On May 23, Union Health Minister J P Nadda ordered an investigation by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and promised appropriate action after an NGO found toxins in bread products manufactured by major multinational and domestic companies. Seven months later, in response to a Right to Information (RTI) application, the FSSAI has told The Sunday Express that it has no information regarding any such probe.
“No information regarding probe is available with this office,” Rajesh Kumar, a scientist in the standards division of the FSSAI said in the reply.
The RTI application for inspection of the probe report was filed with the health ministry, which transferred it to S Anoop, Assistant Director (Regulatory Compliance), FSSAI. Anoop transferred the application to Kumar, asking him to “furnish available information to the applicant directly please”.
The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), on May 23, came out with test results that showed that major multinational fast food outlets —KFC, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Subway and McDonald’s — were selling pizzas and burgers made with breads laced with toxins such as potassium bromate and potassium iodate.
The two toxins were found in bread manufactured by Perfect Bread, Harvest Gold, Britannia and other companies too. In all, 84 per cent of the 38 brands of bread and bread products tested, including pavs and buns, were found to contain these chemicals.
Hours after CSE made the report public, the health minister told reporters, “CSE has sent a report in which they have said some things about bread. I have told my officials that this should be investigated quickly. FSSAI is looking into this matter. I would surely like to say that there is no need to panic. There is no need to worry. The government will very soon, after looking at its details, take all the necessary steps as per the requirement.”
The following day, May 24, share prices of Jubilant FoodWorks, which runs the Domino’s chain of restaurants in India, and Westlife Development, owner of the master franchise of McDonald’s restaurants in India, tanked more than 10 per cent. “FSSAI has been told to report as soon as possible. They should take this matter seriously. They are coming up with a report. The ministry will take appropriate action accordingly… The moment the (probe) report comes, we will take action,” the health minister said on May 24.
Potassium bromate and potassium iodate are added to bread products as food additives. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies potassium bromate as a Category 2B carcinogen, meaning it can possibly cause cancer.
As early as in 1966, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organisation had stated in a joint report that the use of potassium iodate in bread was “highly undesirable”, as it could lead to a very high intake of iodine, which could then possibly trigger thyroid disorders. “The (expert) committee, therefore, recommended that iodates should not be used for flour treatment,” the joint report said.
The CSE study tested bread products that were sold in the geographical region of Delhi only.
Health Minister Nadda did not reply to specific queries mailed to him by The Sunday Express. However, when his office was contacted repeatedly, Nadda’s official staff asked this newspaper to contact Aditya Trivedi, who they said was “handling media” for the health minister.
Trivedi told The Sunday Express: “That report has come. The report said that potassium bromate was present in the bread products within permissible levels.”
When told that FSSAI had, in its written reply to the RTI application, said it had no idea about any probe, Trivedi said, “It was not probe. We didn’t ask for probe. We were speaking about the report, not for the probe. These are two different things… You just ask Mr Pawan Kumar Agarwal (the CEO of the FSSAI) to show that report to you.”
The Sunday Express then requested Agarwal to permit inspection of the report that was sent to the union health minister. Agarwal replied: “There is no report that we had submitted. They had sought information and it was a one-sheet reply that we had given. That one sheet reply they must have treated as a report. I will ask my office to share that (note) with you. In that one-page note, we had mentioned that we have removed (potassium) bromate already (from the list of permitted additives). Regarding (potassium) iodate, we had written that we have referred the issue to a scientific panel.”
On what happened then, Agarwal said: “After we had sent the report, it was discussed in the scientific panel. You know potassium iodate is not carcinogenic. People eat iodised salt and if people take iodine so there should not be an overdose of iodine. It was held by the scientific panel that in bread and biscuits, the salt people take is very little. That is not too much of a consideration. They (scientific panel) said that we need to do a little examination before banning potassium iodate also, or before taking a view on potassium iodate. The scientific panel has not taken any view on potassium iodate as yet.”
After CSE published the results of the study, the All India Bread Manufacturers’ Association (AIBMA) had said that breadmakers would stop using the two chemical additives in bread and bakery products. “We will not use potassium bromate and iodate if people don’t like it. We were using them as their use was allowed by our government and scientists. We have other enzymes and emulsifiers as their alternate,” Aadil Hassan, heading a delegation of All India Bread Manufacturers’ Association, had told a press conference on May 26. Hassan is also the managing director of Harvest Gold Breads.
In June, FSSAI banned the use of potassium bromate as an additive in any food product. Kumar mentioned this in his RTI reply: “The list of permitted additives is prescribed with usage limits for various food categories in the Food Safety and Standards (Food Product Standards and Food Additives), 2016, that was notified on September 5, 2016… Use of Potassium Bromate is not permitted as per above regulation.”
While potassium iodate is not banned in India, it is banned in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and countries of the European Union.