A recent study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) points to the presence of possible cancer-causing chemicals in pre-packaged bread. The specific chemical in question, potassium bromate, has been used as an oxidising agent for bread and a few other bakery items such as pao, bun and pizza base.

Similarly, potassium iodate was also found in samples and is reported to cause thyroid disorders.

The results came to the fore when CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory (PML) found residues in 84 per cent of the 38 bread and bakery samples it had sourced from retailers in Delhi.

The results show that major brands across categories have concentrations ranging from 0 to 22.54 parts per million (ppm) of the chemicals in the sample.

The devil in the detail

Though the discovery was well within the mandated limit of 50 ppm for the chemical, the release of the report by CSE saw stocks of major bread manufacturing companies fall considerably. However, there seems to be more to the incident than meets the eye.

First, potassium bromate had been classified as a level 2B carcinogen in 1999 according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). It places potassium bromate in the list of 290 other chemicals which are “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.

Other chemicals in the 2B category include carbon tetrachloride and acetaldehyde. The classification system of IARC has five broad categories (1, 2A, 2B, 3 and 4) with group 4 representing chemicals “probably not carcinogenic to humans” while Group 1 represents chemicals “carcinogenic to humans”.

Second, it will be interesting to see how the use of the chemical in question is being restricted across the world.

In 1992, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JEFCA) declared the chemical as “not appropriate” and withdrew the previously acceptable limit of 60 ppm for the chemical before 1992. Now it is banned in the European Union, the UK, Canada, China, Brazil, New Zealand and Australia, but not in the US. This points to a restricted use of the chemical in major parts of the developed world.

Criminal negligence

Another important issue is the relationship between the relevant stakeholders, namely the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), CSE, the ministry of health, the All India Bread Manufacturers’ Association (AIBMA) and ultimately consumers.

The FSSAI, on its part, has done the right thing by asking for the removal of potassium bromate from the list of permissible chemicals. The health ministry has responded by asking FSSAI to furnish details and a detailed report pertaining to the chemical. The AIBMA too has been positive about not using these chemicals in future.

Here, the important question to ask is, has the consumer interest been put to risk or is it adequately protected? Well, it seems various bodies have done their job, and there appears to be no reason for panic. However, it does point to an archaic standards regime that India continues to follow. The chemical ideally should have been restricted in the first place and even if it had regulatory clearance, it should not have been used by the industry, especially after international agencies in 1992 had termed it “non-appropriate”.

The industry was well aware of the fact and continued its usage on the ploy that it was being allowed as per the national standards under PFA earlier, and FSSAI now. The flour milling and bakery industry continue using potassium bromate even though options were available for achieving the desired functional requirements.

It also raises the question of the efficacy of the regulator and its regulations. Why did the regulator, FSSAI, which came into being after an Act of Parliament in 2006 and was operationalised in 2011, not look into the matter earlier?

Missing in action

The problem seems to be that regulation has been late in catching up with scientific research and developments in market behaviour and outcomes.

Being a young regulator, it seems FSSAI is taking some time to harmonise its standards with international norms. Here, civil society has a great role to play in pointing out problem areas.

However, this needs to be done in a consultative manner and with a positive approach rather than with scaremongering and publicity. That can ultimately harm rather than enhance consumer welfare.

In future, as the regulatory framework for food standards deepens within India, the need to harmonise the standards further as well as ensure consumer interest would be paramount.

The regulator has done the right thing by ordering a removal of potassium bromate from the list of permissible chemicals used for manufacturing bread. It is good that AIBMA too has on its own decided to discontinue the use of potassium bromate in bread-making.

The industry should play a more proactive role in the area of food safety, nutrition and good manufacturing practices.

However, in the long run, the need is to systematise the process of harmonising food safety regulations and standards with international norms and ultimately protect consumer interest.

Kapoor is Chair, Institute for Competitiveness. Sharma is a senior researcher at the Institute for Competitiveness, India