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The Union Government has released a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for the smooth implementation of its rice fortification distribution scheme. The SOP was released days after a fact-finding team reported that the fortified rice being distributed in Jharkhand was having an adverse impact on the local tribal population. The Union Government had launched a pilot scheme in 2019 for fortified rice and its distribution under the Public Distribution System (PDS) for 3 years to deal with anaemia. Last month, the Union Cabinet gave its nod to distribute fortified rice under various government schemes to address widespread malnutrition, anaemia and micronutrient deficiencies.
What is fortification of food?
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. It is done to improve nutritional value and provide a public health benefit with minimal risk to health.
FSSAI standards for rice fortification: It 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. For rice fortification, Iron, folic acid and vitamin B12 are added. Micronutrients zinc and vitamins A, B1, B2, B3 and B6 are also added in specific quantities.
What is the new rice fortification scheme?
Fortified rice will be supplied across the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). The supply will also be done under Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Pradhan Mantri Poshan Shakti Nirman-PM POSHAN and other welfare schemes in a phased manner by 2024.
The cost of rice fortification, estimated at around Rs 2,700 crore per annum, will be borne by the Union Government as part of a food subsidy.
The programme has been divided into three phases: (a) 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; (b) 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; (c) Phase 3: The remaining districts to be brought under the scheme by March 2024.
Any rice fortified with iron also needs to carry a note of caution advising that ‘People with thalassemia may take it under medical supervision’.
What is the need of fortification?
Dismal Health Data: The recently released National Family Health Survey 2019-2021 (NFHS-5) has revealed that around 90% of children in the country aged between 6 and 23 months did not get an adequately nutritious diet. Over 67% of children above 6 months but below 5 years of age were found to be anaemic. While 25% of men from the ages of 5 to 49 were anaemic, the number rose to 57% for women in the same age group.
Hidden Hunger: Even seemingly healthy individuals may suffer from malnutrition due to the absence of appropriate nutrients in their food. This deficiency of micronutrients, also known as hidden hunger, poses a serious health risk.
Regaining the Lost Nutrients: Many nutrients are lost during the processing of foods. For instance, 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 removes 75 to 90% of vitamins B1, B6, B3 (Niacin) and E.
Cost Effectiveness: Fortification is one of the most cost-effective procedures to provide for the lack of nutrients..
Easy Adoption: It doesn’t require an adjustment in the individual. In most cases, fortification causes minimal changes in the taste, appearance and texture of the food. So the individual preferences do not require much adjustments. There are some exceptions though.
What are the concerns associated with rice fortification?
First, the expert committee in Jharkhand observed negative impact of iron fortification in rice. The team noticed that tribal populations in Jharkhand already have an excess iron in their bodies. The consumption of iron-fortified foods by such patients can reduce immunity and affect organs.
Second, in some cases it was seen that fortified rice adversely impacted the health of individuals thereby showing a lack of efficacy. 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; it can lead to toxicity in undernourished populations.
Third, it sometimes alters the taste of the product which reduces the acceptance; thereby diminishing the consumption. For instance, in Jharkhand, people feared that ‘plastic rice’ had been mixed with regular rice. A vast majority of women were seen picking out and throwing away the FRK added to rice.
Keeping these challenges in mind, the government released Standard Operating Procedure for the fortified rice.
What are the guidelines under the new SOP for Rice Fortification?
Production: 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 needs to be ensured that the FRK resembles the regular rice in its colour, sheen, consistency, dimension and texture
Procurement: 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.
Packaging: It advises the packing of fortified rice in 50-kg gunny bags with labelling as per FSSAI guidelines to distinguish fortified rice from regular rice.
What should be the approach ahead?
First, the Government must ensure that the quantity added for fortification is well within the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) as per the prescribed standards for safe consumption.
Second, fortification should be done in such a way that it does not change any food characteristics— aroma, texture or taste. This would encourage greater adoption of fortified rice.
Third, the Government should also remember that rice fortification (food fortitication) is one of the strategies to fight malnutrition. It should also focus on other methods like diversification of diet and supplementation of food. For instance, encouraging consumption of millets can be extremely beneficial considering its low glycemic index and high nutritional value.
Rice Fortification is a step in the right direction to eliminate the menace of malnutrition in India. Being a staple crop, fortified rice has a potential to impact a significant amount of population thereby playing a pivotal role in achieving SDG 2 i.e Zero Hunger. However all suitable measures should be taken to ensure there are no side-effects.
Source: The Hindu