revealing the ingredients and dates on edible and other daily use items would not ensure purity and quality. Regular checks and testing of these items would be essential to enforce true compliance.

The black sheep in the regulatory institutions even let the retailers stay off the hook that tinker with weights and measures. A consumer paying for one kg of an item might end up with 10-20 percent less because standard weights are not used. The manufacturers still use non-food plastic cans for packing food items.

Some of the adulterants are alum and chalk to whiten bread, ammonium carbonate is added to disguise the sour taste of stale flour. Mashed potatoes, sawdust and Plaster of Paris are added to increase the weight of the bread. Pickles and canned vegetables are sometimes coloured green with copper salts, while turmeric is used in mustard and some cereal preparations.

In confectionery, dangerous colours, such as chrome yellow, Prussian blue, copper and arsenic compounds are employed. Yellow and orange-coloured sweets are also to be suspected. Milk is adulterated with water, and indirectly by removing the cream. The addition of water taken from anywhere may introduce germs. Cream is adulterated with gelatin, and formaldehyde is used as a preservative for it. Butter is adulterated to an enormous extent with oleomargarine, a product of beef fat. The list goes on.