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Formaldehyde Adulteration in India – Extent & Regulations

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Formaldehyde adulteration is a significant public health concern in India, particularly in the food industry. This harmful substance is illegally used as a preservative in various food items, notably fish, fruits, and vegetables, to enhance their shelf life. Despite being a known carcinogen and its use in food being prohibited, unethical traders continue to exploit formaldehyde due to its effectiveness in preventing microbial contamination. Recent advancements, such as the development of a low-cost, non-invasive sensor in India, show promise in detecting and combating this form of food adulteration.

This topic of “Formaldehyde Adulteration in India – Extent & Regulations” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

What is Formaldehyde?

  • Formaldehyde is a flammable, highly reactive, and readily polymerizing colorless gas at normal temperature and pressure. It has a pungent, distinct odor and may cause a burning sensation to eyes, nose, and lungs at high concentrations.
  • When formaldehyde is dissolved in water, it becomes formalin, which is commonly used as a disinfectant as well as a preservative in funeral homes and medical labs.
  • Formaldehyde is a chemical commonly used in industry for the manufacture of plastic resins that can be used in wood, paper, and textile industry.
  • Formaldehyde is also approved as an indirect food additive. This means it’s used in certain materials that have contact with food.

Why is Formaldehyde Used?

  • Formaldehyde is added illegally to food to extend its shelf life due to its antiseptic and preservation properties.
  • Formaldehyde is used as a food preservative illegally since it can prolong the shelf-life of a food by protecting against deterioration caused by microorganisms.
  • Formaldehyde is the most reported preservative used in fruits and vegetables. Formalin inhibits the growth of microbes by interacting with the amino groups of adenine, cytosine, and guanine and denaturing them.
  • Formaldehyde is sometimes added inappropriately in food processing for its preservative and bleaching effects.

How is Formaldehyde Detected?

  • The most popular and widely applied techniques for detecting formaldehyde are the spectrophotometric methods which are based on the formation of a chromogen.
  • High-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) or gas chromatography (GC), coupled with a mass spectrometer (MS), are traditional methods used for formaldehyde detection.
  • Before determination, isolation of formaldehyde from the food sample is important. An extraction method of using high acid strength and salt content followed by distillation is used.
  • Some new sensors have been developed for analyzing formaldehyde in food. These sensors are of various types, but they all share a good limit of detection (LOD), good accuracy, and a reduced analysis time.
    • An electronic nose (e-nose) system has been developed to detect toxic formaldehyde, providing a response to illegal adulteration practices.
    • Gold nanoparticles have been utilized to detect formalin adulteration in milk, offering a cost-effective and sensitive detection method.
    • Quantum dot-assisted fluorescence-based detection offers a precise and sensitive method for identifying formaldehyde in food samples.
    • A novel sensor using metal oxide nanoparticles and reduced graphene oxide composite has been developed in India to detect formalin in fish non-invasively at room temperature.
      • This sensor is low-cost, shows long-term stability, and has a low detection limit, making it a promising tool for identifying formaldehyde adulteration.

The Extent of Formaldehyde Adulteration in India

  • Formaldehyde, also known as formalin when diluted, is a carcinogenic chemical that has been found in various food products in India, including fish, milk, and fruits.
  • Despite being prohibited for use in foods according to India’s Food Safety and Standards 2011, formaldehyde is still being used as a preservative due to its ability to inhibit the growth of microbes and prolong the shelf life of food.
  • In 2018, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) released guidelines for formalin in fish, including the use of test kits for preliminary screening. However, these kits are not a definitive test, and samples still need to be sent to labs for further testing.
  • Formaldehyde has been found in fish consignments, freshly marketed fish, and even in the ice used during transportation. Despite decreasing over time in storage, formaldehyde cannot be completely removed from fish.
  • In addition to fish, formaldehyde has been detected in milk and dairy products. In one instance, around 600 litres of milk adulterated with formaldehyde was supplied to hundreds of hotels.
  • Formaldehyde is also used in fruits and vegetables as a preservative. It inhibits the growth of microbes by interacting with the amino groups of adenine, cytosine, and guanine, denaturing them.
  • Despite the health risks and regulations against its use, formaldehyde continues to be used in food adulteration due to economic profitability and the desire to increase the shelf life of food products.
  • The extent of formaldehyde adulteration in India is a significant concern, with various studies and reports highlighting its widespread use in food products.

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Health Risks of Formaldehyde Adulteration

  • Formaldehyde is a carcinogenic chemical, and its accumulation in the body through long-term consumption can lead to cancer.
    • Formaldehyde is identified by the US Environmental Protection Agency and International Agency for Research on Cancer as a Class 2A carcinogen.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the daily oral exposure to formaldehyde should not exceed 100 mg per day. However, the formaldehyde level in fish and seafood has been found to be higher than this recognized safety level.
  • Consumption of food preserved with formaldehyde can lead to disturbances in the nervous system, kidneys, liver, and lungs.
  • Ingesting large amounts of formaldehyde can cause severe abdominal pain, vomiting, coma, renal injury, and possible death.
  • Formaldehyde solution exposure ranging from 5 to 30 ppm and greater can cause or exacerbate bronchial asthma. Paraformaldehyde can impair the retina.

Regulation of Formaldehyde Adulteration (World and India)

  • Formaldehyde has been banned as a food additive and listed as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the World Health Organization.
  • The WHO has established a Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) of 0.15 mg kg−1 body weight, and most countries have set a legal limit for formaldehyde as 0.2%.
  • In the United States, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authority to regulate formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products and other sources.
  • In China, formaldehyde is one of the prohibited preservatives mentioned in the Food Regulations.
  • The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) advocates for the daily oral exposure to formaldehyde and has summarized the formaldehyde level in various food items.
  • In India, formaldehyde is not permitted for use in foods according to the Food Safety and Standards Regulations 2011.
  • The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has released guidelines for formalin in fish.
  • The Kerala government in India is planning new regulations that mandate stringent action and penalties against those who use adulterants.
  • Despite these regulations, instances of adulteration of fish and other food products with formaldehyde have been reported in various countries, including India.

FSSAI Guidelines, 2018

  • The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has released guidelines for formalin in fish, including the use of test kits for preliminary screening. However, these kits are not a definitive test, and samples still need to be sent to labs for further testing.
  • The FSSAI has set ad-hoc limits for naturally occurring formaldehyde in fish and fisheries products. For freshwater fish, the limit is 4.0 mg/kg, and for brackish water/marine origin, the limit is 100.0 mg/kg.
  • The FSSAI has issued a guidance note on the handling of fish, which contains the best practices to detect and restrict the use of formalin as a fish adulterant and avoid its further sale.
  • The FSSAI recommends screening fish for formaldehyde content during procurement.
  • Consumers are advised to wash fish thoroughly with running tap water to remove the formaldehyde naturally, especially marine fish.
  • The FSSAI also recommends cooking fish thoroughly to an internal temperature of 75°C or above, as heat from cooking can aid the removal of any naturally present formaldehyde.
  • The FSSAI has endorsed the use of a rapid detection kit, “CIFTest,” developed by ICAR-CIFT, Kochi, for consumers to check the fish for adulteration.

Way Forward

Mitigation Strategies

  1. Development of low-cost, non-invasive sensors to detect formaldehyde adulteration in food products, such as fish and vegetables. These sensors can detect adulteration at room temperature, making them practical and efficient for use in various settings.
  2. Implementation of stringent food safety regulations and guidelines to prevent food adulteration. This includes the prohibition of harmful substances like formaldehyde in food products.
  3. Regular testing and inspection of food products to detect adulteration. This includes the use of test kits and sending samples to labs for further testing.
  4. Encouragement of good practices in food handling and transportation, such as maintaining the cold chain or proper icing for fish and shellfish.
  5. Development of innovative, reliable, and highly sensitive methods to respond to specific food adulteration problems, such as the gutter oil problem in China.

Public Awareness

  1. Conducting education and awareness campaigns to inform the public about the risks of food adulteration. This can help prevent life-threatening diseases and save lives.
  2. Increasing community awareness about food adulteration, especially the risks associated with chemical adulterants.
  3. Encouraging consumers to ensure the integrity of the product throughout the supply chain. This includes checking for formaldehyde content during purchase to ensure the food is safe.
  4. Informing the public about the presence of harmful substances in food products through media and other sources of information.
  5. Raising awareness about the illegal use of harmful substances in food products, such as formaldehyde, and their potential health risks.

In conclusion, formaldehyde adulteration in food products is a pressing public health issue in India, with serious implications for consumer safety. Despite regulations prohibiting its use, the substance’s illegal application persists due to its preservative qualities. The development of innovative detection methods and increased public awareness are critical in combating this malpractice. Continued efforts in regulation enforcement and consumer education are essential to safeguard public health and ensure food safety.

Practice Question for Mains

Evaluate the impact of formaldehyde adulteration on India’s public health and economy. (250 words)

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  1. What is formaldehyde and why is it used in food adulteration?
    • Formaldehyde is a colorless, pungent gas used in various industrial processes. In food, it’s often used as a preservative due to its ability to inhibit microbial growth and prolong shelf life. However, its use in food is illegal in many countries as it’s a known carcinogen.
  2. How can formaldehyde adulteration be detected in food?
    • There are several methods to detect formaldehyde in food. These include the use of low-cost, non-invasive sensors, colorimetric reactions, high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), gas chromatography (GC) coupled with mass spectrometry (MS), and electronic nose (e-nose) systems.
  3. What are the health risks associated with consuming food adulterated with formaldehyde?
    • Consumption of food preserved with formaldehyde can lead to serious health issues, including disturbances in the nervous system, kidney, liver, and lungs, and even cancer. Ingesting large amounts of formaldehyde can cause severe abdominal pain, vomiting, coma, renal injury, and possible death.
  4. What are the regulations regarding formaldehyde use in food in India?
    • In India, formaldehyde is not permitted for use in foods according to the Food Safety and Standards Regulations 2011. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has released guidelines for formalin in fish and has set ad-hoc limits for naturally occurring formaldehyde in fish and fisheries products.
  5. What are some mitigation strategies to combat formaldehyde adulteration?
    • Mitigation strategies include the development of low-cost, non-invasive sensors for detection, implementation of stringent food safety regulations, regular testing and inspection of food products, encouragement of good practices in food handling and transportation, and raising public awareness about the risks of food adulteration.

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