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Food Fortification is ethical or not

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  • GS 2 || Governance & Social Justice || Human Development || Hunger & Famines

Food Fortification

To boost the nutritional value of staple foods such as rice, milk, and salt, fortification is the addition of important vitamins and minerals such as iron, iodine, zinc, Vitamin A, and D. These nutrients might or might not have been present in the food before it was processed.

The requirement for fortification:

  • The National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) found that:
    • Anemia affects 58.4% of children aged 6 to 59 months.
    • Anemia affects 53.1 percent of reproductive-age women.
    • 7 percent of children under the age of five are overweight.
    • Furthermore, 50-70 percent of these birth abnormalities are thought to be avoidable. Folic acid deficiency is one of the leading reasons.
  • As a result, fortification is required to address micronutrient deficiency or malnutrition, sometimes known as “hidden hunger,” which is a severe health risk.
  • Economically deprived people, unfortunately, do not have access to safe and healthy meals.
  • Others don’t have a well-balanced diet or don’t have enough variety in their food, so they don’t obtain enough micronutrients. During the processing of food, nutrients are frequently lost in significant amounts.
  • Food fortification is one strategy for addressing this issue. This strategy works in conjunction with other methods for improving nutrition, such as dietary variety and food supplementation.

Fortification in India:

  • Wheat: In 2018, India’s flagship Poshan Abhiyaan revealed the decision to fortify wheat, which is now being implemented in 12 states to enhance nutrition among children, adolescents, expectant women, and breastfeeding mothers.
  • Rice: The Department of Food and Public Distribution (DFPD) has been implementing a “Centrally Sponsored Pilot Scheme on Rice Fortification and Distribution through the Public Distribution System.” The programme was launched in 2019-20 for a three-year trial period. This scheme will last through 2023, and recipients will get rice at a rate of Re 1 per kilogramme.
    • The Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution is the key agency for rice fortification.
  • Milk: Milk fortification began in 2017, with the National Dairy Development Board of India (NDDB) pressuring companies to add vitamin D to their products.
  • Edible oil: In 2018, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) made fortification of edible oil mandatory across the country.

Fortification’s Advantages

  • High benefit-to-cost ratio: Food fortification offers a very high benefit-to-cost ratio. According to the Copenhagen Consensus, every rupee spent on fortification generates 9 rupees in economic benefits. While the equipment as well as the vitamin and mineral premix must be purchased initially, the overall expenses of fortification are quite minimal.
  • Fortification also assures a minimum level of nutrition at a reasonable cost—only 15 paisa to fortify a litre of oil and 2 paisa to fortify a litre of milk.
  • No socio-cultural barriers: Fortification does not necessitate any modifications in people’s eating habits or behaviours. It is a socially and culturally acceptable method of providing nutrients to people.
  • No changes to the taste, fragrance, or texture of the meal: It has no effect on the taste, aroma, or texture of the food.

Issues associated with it food fortification:

  • Problem with extra iron: When it comes to anaemia, haemoglobin production requires a lot more than just iron; many other nutrients, such as good quality protein, vitamins B and C, and folic acid, are necessary in much bigger amounts. More iron will merely increase ferritin, an iron storage protein, but will not result in haemoglobin production or anaemia therapy.
    • Iron overloading the system brings its own set of issues. Because iron has oxidative qualities, it might react with intestinal mucosa, which can be affected by infections that are common in India.
    • When iron is given during the acute phase of tuberculosis, malaria, and other illnesses, they become uncontrollable.
    • According to new research, elevated ferritin levels are linked to diabetes, especially during pregnancy.
  • Natural defensive chemicals are lost: Fortification might sometimes have the opposite effect. Natural foods contain beneficial compounds like phytochemicals and polyunsaturated fat, which are harmed by the micronutrient mixing process.
  • Market-driven solution: Researchers are concerned that the push for fortification is more for the benefit of the industry than for the benefit of the people, and that it is a global market-driven solution that lacks scientific logic.
    • When we achieve our goal of reduced micronutrient deficit, mandatory fortification will establish markets that will be difficult to exit.
    • Furthermore, research studies around the world have demonstrated that fortification programmes boost market share for larger formal firms while decreasing market share for the informal sector.
    • High expense: The fortification of only the rice distributed through the social safety networks will cost the government Rs 2,600 crores per year.
  • Impact on small businesses: Fortification provides multinationals with a secure market. It might jeopardise the livelihoods of small businesses all over India. In the case of rice and oil processing, for example. Although the FSSAI promises that medium and big rice millers will be rewarded for fortifying their rice, the process is costly and prohibitive for small businesses. According to the government, the cost of setting up rice fortification infrastructure for a medium-sized mill is estimated to be Rs 3.2 crore.
  • Anemia and iron deficit have no direct link: There is no direct link between anaemia and iron deficiency. Anaemia is common among poor rural children, although iron deficiency is more common among the urban and wealthy across the country.

Why is it ethically wrong?

  • Mandatory fortification is more possible: When the current landscape consists of huge, formal factories, mandatory fortification is more possible. Producers prefer mandated fortification in this situation, according to evidence, because it creates “a fair playing field for the staple whose branding and unique added values may not be the deciding factor for the consumer to acquire it.”
  • MSMEs: When a country’s industry is primarily comprised of small, formal, and informal businesses, mandatory fortification becomes more difficult, and voluntary fortification may be possible, though not optimal, as low demand may discourage greater uptake from the industry, resulting in a persistent supply shortage.
  • The choice of mandatory vs voluntary fortification: It must be made in accordance with World Trade Organization accords, so maize exporting countries cannot claim that a mandatory standard or regulation is a trade barrier. As a result, a sound, ethically informed decision must be based on a thorough examination of all relevant considerations.
  • Folic acid in fortified foods: Because the amount of folic acid in fortified foods is typically substantially below the recommended daily requirement, widespread iron and folic acid fortification is unlikely to pose a concern to the entire population.
  • Risk to public health: Nonetheless, a public health programme fortifying maize flour and corn meal with iron and folic acid as extra nutrients must be carefully structured to keep iron and folic acid levels within acceptable ranges. As a result, all workers working in the food-fortification programme must have technical skills and get sufficient training. Coordination is also critical between different food-fortification activities taking place in the same location, as well as between public health programmes giving micronutrients to the same populations.

Measures to be taken:

  • A varied and high-quality diet is more beneficial: rather than fortification, food quality should be enhanced. It would be more beneficial to increase the intake of animal-based foods and fruits. In its Nutrient Requirements of Indians report released in 2020, the National Institute of Nutrition also indicated that a broad natural diet is essential to meet the normal population’s micronutrient needs.
    • Animal and plant protein such as eggs, dairy, and pulses, as well as vegetables and fruit, should be included in school meal programmes to increase dietary diversity.
  • Organic farming approach: Food can be grown using Amrut Krishi, an organic farming approach that improves the nutritional value of food.
  • Nutrition insufficiency: Breastfeeding with good latching skills was another option. It has the potential to have a significant influence on nutrition insufficiency in the first 1,000 days.
  • Kitchen gardens: According to a study conducted in Maharashtra, vegetables cultivated in organic kitchen gardens raise haemoglobin levels.
  • Public distribution system: Rice that has been less treated or unpolished should be included in the public distribution system. This would ensure that rice bran, which is high in micronutrients, made its way to individuals.
  • Local nutrition programmes: Programme should be made available to local communities, farmers, micro, small, and medium processors, and others. They can provide raw materials as well as any locally prepared food-to-food fortifiers including syrups, biscuits, porridge, powders, and a variety of goods made from local ingredients such as starchy foods, vegetables, fruit, flowers, nuts, oils, and animal products. Such food fortifiers have been shown in studies to increase nutrition while also benefiting local livelihoods.

Mains oriented question:

What is food fortification? Write about the pros and cons associated with it. (200 words)