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Explained | India’s rice fortification scheme and why it has experts worried- Mrit News

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The Union Cabinet last month approved the phased expansion of rice fortification under government schemes, leading activists to raise concerns

The Union Cabinet last month approved the phased expansion of rice fortification under government schemes, leading activists to raise concerns

The story so far:  The Centre recently released a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), or a set of guidelines, for the smooth implementation of its rice fortification distribution scheme, days after a fact-finding team alleged that fortified rice was being distributed in Jharkhand without the consent of beneficiaries.

In a report published on May 16, a multidisciplinary team of activists and doctors asked the Jharkhand government to stop supply of fortified rice, claiming that it was leading to adverse effects among the tribal population of the State. The fact-finding team also discovered that some communities in the State had rejected fortified rice, assuming that PDS shops were supplying ‘plastic rice’ mixed with normal rice given the unusual appearance of some fortified rice grains.

Last month, the Union Cabinet gave its nod to distribute fortified rice under various government schemes to address widespread malnutrition, anaemia and micronutrient deficiencies. The Centre had in 2019 launched a pilot scheme for fortified rice and its distribution under the Public Distribution System (PDS) for three years to deal with anaemia.

What is fortification?

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) defines fortification as “the addition of key vitamins and minerals such as iron, iodine, zinc, Vitamins A and D to staple foods such as rice, wheat, oil, milk and salt to improve nutritional value and provide a public health benefit with minimal risk to health.”

“The quantity added is small and well under the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) and is well regulated as per the prescribed standards for safe consumption,” the food safety authority states on its website.

Fortification does not require any changes in the eating patterns or food habits of people. The process also does not change any food characteristics— aroma, texture or taste.

Why does India need fortification?

The recently released National Family Health Survey 2019-2021 (NFHS-5) has revealed that around 90 per cent of children in the country aged between 6 and 23 months did not get an adequately nutritious diet. Over 67 per cent of children above six months but below five years of age were found to be anaemic. And while 25 per cent of men from the ages of 5 to 49 were anaemic, the number rose to 57 per cent for women in the same age group. More than 35 per cent of children below five years of age showed stunted growth, which is a measure of chronic malnutrition among kids. 

The survey findings show that malnutrition is a serious public health issue in India. Even those who look ‘healthy’ may often be malnourished due to the absence of appropriate nutrition in their food. This deficiency of micronutrients, also known as hidden hunger, thus poses a serious health risk. 

Food fortification is one strategy to fight malnutrition. Others include diversification of diet and supplementation of food.

Rice consumption patterns in India

India is one of the leading producers of rice in the world. According to the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare data, India produced a record 127.93 million tonnes of rice during 2021-22. Around 65 per cent of Indians consume rice daily, according to FSSAI. The per capita rice consumption is 6.8 kg per month.

While rice is a major source of carbohydrates, it is, however, low in micronutrients. During the rice milling process, husk, bran, and germ are removed to produce the commonly consumed white rice. Milling also removes fat and micronutrient-rich bran layers. Polishing of the grain further removes 75 to 90 per cent of vitamins B1, B6, B3 (niacin) and E.

When rice is fortified, it is not only the lost micronutrients that are re-added. Others like iron, zinc, folic acid and a few vitamins are included to further improve the nutritional value of the diet. 

The FSSAI standards for rice fortification:

The FSSAI has notified the standards for fortified food including rice via the Food Safety Standards (Fortification of Foods) Regulation, 2018, and the Food Safety and Standards (Food Products Standards and Food Additives) Regulations, 2011.

Iron, folic acid and vitamin B12 are added to rice during fortification.

Source: FSSAI

Source: FSSAI

Micronutrients zinc and vitamins A, B1, B2, B3 & B6 are also added in specific quantities.

Source: FSSAI

Source: FSSAI

How is rice fortified: the process

At present, rice is fortified using three technologies in India — coating, dusting and extrusion.

Coating: The nutrient that has to be added to the foodgrain is mixed with wax or gum. This mixture is sprayed on and blended with the polished rice in a 1:100 ratio.

Dusting: Micronutrients, in the form of fine particles, are blended with bulk rice. As per FSSAI, dusting makes use of electrostatic forces between the surface of the rice and the micronutrients.

Extrusion: In India, rice is primarily fortified using extrusion which involves the production of fortified rice kernels or FRKs. Once the rice is milled, it is broken into finer particles. This rice flour is mixed with vitamins, minerals and water. The mixture is then passed through an ‘extruder’ machine which produces grains. The shape and size of these kernels resemble rice grains. The kernels are dried, blended with milled rice in the proportion of 1:50 to 1:200 and then packed. 

The shelf life of fortified rice is at least 12 months. The cooking process of fortified rice remains similar to that of traditional rice.

A consumer will have to pay Rs. 0.4 to Rs 1.3 per kg as an additional cost to buy fortified rice under the Central government schemes. The additional cost will also depend on nutrients added to rice, according to the FSSAI.

What is the new rice fortification scheme?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech last year announced that fortified rice will be provided under all government schemes by 2024. Following the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) meeting last month, the Centre approved the supply of fortified rice through government schemes in a phased manner to combat the problem of malnutrition among the poor.

Some features of the scheme include:

1. Fortified rice will be supplied across the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Pradhan Mantri Poshan Shakti Nirman-PM POSHAN (erstwhile Mid-Day Meal Scheme) and other welfare schemes in a phased manner by 2024.

2. The cost of rice fortification, estimated at around Rs 2,700 crore per annum, will be borne by the central government as part of a food subsidy.

3. The programme has been divided into three phases-

Phase 1: Distribution under ICDS and PM POSHAN in India by March 2022. The first phase, which started in October 2021, is presently under implementation,

Phase 2: TPDS and other welfare schemes in districts with a high number of children showing stunted growth (total 291) to be brought under the scheme by March 2023,

Phase 3: The remaining districts to be brought under the scheme by March 2024

4. Fortified rice shall be packed in bags with an imprinted ‘+F’ logo in blue and a ‘Fortified with Iron, Folic Acid, and Vitamin B1’ tagline in black.

Any rice fortified with iron also needs to carry a note of caution advising that “People with thalassemia may take under medical supervision.”

Packets of fortified rice with imprinted ‘F+’ logo.

Packets of fortified rice with imprinted ‘F+’ logo.
| Photo Credit: FSSAI

The progress so far

By the end of September 2021, as many as 3,100 rice mills had installed fortified rice blending units in 15 States with an overall monthly blending capacity of around 18 LMT (lakh metric tonnes). “Production of fortified rice kernels increased from 7,250 tonnes in 2018 to around 60,000 tonnes yearly, with an additional 25,000 – 30,000 tonnes per year in the pipeline,” the ministry said in a press release in September last year.

In February this year, Union Minister of State for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Ashwini Kumar Choubey told the Rajya Sabha that the Centre had approved a pilot scheme for the fortification of rice and its distribution under PDS for three years from 2019, to address anaemia and micro-nutrient deficiency. 

Under the pilot scheme, 11 states — Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand — distributed fortified rice in one district each. Around 1.73 LMT of fortified rice was distributed till May 2021 under the pilot scheme. By February 2022, the number rose to 3.64 LMT.

In a statement in April on the phased expansion of rice fortification across India, the Centre said nearly 88.65 LMT of fortified rice had been procured for supply and distribution.

There is, however, no evaluation report yet on the pilot project that began in 2019.

Why have activists asked the Centre to stop rice fortification?

Several activists have opposed the fortification of rice, saying an overload of iron can lead to serious health issues. Recently, a fact-finding exercise in Jharkhand found that neither field functionaries nor beneficiaries were educated about the potential harms of fortified rice. The team members which visited the State in May also found that there were no warning labels despite the food regulator’s rules on fortified foods.

In their joint report, the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture and the Right To Food Campaign said that consent was not obtained from beneficiaries in Jharkhand where fortified rice was being distributed under Centre-funded schemes.

Jharkhand has large tribal populations that suffer from sickle-cell anaemia and thalassemia., both of which result in an excess of iron in the body. The consumption of iron-fortified foods by such patients can reduce immunity and affect organs. The report notes, “…there is no information to, or prior consent obtained from, communities which have been recipients of this fortified rice. PDS dealers have not been informed beforehand, nor have been village-level frontline workers of various departments made aware of fortified rice.”

“It appears as if the Government of India wanted to implement this program quietly if not clandestinely, and that the Government was under the misapprehension that FRK blended with regular rice will go unnoticed and therefore, consumed by citizens without any questions,” it adds.

The fact-finding team’s doctor also observed that there was no attempt by the government to identify and protect diagnosed and undiagnosed patients in the area the team visited. “Given the slim evidence on efficacy, the disruption to the food culture and systems and the risk to the community heavily outweigh any possible benefits of iron-fortified rice,” the doctor noted.

Fears among beneficiaries

The report also noted fear among people that “plastic rice” had been mixed with regular rice. “The team found that a vast majority of women are picking out and throwing away the FRK added to rice, and this includes women who are cooking for Anganwadi and school meals. Such FRK is clearly identifiable amongst the real rice kernels and is being picked out by hand, and later, during the washing of the rice before cooking (since the FRK is floating up). Further, after cooking, when extra water is drained out, the added nutrients appear to be getting leached out,” the report stated.

Activists further warned that Jharkhand was not the only State reporting such incidents. Numerous reports of communities rejecting fortified rice and people falling sick after consuming fortified rice have emerged from other states, including Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and West Bengal, according to the fact-finding committee.

Calls for a different malnutrition strategy

The report asked the State government to reject rice fortification in government food schemes as an approach to tackling malnutrition. Instead, it advised the government to promote diet diversity by adding millets, pulses and eggs to the PDS.

Last year, a group of scientists and activists had written to the FSSAI and warned of the adverse impacts of rice fortification on health, citing multiple studies. The letter was signed by 170 individuals and organisations including eminent nutritionists, economists, doctors and farmers’ groups. The letter noted a major problem with chemical fortification of foods, pointing out that nutrients don’t work in isolation but need each other for optimal absorption. “Adding one or two synthetic chemical vitamins and minerals will not solve the larger problem, and in undernourished populations can lead to toxicity,” the letter said.

The National Institute of Nutrition’s former deputy director Veena Shatrugna, one of the signatories, warned that the evidence supporting fortification was inconclusive and inadequate to support the rollout of major national policies.

The Government response

The Centre has called claims about the adverse effects of fortified rice consumption “premature and speculative.”

“Many states are effectively implementing fortified rice distribution through the public distribution system since the launch of the centrally sponsored pilot scheme, without any major challenge. However, due to lack of awareness, fortified rice and its benefits are not always understood,” the government said.

The SOP for the production of fortified rice

In a press release on May 20, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution guided those responsible for the fortification process to refer to the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) released by the Department of Food and Public Distribution in March to ensure smooth implementation of the programme and maintain desired quality standards. 

In the SOP for FRK production, the department listed instructions for mixing raw material, the extrusion process, and the process of drying extruded rice, and also laid down norms for quality assurance and packing. It indicated that FRK manufacturers will have to apply for an FSSAI licence or registration under the 99.5 category (nutrients and their preparations) of the Food Categorisation Code.

It also stressed that two-layer polyethylene and craft paper packaging was required to ensure the quality of FRK throughout the supply chain.

A second document, titled ‘SOP for fortified rice manufacturers,’ addressed how procurement was to be carried out. Millers would procure FRK directly from the FSSAI-licenced FRK manufacturers, who are required to submit a Certificate of Analysis from a lab accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration (NABL.) This certificate should mention information like the levels of micronutrients, the method used for testing, and the expected standards.

“All the incoming raw materials should be visually examined for any kind of abnormalities or deviation from FSSAI specifications. It needs to be ensured that the FRK resembles the regular rice in its colour, sheen, consistency, dimension and texture,” the guidelines state. The SOP further advises the packing of fortified rice in 50-kg gunny bags with labelling as per FSSAI guidelines to distinguish fortified rice from regular rice. 

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