Tuesday, December 4, 2007

India's Dirty Little Secret

An Australian tennis player, Adil Hakeem, found out for himself this past week that India has a major food and water contamination problem. He developed a sudden bout of vomiting and fever on the eve of a tennis tournament - one of two back-to-back tournaments that he had entered in India.

For many decades after gaining its independence, India suffered from hunger and poverty. More recently, the country has become a major international economic power, but its food and water infrastructure has failed to keep up with the rest of the country's progress.

An article in the November 2007 issue of Smithsonian makes very clear the difficulties that surround attempts to reduce pollution in the Ganges River. In spite of well-meaning efforts on the part of government and private individuals, the Ganges remains a repository for raw sewage, chemical pollutants and - until recently - rotting corpses.

The food safety situation in India is not much better. The FDA issues monthly reports on-line listing, by country, products that have been refused entry into the United States. Over the past 12 months, India and China have been neck-and-neck in the race for the title of "Most Often Refused Entry". FDA inspectors have turned back 1,836 shipments from mainland China and 1858 shipments from India during the past year. In October 2007, 22% of the refused shipments from both countries were rejected due to the presence either of "filth" or of a pathogen - most often Salmonella.

In the wake of this year's series of product safety scandals, China has taken steps to improve its safety regulation system. The government has issued new regulations on food safety and, most recently, the country announced a crack-down on manufacturers of "inferior" drugs and medical devices. Will it take a major international product safety incident to prompt India to do the same?

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