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Where does lead in food come from?

Our body does not require lead, an element found in nature, but because of the presence of lead in many consumer products, and manufacturing process, we get exposed to lead. We have some amount of lead in our body which is not dangerous as long as  it is within permissible limits. The problem with lead is it does not get out as easily from the body, as it gets inside the body. Hence when the lead accumulates in the blood over a period of time it can lead to health issues – damaging the nervous system, causing brain disorders, repeated anemia, a low IQ level, headache, affecting the immune system, impaired fertility, and hypertension. It accumulates in both soft tissues and the bones. The US considers ‘lead’ the number one environmental threat to the health of children.

For the last few month I was trying to convey the above message to the Consumers in India, but with little effect. Along with students of Delhi University, I did a research for Consumers India about Lead Hazards in India. The findings were alarming as lead was found in food, household items, paints, soil and air. Getting the message across to the consumers was difficult because they think there are bigger health hazards in the polluted environs of the city.  We were searching for new methods to educate the public – Seminars in schools, huge billboards in hospitals and messages through media. If there is a suitable substitute for lead then it can be eliminated. Lead Petrol was removed in India after protests from activists and NGOs’.

Thanks to the controversy regarding Lead in Maggi, Consumers are all ears to know about the hazards of Lead. Developed countries have a measurement to find out if a person is within the permissible limit of lead or they need to take medical help. A child in the US is said to be exposed to lead if the Blood lead level is between 4 and 10 mcg/dl(Micrograms Per Decilitre) and precaution are sought from the authorities to find out the source of exposure and precautions to be taken. And if the child has blood lead level of more than 10 mcg they have to undergo  medical treatment.

There are numerous sources of lead exposures – lead batteries, lead paints, pottery with lead paints, newspaper prints, the prints on plastic cover, soil, vegetables that are grown in soil with high concentration of lead, water with lead and air.  We are exposed to lead in all our daily activities and if we check our blood lead level, we might be diagnosed as victims of lead exposure. In our research we found vegetables like spinach contains lead and they are not removed even by thorough washing. Lead is also there in jellies, ice creams and tinned food, as the soldering is of lead.

Food items FDA (The US) checked for high lead c

The United States FDA has stated a number of products that may contain lead more that the permissible level.

  • In 2004, United States Consumer Product Safety Commission found that Candies contained unsafe amount of lead from the wrappers.
  • In 2002, FDA found that Milk Chocolate contained more than permissible limit of lead, which was because of the chocolate liquor used in it. The manufacturers were asked to take precaution while taking raw materials. However the level of lead was found to be high in Dark Chocolates as they contain higher amount of liquor chocolate.
  • FDA also found  lead in candy but within permissible limits. Candies contain sugar (lead in sucrose) which contains ‘average levels of contaminants that are well below the applicable limit’.
  • Mexican candies with chilli as ingredient had detectable level of lead because of the soil they were grown.
  • Candies with tamarind as ingredient was found to have lead because the products were packed in lead glazed bowls.

Where does lead in food come from in Maggi?

In our research we never found any case with noodles having lead. So I asked Vinay Kumar C, Environmental Researcher, National Referral Centre for Lead Projects in India, about the possible routes of lead exposure in Maggi, and following are his assumptions:

1. Masala ( Taste Makers): The success of Maggi is in it’s unique taste of added masala packet which comes with it, prepared exclusively comprising various ingredients. Lead may be entered in any of the raw materials procured – research have indicated that Lead Chromate are usually found in healthy haldi ( turmeric ) and mixed species as common adulteration.

Read also: Serve global brands in India with desi tadka – An anecdote on how Maggi made inroads in India 30 years ago.

 2. Water: Even the water employed during the whole process of Maggi preparation may be contaminated with Lead/ toxic chemicals due to the sub-standard/old metal piping in the various manufacturing units. The possible contamination may also be in its source.  Ex : ground water, tankers from unknown source.
3.Packing: The plastic employed to packing Maggi products need to be tested and certified as various plastic (bright solid-coloured plastic packing bags/covers) may contain high concentrations of lead as per the studies & test results  of Northeast Recycling Council,US.
4.Production Machinery:  The old paints on the machinery or the oil agents( containing lead content) used for running the equipment may have come in contact with production.

In an interview to Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Uday Annapure, an associate professor of the department of food engineering and technology at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai, said that while none of the many food additives used in making the wheat noodles support lead, some components of the soup-flavoring packet, such as onion powder and wheat flour, “come from agricultural sources, all vulnerable to lead contamination,” (Source WSJ)

During the course of the research I asked an eminent person about who could be given the credit for the elimination of lead from petrol in India. He said in this big country, India, a single person or an organisation cannot bring about a change. I beg to differ from his argument in this case of spreading awareness about lead hazards. Had lead not been detected in Maggi, no one would have bothered to read this article. Maggi did in 2-minutes what Lead activists could not do for decades – spread awareness about lead exposure among consumers in India.

 Also Read:Lead poisoning: How safe are you?

                          Lead hazard in India!!!

Lead in Food

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