The study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), which has identified two chemicals with potential health hazards – potassium bromate and iodate – in packaged bread samples from prominent companies, set off shock waves among consumers and the industry.
While some companies like Britannia, Dominoes and KFC denied using the chemicals altogether, others including the All India Bread Manufacturers Association pointed out that the chemicals were permitted by the Indian food regulator within specific limits.
So here are the basics. The CSE said 32 of the 38 samples or 84 per cent of the tested samples had potassium bromate and iodate in the range of 1.15-22.54 parts per million. To date, the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) permits them up to 50 parts per million. The two chemicals can be used as treating agents in flour under the category of food additives. They are used to give the final product a soft, fluffy finish.
Late last year, a scientific panel appointed by FSSAI had recommended that potassium bromate be withdrawn as an additive. So, when the CSE study was released this week, the FSSAI quickly pointed out that based on the committee’s recommendations, it had already issued a draft notification in January banning the use of the chemical. The health ministry which has sat on the notification since January, now says it will ban the product and study the CSE’s findings. Till the final notification is issued, however, the chemical will remain in use.
So what is potassium bromate? It is recognised as a category 2B carcinogen since 1999 which means it is believed to be “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Its use had been permitted earlier because it was believed that the chemical was filtered out of the final product. However, once evidence to the contrary emerged in the 1990s many countries banned it, including the EU (1990) and the UK.
Subsequently, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Nigeria, Peru and Columbia have stopped its use. CODEX Alimentarius, an international body which sets safety standards for food commodities, formally withdrew specifications of potassium bromate in 2012. Now with the CSE study, India may finally prohibit its use.
A day after the CSE study, ASSOCHAM stated that the the use of potassium bromate was done “with the permission and full knowledge of the food regulator”. “The industry will surely be at fault if it was using it in violation of the FSSAI rules,” said ASSOCHAM Secretary General Mr D S Rawat.
The FSSAI notification does not cover the second chemical in the CSE – potassium iodate – believed to be associated with thyroid disorders. Both FSSAI and the health ministry have said that CSE’s report is being examined and the recommendations of the government’s scientific panel will be sought on the issue.
Until then, it can be used in India. While some companies mentioned in the CSE report have denied its use, others have said they use it within permissible limits. As the CSE said, it was up to regulators to ensure public health remains a priority for the food regulator and government agencies in India.