NEW YORK: In a major case of â€˜Food Fraudâ€™, more than 30 percent of the â€˜Basmati Riceâ€™ sold in the retail markets of the US and Canada has been found to be adulterated with inferior quality grains.
Basmati adulteration, it is estimated, is a $15 million hoax on the consumers in the US, according to Ricesearch, a one-of-a-kind DNA rice authenticity verification service in India. The state-of-the-art testing facility has been exclusively set up by Tilda, exporter of premium Basmati, with a major footprint in the US, Canada, UK and Middle Eastern markets.
Acting in public interest, a survey on Basmati rice conducted by Ricesearch revealed that only 68 percent of the so-called Basmati Rice sold in the US and Canada is unadulterated.
In the survey, 27 percent of the samples failed to meet rice export standards prevailing in India and Pakistan â€“ the UK and US standards would reject 32 percent.
Even more shocking is the revelation that one in every five samples drawn from the market had adulteration levels of over 25 percent; over 25 percent of the samples had complex mixes of three or more varieties, which result in inconsistent cooking; and less than 15 percent of the samples were of pure traditional Basmati.
â€œLess than 15 percent of the samples had 100 percent pure basmati, 85 percent was adulterated,â€ reiterated TP Mahesh, President of Tilda Marketing. â€œThe worse thing about the US market, it has been found, is that different lots of the same brand had differing percentages of admixtures, presumably going by the tolerance levels of consumers say in New York or Houston.â€
â€œBased on that we have come to the conclusion that every year consumers are losing $15.7 million, because they think they are buying pure Basmati rice, but they are not,â€ pointed out Mahesh.
Scientists have recently deciphered the rice genome allowing them to identify the â€œfinger printâ€ of individual rice grains and specific rice varieties.
â€œAt Ricesearch, we collect samples of Basmati rice from the market, put it in packets without labels, including our own brand of Basmati, and then do the testing,â€ explained Mahesh. â€œWe work very closely with finger print experts in India (the Center of DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, India), Food Standards Agency, UK and the University of Bangor, Wales, UK.â€
Tilda started its rice testing facility in 1993. In 2000 Ricesearch as well as the Food Standards Authority of the UK tested samples of â€˜Basmatiâ€™ in the UK, and shared the results. â€œWhen results came in, they were aghast,â€ Mahesh said.
Consequently, in 2004, the UK government made it mandatory that only certain qualities of rice can be called Basmati and brought into the country. Consequently today in the UK Basmati imports have been regulated to ensure that only the traditional and patented variety gets in. Fines are being imposed on people who adulterate, and such DNA based testing for rice has precedents of successful convictions where two rice importers were convicted after pleading guilty to the offense of selling ordinary rice as Basmati rice.
â€œThe BBCâ€™s Channel 4 recently did a story on food fraud and in that connection talked about Tildaâ€™s DNA testing techniques to ensure the purity of our Basmati supply,â€ informs Mahesh.
Interestingly, the British Retail Consortium has also come up with a Code of Practice on Basmati Rice agreed upon by The Rice Association, British Rice Millers Association and British Retail Consortium, in consultation with, among others, the All India Rice Exporters Association.
Further investigations are on-going while the European Union has implemented DNA testing on imports of Basmati entering the European community since 2003.
Following the UK experience, Tilda carried out a similar exercise in the Middle East, where more than 40 percent of the so-called Basmati available in the UAE retail market was found to be adulterated with inferior quality grains.
After creating a media buzz to educate consumers in the Middle East, Tilda has now launched a similar exercise in the US. â€œWe just want to tell consumers that you cannot be ripped off on food,â€ said Mahesh. RiceSearch does an on-going research on rice samples collected from the traditional farmersâ€™ mandis, and other emerging varieties before they become commercially significant.
â€œThe whole idea is to pick up the threats below the radar to preserve the authenticity of Basmati,â€ says Mahesh. The rice DNA testing lab does continuous collaborative work with the Center of DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnospitcs, India, the FSA in UK (equivalent of the FDA in the US) and the University of Bangor, Wales, UK. The authentic Basmati varieties selected from historic land races and patented are Basmati 370, Basmati Type 3 (Dehradun Basmati), Haryana Basmati Collection 19 (HBC, Taraori Basmati, Karnal Local), Basmati 386 and the Pakistani variety â€“ Kernel Basmati. Although several cross breeds have been recognized, Mahesh points out that they are simply not the same in terms of the qualitative characteristics of 100 percent pure Basmati.
According to Mahesh, at least 15 percent of the major US retailers stock Indian Basmati. Tilda intends to make these US retailers aware of the fraudulent varieties of â€˜Basmatiâ€™ and work with them for testing samples, similar to what it did with the FSA in the UK. â€œBut first, our aim is to educate the consumers and tell them not to buy blindly. There are brands which are being sold on â€˜Buy One Get Two Freeâ€™ scheme, which should make the consumer question the authenticity because Basmati is a premium product and cannot be sold at such cheap rates,â€ says Mahesh.
The problem is difficult to stem unless there is widespread consumer awareness, feel Tilda officials. â€œThe rice that gets imported from India may be pure, but it is at the US end that it gets adulterated, packaged and sold as Basmati. The controls have to happen at the port of entry,â€ says Mahesh. Implying that there is no ulterior motive on part of Tilda in exposing the food fraud, Mahesh says: â€œWe have no issue on the consumer getting the product at a cheaper price. The problem is when consumers are led to believe that what they are getting for that price is pure Basmati, when it is not.â€