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FRUITS & VEGETABLE

Indian traders using ethylene powder sachets from China to ripen fruit
Tuesday, 10 April, 2018, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Subhashri Iyer, Mumbai
Food safety officials in Telangana conducted a surprise raid at Kothapet fruit market, Hyderabad unearthing the rampant use of ethylene powder, a toxic chemical imported from China, and other carcinogenic chemicals to artificially ripen mangoes. The sachets containing the powder were allegedly stuffed into boxes containing the fruit.

The powder has cavities in its crystalline structure that encapsulate the volatile and explosive ethylene gas, which is emitted from these sachets when the temperature and humidity are raised.

The government of the southern state has imposed a ban on the use of calcium carbide for the artificial ripening of fruits. This has resulted in a switch by the traders to such alternatives as ethylene powder for the purpose, as they are easily available in the local market and are inexpensive.

Ethylene in powder form is forbidden under the Food Safety and Standards Regulations, 2011. Only the use of ethylene gas is permitted for artificially ripening in approved limited concentration. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has embargoed the direct use of ethylene powder and calcium carbide to ripen fruits and vegetables.

According to the officials, it is seen that traders are unhappy with the regulation and constrictions imposed on the artificial ripening process using carbide and other such agents. Also they are facing a problem regarding storage, as ethylene-producing gas chambers are fewer vis-a-vis the quantity of fruits produced.

Sharing his opinion, Khalid Parwez, expert member, FSSAI, said, “The Government of India has allowed the use of ethephon or ethrel for ripening of fruits as it is less harmful. In the case of ethephon, the ripening is slightly cumbersome; the fruit sellers have to either dip the fruits in a solution of this mixture or pass fumes of this chemical through the fruits.”

“The chemical is mainly used to ripen mangoes, papaya, bananas, etc. The fruits ripened with ethrel have a more acceptable colour than naturally-ripened fruits and have a longer shelf life than those ripened with calcium carbide,” he added.

“Those sachets imported from China are nothing but calcium carbide sachets. It is popularly known as masala, and is used as a ripening agent. It is colourless when pure, but black to greyish-white in colour otherwise, with a slight garlic-like odour,” Parwez said.

“When it reacts with water, calcium carbide produces acetylene gas, which is an analogue of ethylene and quickens the ripening process. Acetylene prepared from this sachets also contains phosphine and some arsine up to 95 and three parts per million (ppm), respectively,” he added.

“A strong reactive chemical, calcium carbide has carcinogenic properties and is available at a cheaper rate (1kg of this chemical costs Rs 25-30 and can ripen 200kg of mangoes),” Parwez stated.

“The use of ethylene for ripening of the fruits is a common practice in different countries, but due to the high cost and scarcity in terms of its availability, many developing countries like India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan use low-cost calcium carbide to ripen fruits, although it is banned in many countries across the world,” he added.

“Acetylene gas is generated from calcium carbide, which initiates the ripening process in a similar manner to ethylene. Usually calcium carbide is imported from China, Taiwan and South Africa. Fruits ripened with calcium carbide are soft and have good peel colour development, but are poor in flavour. Calcium carbide is extremely hazardous to the human body, as it contains traces of arsenic and phosphorus,” Parwez said.

Elucidating the scenario, Arifa Rafee, owner, Ar4 Organic Mango Farms said, “In smaller orchards, mangoes are mostly produced in one go, whereas in bigger orchards the time taken is comparatively more.”

“Our company is into organic farming. Thus, we let the mangoes mature in the tree itself without the use of chemicals. Small-time farmers face a lot of problems during these seasons, and thus lease out their orchards to the traders, who pluck the mangoes before the maturity period and infuse chemicals to artificially ripen them,” she added.

“In the artificial ripening process, the fruit doesn’t mature naturally. Only their size increases. The chemicals used sometimes are carcinogenic and hazardous for human consumption,” Rafee stated.

“The government has set up ethylene gas chambers for artificial ripening, but a lot of fruits are dumped there, because the chambers are fewer vis-a-vis the quantity of fruits transported. There is a certain criteria pertaining to the use of ethylene gas in these chambers, but the criteria is not matched and ends up infusing a lot of gas  for artificial ripening,” she added.

A very small concentration of ethylene in air is adequate to foster the fruit ripening process, but the traders and farmers lack the knowledge of their proper use.

FSSAI notice on artificial ripening of fruits
Meanwhile, a provision relating to the artificial ripening of fruits using ethylene gas at concentrations up to 100ppm or mg/L (0.01 per cent), depending on the variant of the crop, was issued on March 2016 under the Food Safety and Standards Regulations, 2011.

However, the stakeholders did not seem to abide by the provision and raised several issues relating to the modalities of usage of ethylene gas of artificial ripening of fruits.

Thus, FSSAI recently issued a notice seeking comments and suggestions from the stakeholders with regard to the standard operating procedure of artificially ripening fruits.

However, the draft did not mention the use of ethylene gas producing powder, as it already outlawed under the standards and regulations of FSSAI.
 
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