Earlier today Reuters reported violent protests in India over the deaths of 21 (and counting) children poisoned by a free school meal. This tragedy is very close to home for almost every citizen in India since the mid-day meal program involves fully 10 percent of the total population, or a reported 120 million children. Could this be the start of an “Arab Spring” for combating Food Fraud and supporting Food Safety programs in India?
The reports out of India, though early, seem to indicate that this was a Food Fraud incident.
- First, the toxin was identified as an “organophosphorous” compound that they stated was used in insecticides. So this is still possibly a contaminant (defined by Codex as “not intentionally added to food, which is present in such food as a result of the production”) or adulterant (a term not defined by Codex though they frequently address “adulteration or fraud”, insinuating it is the intentional modification of a product to change the quality or weight). Whether the act was intentional or not, contaminant or adulterant, the result is adulteration (unfit product). So, there is suspicion of fraud from either a component added to the product or the insufficient cleaning of recycled, contaminated product.
- Second, the cooking oil was identified as the source of the toxin. There have been many widely reported Food Fraud incidents involving cooking oil that was reclaimed, used, and contaminated with gutter oil. So, there is a Food Fraud precedence for the product.
- Third, this is a free meal program in a financially “impoverished” region so there is tremendous financial pressure to procure inexpensive product. It was estimated that a child is fed for US$15 per year, and another report stated 2-3 cents per meal. So, there is a fraud opportunity even for a very inexpensive food product.
- Fourth, the use of the product is by an institution so this is not a direct seller-to user transaction. In this case the buyer is probably a purchasing agent in a centralized location, the user is the local cook, and the consumer is the student eating the meal. So, the end user of the product does not have the opportunity to inspect the product before purchase AND the seller does not risk losing repeat sales from the user – when the handoff is person-to-person there is more risk of a confrontation from a disgruntled customer.
- Fifth, there were insinuations that ongoing fraud was associated with this product. This was supported by a quote from a cook: “I thought that this is locally-made oil as often there is an accumulation of residual waste at the bottom [of the container].” So, there seemed to be some evidence of ongoing fraud and a lack of focus on food safety or quality.
Regardless of whether this is unintentional contamination or intentional adulteration, there is definitely a fraud opportunity. If this is not a Food Fraud incident then the situation is ripe for fraud.
The reporting of the incident by the media raises several interesting points. One quote stated “if it had been a case of food poisoning, so many children would not have died”. There is an understanding by those involved, and emphasized by the media, of the complex concept of unintentional and intentional food safety threats. Specifically, they stated that the contaminant was “accidently or intentionally mixed in the food”. It was also stated and reported that there had been ongoing concerns with the food safety or quality of the food products.
India has many of the social, religious, and political stressors evident around the globe. Whatever the source of frustration, the result today was “sparking violent protests and angry allegations of blame“. It was also reported that “demonstrators pelted a police station with stones, set ablaze buses and other vehicles.” This incident – these deaths – sparked a strong response and a sense of outrage.
Globally there has been a growing awareness of Food Fraud. More generally, there have been rumblings about Food Safety and Food Security. In India the incident struck a nerve with innocents being killed. This incident happened at one school but could have occurred at any – remember that the free meals program is for children and it impacts 10% of the entire Indian population. An impassioned response to Food Fraud incidents may become more the norm. JWS.