FIFTY-FIVE years after it was banned, a research panel headed by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has cleared the consumption of khesari dal — considered the poor man’s dal due to its low cost.
The dal was banned in 1961, after its consumption was linked to a neurological disorder called lathyrism (paralysis in the legs).
Responding to an RTI application filed by The Indian Express, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has confirmed that the proposal to lift the ban has been communicated to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). The RTI reply added that the ICMR’s recommendation is under consideration of the FSSAI, and the food regulator’s Scientific Panel and Scientific Committee discussed the issue on November 6 last year.
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When contacted, FSSAI CEO Pawan Kumar Agarwal confirmed that he had received the recommendation from the ICMR. “I cannot comment on the exact findings of the ICMR right now. Besides, something which has been banned for several decades on the ground of safety will have to go through rigorous tests before it is cleared by us,” he said.
Agarwal added that irrespective of the ICMR’s recommendations, there will be an independent scrutiny by the FSSAI’s Scientific Panel and Scientific Committee.
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But, according to documents accessed by The Indian Express, the ICMR’s proposal was approved by the FSSAI at its November 6 meeting, although the Scientific Panel and Scientific Committee did not give any conclusive recommendation on lifting the ban.
1. On March 10, 2015, the Scientific Panel — citing a report by the Indian Institute of Toxicological Research which held that lifting the ban on khesari dal would be “improper” since its consumption is “not safe” — had called for more scientific efforts to make it safe.
2. On September 21, 2015, the Scientific Committee observed that incidences of lathyrism were reported from drought prone areas where khesari dal was consumed. While recording that three low toxic varieties of
the dal — mahateora, ratan and prateek — were developed recently, the committee asked for a conclusive study on the lowest safe limit.
3. Further, a study conducted by the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, on goats, also recorded abnormal effect on the animals which were given the toxin reportedly produced by khesari grains.
However, the FSSAI has gone solely by the ICMR’s latest recommendation on lifting the ban on sale and storage of khesari dal in view of its high protein content and water use efficiency.
Khesari (Lathyrus odoratus) is a hardy pulse crop that can grow in both drought as well as waterlogged conditions. The grain is known produce a toxin called BAPN or beta-amino-propio-nitrile, which, when ingested, causes limb paralysis and bone deformity — the result of a neurological disorder called lathyrism.
In 2010, the Planning Commission had asked the ICMR to conduct an epidemiological study of the dal in Chhattisgarh, where its cultivation is the highest.
The procedure to lift the ban will envisage an amendment in the FSSAI regulations of 2011, whereby it was prohibited to sell, have in possession for sale, or for use as an ingredient in the preparation of any article of food, khesari dal or its mixture with any other dal or flour.
“The fact that it gives 10-12 quintals per hectare yields even in the harshest environment and can mature within 125 days is a big advantage, though there are issues with BAPN accumulations,” said N P Singh, director of the Indian Institute of Pulses Research at Kanpur.
— With inputs from Harish Damodaran