Whither pro­bity?

How com­pa­nies are sup­ply­ing un­safe and un­ver­i­fied nu­tri­tion sup­ple­ments to chil­dren in Kar­nataka


Com­pa­nies in Kar­nataka are pro­vid­ing nu­tri­tional sup­ple­ments to school­child­ren in their mid-day meals, flout­ing rules

ACURIOUS CASE has emerged in Kar­nataka. Well-known com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Bio­con, Jin­dal Steel and Sca­nia, are sup­ply­ing spir­ulina gran­ules to un­der­nour­ished and mal­nour­ished chil­dren en­rolled in an­gan­wadis (child day­care cen­tres) un­der the In­te­grated Child De­vel­op­ment Ser­vices ( icds), in di­rect con­tra­ven­tion of a 2004 Supreme Court or­der which said, “Con­trac­tors shall not be used for sup­ply of/ nu­tri­tion in An­gan­wadis.”

Worse, no govern­ment agency has ap­proved the use of spir­ulina ei­ther as a drug or as a nu­tri­tion sup­ple­ment. On the con­trary, there is ev­i­dence to show that it is not safe. Over 15 years ago, a study by the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Nu­tri­tion, Hy­der­abad, on pre-school chil­dren fed spir­ulina for vi­ta­min A de­fi­ciency was aban­doned mid-way be­cause the lev­els of beta carotene (pre­cur­sor to vi­ta­min A) in chil­dren fed spir­ulina dropped to less than 40 per cent dur­ing the trial pe­riod.

Spir­ulina is an al­gae that grows on lakes and ponds. If the wa­ter con­tains heavy met­als such as mer­cury or lead, the spir­ulina al­gae ab­sorb the met­als. When har­vested and dried as a sup­ple­ment, the met­als con­tinue to re­main inside the sup­ple­ment. Stud­ies re­veal that im­prop­erly pro­cessed spir­ulina con­tain sig­nif­i­cant amounts of cyan­otox­ins, which can ac­cu­mu­late in the body over a pe­riod of time. One study reported the pres­ence of lead up to 5.1 parts per mil­lion in a sam­ple from a com­mer­cial sup­ple­ment. It is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that for chil­dren there are no safe lim­its for tox­ins and heavy met­als in food, and, it is un­eth­i­cal to give such foods to chil­dren.

The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion says cyan­otox­ins and heavy metal tox­i­c­ity can cause ir­re­versible nerve, bone and tis­sue dam­age. The Chi­nese State

Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion reported that lead, mer­cury, and ar­senic con­tam­i­na­tion is wide­spread in spir­ulina sup­ple­ments, and re­called all spir­ulina prod­ucts in 2012.

Pre-school chil­dren re­quire be­tween 1,000 and 1,500 calo­ries ev­ery day. The food calo­ries must come from a va­ri­ety of food sources so that chil­dren get all the nu­tri­ents such as pro­teins, vi­ta­mins and min­er­als. Most cooked foods con­sumed by chil­dren have an en­ergy den­sity of less than one calo­rie per gram of food. This means that pre-school chil­dren re­quire 1 kg of cooked food from milk, rice, dal, eggs, fruits, nuts, flesh foods and veg­eta­bles with an ex­tra dose of oil/fat, and even sugar ev­ery day to meet their nu­tri­tional needs. It is, there­fore, laugh­able that two grams of spir­ulina daily can pro­vide enough macro or mi­cronu­tri­ents nec­es­sary for a child’s needs, as claimed by the com­pa­nies. Worse, since the in­tro­duc­tion of spir­ulina, govern­ment agen­cies in Kar­nataka have be­come ir­reg­u­lar in pro­vid­ing nor­mal foods to chil­dren.

Milk­ing mal­nu­tri­tion

The story of com­pa­nies go­ing to bed with cor­rupt health prac­tices dates back much ear­lier in Kar­nataka. For in­stance, Christy Fried­gram In­dus­tries ( cfi) used to sup­ply raw ma­te­rial to icds be­tween April 2009 and May 2012 at a cost of 600 crore an­nu­ally. In April 2012, cfi was in­ves­ti­gated by the Kar­nataka Lokayukta po­lice for fraud­u­lent prac­tices in the sup­ply of sup­ple­men­tary nu­tri­tional foods to an­gan­wadis in con­nivance with of­fi­cials from the Depart­ment of Women and Child De­vel­op­ment ( dwcd).

In­ves­ti­ga­tions re­vealed that cfi was sup­ply­ing roasted and pow­dered ce­real mixes with salt or sugar, which were stale and ran­cid. Most chil­dren re­fused to eat these ce­real mixes. Par­ents too com­plained and wrote de­tailed let­ters to au­thor­i­ties about their chil­dren fall­ing sick af­ter con­sum­ing the food pro­vided by cfi.

Soon af­ter the cfi fi­asco, the Kar­nataka govern­ment signed a con­tract with min­ing com­pany Vedanta to pro­vide mid-day meals to 200,000 school­child­ren in four dis­tricts in April 2012. This was viewed by ex­perts as part of Vedanta’s pub­lic re­la­tions ex­er­cise in the wake of bad public­ity sur­round­ing its min­ing op­er­a­tions in Odisha.

In July 2013, a six-year-old child, Meghala, died due to severe acute mal­nu­tri­tion in D J Halli in Bengaluru. At a pub­lic meet­ing held in De­cem­ber that year, dwcd of­fi­cials in­formed the jury that the Spir­ulina Foun­da­tion from Tumkur had ap­proached them in early 2013, of­fer­ing to dis­trib­ute spir­ulina free of cost to preg­nant women and chil­dren in an­gan­wadis.

The fact that spir­ulina would be dis­trib­uted “free of cost” was taken as ad­e­quate rea­son by dwcd to grant per­mis­sion. The jury took ob­jec­tion to this, and said chil­dren from poor com­mu­ni­ties are not guinea pigs, and any in­ter­ven­tion that lacks an ev­i­dence base should not be in­tro­duced in the com- mu­nity. “Clin­i­cal tri­als must be con­ducted and nec­es­sary laws must be put in place for such in­ter­ven­tions,” says Clifton D’Rozario, a mem­ber of the jury. The Jus­tice N K Pa­tel Com­mit­tee, con­sti­tuted by the Kar­nataka High Court fol­low­ing a pub­lic in­ter­est lit­i­ga­tion, ad­vised the Kar­nataka govern­ment not to in­tro­duce new sup­ple­ments just be­cause they are free, and called for a clear treat­ment pro­to­col. Sub­se­quently, Bruhat Bengaluru Ma­hana­gara Pa­like, the lo­cal author­ity, stopped sup­ply­ing spir­ulina to mothers and chil­dren.

Against this back­drop, the state govern­ment’s de­ci­sion to take “help” from Bio­con to sup­ply spir­ulina has come as a shock. The govern­ment de­fends its de­ci­sion say­ing its pi­lot pro­gramme, car­ried out in as­so­ci­a­tion with the Jin­dal Steel Works ( jsw) Foun­da­tion in San­dur taluk in Bel­lary district, had brought down mal­nu­tri­tion lev­els from 33 per cent to 8 per cent. But there is no val­i­dated ev­i­dence to back this claim. The dwcd has even set aside 3.6 crore from the state’s bud­get to sup­ply two grams of spir­ulina for 180 days to 25,000 chil­dren in Kar­nataka, as part of the Bal­poshna scheme “as rec­om­mended by jsw”.

The fact that cor­po­rate firms have in­de­pen­dently started dis­tribut­ing spir­ulina to un­der­nour­ished and mal­nour­ished chil­dren en­rolled in an­gan­wadis since 2012 raises sev­eral dis­turb­ing ques­tions. Can firms such as Bio­con, Spir­ulina Foun­da­tion and jsw in­de­pen­dently ac­cess an­gan­wadis and uni­lat­er­ally dis­trib­ute spir­ulina? Will they be held li­able in the event of ad­verse drug re­ac­tions, death or dis­abil­ity among chil­dren who con­sumed spir­ulina? Does Bio­con have a for­mal per­mis­sion from the icds to dis­trib­ute spir­ulina to chil­dren, par­tic­u­larly to chil­dren who are mal­nour­ished and al­ready vul­ner­a­ble to or­gan dam­age?

The trend of bal­anced meals be­ing re­placed with for­ti­fied bis­cuits and spir­ulina tablets seems to be driven by vested cor­po­rate in­ter­ests. The govern­ment is ab­di­cat­ing its re­spon­si­bil­ity to guar­an­tee food and health rights to its peo­ple by en­ter­ing into part­ner­ships with the com­mer­cial sec­tor. Cor­po­ra­tions are only too happy to cap­i­talise on mal­nu­tri­tion by sup­ply­ing pre-mixed food pack­ets to an­gan­wadis, and trum­pet­ing their “so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity” even as they cre­ate mar­kets for their for­ti­fied foods, says Radha Holla of the In­ter­na­tional Baby Food Ac­tion Net­work and the Breast­feed­ing Pro­mo­tion Net­work of In­dia.

A re­port by the Supreme Court Com­mis­sioner’s of­fice in Novem­ber 2012 says that “the con­trac­tor-cor­po­rate lobby has a firm grip over the icds ra­tion sup­ply busi­ness, worth 8,000 crore”, with spe­cific ref­er­ence to Kar­nataka, Ut­tar Pradesh, Megha­laya and Ma­ha­rash­tra. The com­mis­sion­ers rec­om­mended an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­der the apex court’s su­per­vi­sion to in­ves­ti­gate the “pos­si­ble nexus be­tween politi­cians, bu­reau­crats and pri­vate con­trac­tors in the pro­vi­sion­ing of ra­tions to icds, lead­ing to large-scale cor­rup­tion and leak­ages”. Only po­lit­i­cal will can en­sure chil­dren, es­pe­cially from poor and marginalised com­mu­ni­ties, are pro­tected against this cor­po­rate-driven agenda of mak­ing a busi­ness out of nu­tri­tion.

Will com­pa­nies be held li­able in the event of ad­verse drug re­ac­tions, death or dis­abil­ity among chil­dren who con­sume spir­ulina?

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