Red-flagging the rising incidence of food and water contamination in India ahead of the World Health Day on Monday, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said there is need for strict enforcement of the Food Safety and Standards Act and strengthening of the food testing laboratory infrastructure and skills.

“Scientific evidence has shown that contamination of food is a serious issue in India as unchecked microbial activity and the use of pesticides and antibiotics seriously compromise food safety, while consumption of junk food and other chemically-laced foods adds to the problem,” said Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General, CSE, in a statement.

Pointing out that in 2013, about 10 per cent of deaths in India of children below 5 years were due to diarrhoea, Bhushan said the exact burden of all food-borne illnesses in India has still not been estimated.

According to CSE researchers, largely unregulated pesticide use and management in India was one reason for food contamination, leading to long-term health effects, such as endocrine disruption, birth defects and cancer. “Pesticides have even been found in packaged food products, such as soft drinks, bottled water and in human tissues in India”, they said.

Another threat is from indiscriminate use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic reasons. “The problem of drug resistance linked with this practice, further makes the food-borne illness difficult to treat. Most bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses, such as E coli, salmonella and campylobacter, are already found to be multi-drug resistant,” CSE said, calling for a ban on antibiotics for growth promotion and mass disease prevention, as in several European countries.

While there is the problem of microbiological contamination of street food in India, its most common replacement -- processed and packaged food -- is also laden with chemical additives, it said, adding that limits of chemicals or determinants of unsafe food need to be set.

Food adulteration, especially milk, is another key challenge, CSE said, adding that India can no longer afford to remain in the dilemma of whether it should provide ‘food’ or ‘safe food’ to all.”