States Lacked Capacity to Test Fortified Rice, But Had to Give it to the Poor

By Anumeha Yadav

To reduce anaemia and malnutrition, the Union government began experimenting with supplying rice grains artificially enhanced with micronutrients such as iron, vitamin B, folic acid, in the public distribution system in 2021. Medical experts have debated the benefits of chemically-fortified rice versus its potential harm. Public officials in Jharkhand’s capital Ranchi told The Wire that they were asked to either distribute fortified rice, or forgo getting food aid from the Union government. 

Right to food and health activists have documented concerns that by forcing mandatory consumption of grains fortified with industry-made micronutrients in haste, the government has ignored the safety of the some of most vulnerable individuals who would consume this rice.

A number of studies show the Union government released fortified rice to the public even in the face of serious gaps in infrastructure to assure quality. An evaluation of the scheme by NITI Aayog, India’s planning body, after visits to seven states showed the government proceeded even when laboratory facilities for ensuring basic quality in the supplied grains were lacking. As explained below, studies by the World Food Programme of the UN, and J-PAL, a global research centre, too showed similar gaps.

Setting sensitive standards on the go

To fortify rice with factory-made nutrients, a powder “pre-mix” of vitamins and minerals – iron, vitamin B12, folic acid – is added to powdered rice and broken grains. The paste is machine-carved to manufacture new rice grains, which are mixed into grains being given as food rations. 

In 2022, in phase two of the programme when the government decided to scale up the pilots for fortified rice from 15 districts to 291 districts – up from providing 35 lakh metric tonnes to 175 lakh metric tonnes in social schemes – its coverage expanded quite rapidly in Jharkhand.

Almost all of Jharkhand’s 24 districts are in the category “aspirational”, which means they are extremely poor and are lacking in basic infrastructure, or they fall under the state’s “high burden” category of malnutrition and anemia. On the ground, it became evident that the haste in expanding the schemes led to lapses in accounting for quality.

India’s statutory food regulator, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has placed fortified rice in the category of “high risk”, that require mandatory safety checks. Making chemically fortified rice requires regular monitoring. Measures include checking the quality of the powder pre-mix of vitamins and minerals which is added into powdered rice, whether the micro-nutrients are as per the required Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) decided in scheme norms, if fortified rice was blended in the required proportions as stipulated (one enhanced or fortified grain to every 100 ordinary rice grains), and finally, whether the rice gets eaten within its shelf-life period of one year.

India lacks the required laboratories with facilities to check the quality of the pre-mix of micronutrients such as iron, folic acid and vitamins. A confidential scheme evaluation in May 2022 by the government’s planning body, the NITI Aayog, first accessed by The Reporters’ Collective, flagged this problem. 

Only the laboratories that are accredited by the commerce ministry’s National Accreditation Board Testing and Calibration Laboratory (NABL) are equipped to accurately test micronutrient levels in the fortified rice kernels. 

In NITI Aayog’s assessment of laboratory infrastructure, which it calculated using the number of samples that can be tested in a year, found a testing capacity of 2,66,333 samples a year. It noted that when the scheme will be fully scaled up by March 2024, it will require testing nearly 9-10 times more, at 23,66,178 samples. Thus, it estimated a gap of 20,99,845, or nearly two million samples, indicating a huge mismatch between testing capacity and need that such a scheme entails.

When the Union government pushed to expand the scheme rapidly, a state such as Jharkhand, in the interior eastern part of India, faced particular disadvantages. Though it has high numbers of those who depend on subsidised food rations – 86% of the state’s residents qualify for the food-grains – and a high number of ration outlets, it lacks even a single laboratory fully equipped to provide the quality checks. 

The east and the northeast region, where Jharkhand lies, has only 10% of the laboratories but holds more than 30% of the food ration outlets and thus generates a higher number of samples for testing. But the laboratories are located primarily in India’s northern region around the capital, or the south.

NITI Ayog evaluation stated the East and North-East region have highest number of ration outlets – a high proportion of the rural residents survive on food subsidies – but few laboratories.

As per the FSSAI, of the laboratories in India that can perform these tests, none are in Jharkhand. The closest such laboratory is in Kolkata in the adjoining state of Bengal. Yet, the evidence in Jharkhand shows the Union government proceeded with the compulsory scheme without ensuring the mechanism to timely verify the quality of and level of safe micronutrients fortified grains was available.

Over more than a year between 2021 and early 2023, officials state, the Jharkhand state government supplied 56,000 quintals of fortified rice to the state’s poorest. The micronutrient levels and quality of rice kernels was tested at Sun-Tech, the only NABL-laboratory located in Tupudana, Ranchi, in the state capital. However, this stopped earlier this year as the FSSAI stated that this laboratory cannot test micronutrients and it lacks the “Proficiency Test” certification.

“We have one such laboratory in our state. But even this is no longer functional to test micronutrient levels in Fortified Rice Kernels (FRK),” Yatinder Prasad, the managing director of the Jharkhand State Food Corporation told The Wire.

The state’s secretary for food and civil supplies Amitabh Kaushal refused to comment on the issue.

A callous path

As per the scheme’s guidelines, the FSSAI has to ensure NABL laboratories in all states, and periodically evaluate the scheme with the health ministry. On “quality assurance mechanisms”, the guidelines state “an officer will verify Certificate of Analysis (proof of micronutrients analysis) of every fortified rice kernel(FRK) batch”, and that “a sample is to be lifted from each blending point monthly to go to a NABL laboratory.” It recommends that a sample of the fortified rice being distributed be collected monthly from the ration shop, or places it was served.   

Officials in Jharkhand said they were not able to collect and test samples from ration shops, schools and creches, and they believed that leaving it to manufacturers to prove the quality and quantity through such certificates of analyses may be inadequate to monitor in a foolproof way. “First, we lack such a laboratory in our state. And second, there is no way for us to get the micronutrients’ tested in time for distributing the grains to poor households every month,” said a senior official. “As the local authority overseeing this scheme, ideally, we prefer we should have had a second layer of testing, allowing us to verify that no manipulation in quality was done by the rice kernel manufacturers.”

The state provides food subsidies to more than six million poor households, or over 26 million residents. They are in two categories: priority households get 5 kg rice per person per month and “Antyodaya”, the poorest of the poor, are entitled to 35 kg per month. 

“The laboratory takes 10-15 days to give us the results and if we wait that long, we cannot do the ration distribution by a fixed time,” explained the official. “The time to lift grains from the public system is fixed, or else the state would lose its quota of grains, and distribution is also time-bound. If you do not do it within a certain time, the Point of Sale devices at the retail stores will automatically block the disbursal of grains.”

The official added, “The infrastructure that should have been there for a scheme like this that affects people’s health and vital nutrition is absent. It is just not sufficient.”

The confidential NITI Aayog report drafted after visits to seven pilot districts documented serious lapses in quality control, and abdication of quality mechanisms by the government.

Unlike the substantial role envisioned in food ministry guidelines on the scheme, “FSSAI is found to have almost no role in quality assurance/quality control of fortified rice within the visited districts”, it noted, and that “there are no reported processes to monitor the quality and cost of the nutrient premix”.

It found that in some districts, regular monitoring was by “development partners”, such as Tata Trusts, or the American NGO, PATH. Though the guidelines state sample checking will be done at rice mills, FRK [fortified rice kernel] plants and at ration shops, it found “no samples were being taken from rice mills, ration shops and children’s schools and creches where this was being served”.

The officials from the food safety body and food and civil supplies department are supposed to independently test the quality of the FRK. In Jamshedpur, East Singhbhum district, supply officer Rajeev Ranjan told The Wire that the quality checks at mills were done by PATH in Jharkhand. PATH checked if the rice mills had obtained quality certificates when buying FRK from manufacturers, and if the tested and certified batch matched what was being provided further. For FRK, the manufacturers have to test every batch of 10 lakh metric tonne, and then PATH was trying to make sure that the sample and final delivery batch of rice matched, he said.

When The Wire called the mobile phone number listed on the internet by Sun-Tech Laboratory – the only nationally-accredited laboratory in Jharkhand which tested fortified rice in 2021-22 in the first year of the scheme – Shubham Mishra, a founding associate of the company, answered the call. He said he looked after the food division work done by the laboratory remotely from New Delhi, and had earlier worked from Ranchi.

Mishra said that Sun-Tech was among 27 of 41 NABL laboratories that had been “put on hold” for testing fortified rice by the central food safety authorities as it failed to clear a “proficiency test”. “Earlier 41 labs were approved by FSSAI. Then FSSAI changed the method of technology of testing for micronutrient levels. Of those 41 labs, 27 were no longer considered qualified in a proficiency test. We were among those who did not qualify.”

While proper laboratory infrastructure was missing, 56,000 quintals of fortified rice were supplied to Jharkhand’s rural residents till June 2023. The supply of fortified rice went on even while the facilities to the test of the quality and quantity of micronutrients being added were inadequate, or absent.

Mishra, from the Sun-Tech laboratory, accepted that testing micronutrient levels had been challenging for laboratories such as theirs. “The same sample of fortified rice gives different results when sent to test in different laboratories,” he said. “For example, if we find a sample does not contain the required amount of micronutrients, iron and vitamin B12 and it fails, when we send it to a different laboratory to compare, it fails the test not because it is too low, but instead because it exceeded the levels of micronutrients!”

The same problem had been identified during the pilots by the secretary of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Civil Supplies, Sudhanshu Pandey. Speaking at a seminar in New Delhi on October 25, 2021, Pandey said that his team had found that the laboratory infrastructure was not ready. He said that when they selected samples from various sites, the same sample’s results from two different laboratories were different, because the tests and equipment protocols, the laboratory machines were missing in several parts of the country.

Mishra of Sun-Tech laboratory said that the results of micronutrients in the fortified rice varied also because of lack of uniform blending by those who sold the fortified kernels, which includes a range of suppliers from big industry to smaller players. 

Sushil Sharma, owner of NuVit Foods FRK, a small newly-established factory near Jamshedpur said the price range and quality of of pre-mix he had purchased to supply into Jharkhand ration supply varied from Rs 240 to Rs 320 per kilo.  

Exact blending in fortified rice to natural rice grains in a ratio of 1:100 grains required costly blending equipment in the range of Rs 15 lakh, said Abhishek Jain, who is a production manager at JVS Foods Pvt Limited, one of India’s first and largest supplier of fortified kernels. “Smaller manufacturers prefer to use cheaper pre-mix, and equipment in the range of Rs 2-3 lakh, which does not ensure proper blending”, claimed Jain.

The Union government has partnered with educational institutes to create and set standards for blending machines, but these remained costly and out of reach of small, local rice mills, acknowledged state officials.

When Jharkhand food department first started supplying fortified rice, it had identified Jain’s factory in Jaipur in Rajasthan, 1,300 kilometres from Ranchi, as one of the qualified suppliers. In 2022, it asked mills to procure the grains from NuVit Foods in East Singhbhum. This year, it had identified three kernel manufacturers in Hyderabad, Guwahati, Kolkata as qualified suppliers.

Jain of JVS Foods described the proliferation of fortified rice kernel manufacturers in the last two years since the union government announced the scheme as one of the causes of poor quality fortification going on in India. “Today, more than 600 fortified rice kernel makers have come up. Of these, hardly 60 large players like us sell quality kernels with the right level of micronutrients,” Jain told The Wire at his factory.

To supply it into the public distribution system, rice mill owners have to order and purchase of fortified rice kernels, blend it into ration rice, and the government reimburses them later. Jain continued: “In many cases, small rice millers have started making the fortified rice kernels, thinking that “What is the big issue? We will just install an extruder machine and make FRK ourselves”.” He added: “They add low quality pre-mix, or they purchase from a large company such as Royal DSM (the world’s largest vitamin maker, a Dutch firm which JVS purchases premixes from), but then they blend in additional material of sub- standard quality, to increase the volume. But the quality is zero.” 

The issues of quality, of unreliable laboratory results of micronutrients have continued. Last month, over 5,500 rice millers that process rice to supply as rations to the Punjab government went on strike from October 13 throwing the paddy procurement into chaos. The central government bodies had rejected the rice they had blended fortified kernels as lacking iron and vitamins as per the scheme norms.

“There is sometimes a 200% difference in results of micronutrients tests from one laboratory to another,” said Tarsem Lal Saini, president of Punjab’s rice millers association told The Wire. “But that is because of lack of monitoring of laboratories and quality aspects. How can we be held responsible if the right systems for assuring quality are not in place?”

FSSAI officials, whose role it is to regulate these quality aspects, did not respond to request for comment and to right to information queries. 

Studies found serious gaps

The WFP, which worked with the FSSAI, evaluated the scheme pilots too and highlighted serious gaps in quality control and monitoring. Its evaluation called “Status Update” of April 2021 documented findings from several states.

For Assam and Karnataka, it mentioned that there was “no progress” in quality control, for Chhattisgarh it states that it does “not have a NABL accredited laboratory”, that there is “no defined mechanism of monitoring”, adding that “millers can reach out to FRK suppliers on their own. This may lead to compromise in the quality of FRK and fortified rice.”

In Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, and even in Tamil Nadu, it found, “no baseline for scheme conducted”. 

Overall, the WFP found “Lack of compliance towards Quality control/Quality Assurance in FRK production” and that “in absence of regular, well defined monitoring mechanism by department/government officers, rice millers are not able to enforce regular checks”, and more seriously, that there is “lack of stabilisation and variation in result of micronutrient analysis”.  But even after flagging these serious lacunae, including in absence of quality control mechanisms in this food intervention, the WFP report went on to recommend that the Indian government “scale up the distribution of fortified rice” in all public schemes for children’s nutrition.

WFP evaluation in 15 states found serious gaps in quality control, but it still recommended scaling up even as infrastructure was not ready.

A pilot study conducted by J-PAL, a research centre, similarly cautioned against lack of readiness and of effectiveness of the intervention. J-PAL’s large scale pilot in Cuddalore district with government of Tamil Nadu was a cluster randomised control trial, which would compare the results between a population not eating fortified rice with a group that was given rice fortified with iron, zinc, Vitamin A, B “at levels recommended by WFP”. The project was discontinued in 2020 and its authors, all of whom are international academics, listed five “key challenges” to the government, and highlighted the absence of infrastructure. 

They stated that in India, the technology to produce fortified rice kernels or FRK of adequate quality “was and still is in infancy”, further that these “subpar products are not accepted by consumers and may not withstand normal cooking processes which may cause loss of micronutrients.” They pointed to a lack of clear and widely shared test protocols to test micronutrient content. They said that measuring water-soluble vitamins was especially hard, and “some laboratories do not deliver consistent reliable measurements despite being certified, leading to delays and uncertainty.”

Finally, they stated that their study had used micronutrient levels as per the WFP; and “the FSSAI guidelines allow for lower (but possibly less effective) micronutrient content”. 

The note by a team of global researchers listed key challenges they faced while trying to study if rice fortification in the PDS reduced anaemia in Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district.

On one hand, thus, there were unresolved questions by scientists and medical experts who have been on the government’s regulatory panel on over-layering with iron for certain vulnerable groups with medical conditions such as sickle cell disease, malaria or thalassemia . On the other, one of the largest trials on the intervention had been discontinued. 

Medical experts and scientists say that the researchers’ note raises a question on the logic and efficacy of micro-dosing anemic individuals with small quantities of iron. Crucially, there is the vital question about local food alternatives. 

The current range of iron as per the scheme’s rules should be 28 to 42.5 milligrams per 100 grams for iron content. Researchers as well as farm activists pointed out that more nutritious, far richer in iron indigenous or folk rice varieties are cultivated by farmers in India. Dr Debal Deb, a plant scientist and paddy conservator in Odisha told The Wire that he has identified more than a hundred varieties of Indian rice, such as Dudhe Bolta (130 mg per kg), Bhuri Shulah (85 mg per kg), Leda Sal (65 mg per kg), which have a much higher content of iron naturally, between 10 to 152 mg per kg, than the content of the iron in the factory-made fortified rice kernels. Dr Deb has published these findings in journals.

“The agriculture department can help grow a variety of these native, nutritious, iron-rich rice varieties and make them available through the public distribution system,”said Dr Deb who has conserved more than 1,450 native rice varieties in one of South Asia’s largest seed bank in Rayagada district in Odisha.

He said each indigenous variety of rice is unique, and several are naturally rich in nutrients such as iron, zinc, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids. “But instead of focusing on supporting this farming, the government has adopted a centralised policy pulverising, blending, re-moulding paste to look like rice grains. Such a policy is illogical and wastes public funds, it favours only big industry.”

Smothering small businesses

In Chakulia, Jharkhand’s “rice bowl”, small and medium sized rice mills enterprises were struggling with the financial implications of the switch to fortified rice in the social security system.

In the fortified rice supply chain, rice kernel manufacturing firms import the pre-mix containing vitamins and minerals as micronutrients and add this to the rice paste to make artificial rice kernels using “hot extrusion” technology. The rice mill operators have to buy these kernels and blend them into custom milled rice very carefully in a ratio of 1:100 – one chemically fortified kernel of rice to every 100 grains of rice – using blending machines. They transport this to government’s godowns from where it goes to retail outlets.

In the scheme norms, the Union government stated it would cover basic costs at the rate of Rs 73 for every quintal of fortified rice that the mills supply. But in Jharkhand, it has not covered even this basic cost that small and medium millers bore. The millers too said that they were coerced to switch to the new system, or threatened with losing their licenses.

“In April 2021, the Jharkhand state government told us to switch to supplying fortified rice,” recounted one rice mill owner. “They told us, ‘To remain as a supplier of rice into the public distribution system (PDS), you will have to install machines which blend fortified rice’. The switch was done in such a hurry, almost overnight, that those who could not install or operate the blending machines, mixed the kernels into rice manually, by hand!”

He added: “Usually for milling for eg. 5,000 quintals of paddy for the PDS, the government pays us Rs 1 lakh as incentive. They forced us to install the machines by withholding our incentive payments in 2021.”

Deepak Jhunjhunwala, who owns one of the largest mills, Maa Jagdambaa Udyog, in Chakulia and leads the Chakulia rice mill association, was among the four mill owners ordered to switch to supplying fortified rice in the pilot scheme. He estimates that he lost Rs 3 lakh in lapsed incentive payments in 2021. This was after he had spent spending Rs 8 lakh to install a blending machine on the government’s instruction, besides bearing the costs to hire staff to supervise the blending and paying for procuring and testing fortified rice between 2021-22.

Medium and small businesses received no government support for their costs. Between 2021 and November 2023, they had not even received any payments due for fortifying rice at the rate of Rs 73 per quintal. “We were not paid Rs 34,20,835 for the fortified rice he had supplied to the PDS from mid 2021 till now,” said Jhunjhunwala.

The mill owners too had got quality of each batch of the fortified rice they supplied tested at Sun-Tech laboratory in Ranchi, till this year when the laboratory was taken off the FSSAI list of qualified laboratories to test micronutrients. Earlier this year, the mill-owners were asked to discontinue the testing, which would be carried out by the kernel makers.

While under the guidelines, the FSSAI is responsible for visiting the mills including for quality checks, none of the mill owners interviewed in Chakulia had had any quality check visits by the FSSAI.

“The only time FSSAI staff visited us was to give us “F+” license in early 2023, after we had applied for a license,” said one mill owner. This license denotes that the mill is qualified to sell fortified rice in the open market, outside the public distribution system. “They did not visit to inspect the quality of the milled rice otherwise.”

An entrepreneur who mills rice from paddy and sell to wholesalers who further sell to retail grocery shops said they found no demand from either individual consumers, or wholesalers for fortified rice in the market, outside the government public distribution system.

Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an economic wing affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, which promotes domestic industry has questioned the effects of mandatory food fortification on small and medium enterprises in India. In the 90s, SJM had opposed mandatory fortification of salt with iodine and led a campaign to allow small enterprises to continue making common salt, without added iodine, available. “Only very large industry is able to afford these standardisation and processing,” said SJM national co-convenor Ashwani Mahajan. “We went to the Supreme Court and revoked the mandatory fortifying with iodine and allowing making of common salt. Yet, small firms making salt were wiped out.” Mahajan questioned why mandatory fortification was being imposed on small industry such as mills. “If it was a proven matter of saving lives, then one can understand forcing this standardisation on all,” he said. “We believe there is a lack of proven credibility in organisations pushing such interventions. Instead, there is evidence that artificial micronutrients cannot get assimilated into the body easily. We need nutrition from natural food.”

‘It is nothing like rice’

The Chhotanagpur region, which parts of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha fall in, is a forested region and holds biodiversity hotspots rich in indigenous millets, rice varieties, pulses and forest foods.

Dayamani Barla, an Adivasi activist fighting to preserve indigenous communities’ land and forest rights said the scheme had been implemented in haste, without consulting the communities who would have to eat the fortified rice, and without understanding their food systems: “Here, farmers keep the paddy they grow in storage at homes, and when they have to eat, process a small quantity at home and eat it fresh. They eat parboiled rice and millets. They complement that with ration rice.”

Deepak Pani, director of Gram Swaraj, a NGO in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district, which works on the state’s millets program, argued that even if the intention was to provide further nutrition with staples such as cereals, the union government ought to have seriously explored other food options. “What is the need for rice fortified with nutrition in factories when local rice varieties and millets contain more nutrients?” he asked. “On one hand, the government claims it is supporting local climate resilient, nutritious crops such as millets, on the other, it is making industrial food fortification compulsory. This is a contradiction in its approach. Unpolished rice varieties grown in villages here are far richer in nutrients.” He pointed out that millets – which are richer in micronutrients than fortified rice – if kept dry, could easily be stored for up to 15 years for use in public distribution.

In villages, the picture is more complex. Smallholder farmers shared that with a slow but gradual process of ecological and cultural erosion in this biodiversity rich region, the soils in all areas now no longer support growing certain older folk varieties of cereals.

In Jharkhand’s Latehar district, which started getting fortified rice in phase two last year, farmers affirmed that since 10-15 years their “own paddy varieties” (indigenous seeds) no longer grew well. They believed that this had happened after increasing fertiliser use. “Earlier, all our paddy seeds were our own,” said Pravesh Oraon, the mukhiya headman of Khairajat a village by the foothills, though only 20 kilometers from the town of Latehar. “We started growing hybrid paddy varieties 10 years back. Within five years of using these with chemical fertilisers, our older paddy varieties now no longer grow on the same soil as they did earlier without fertilizers.”

In the more remote village Chormunda in Mahuadanr block on top of the plateau, the commercial pady seeds had been slower to reach, and several smaller farmer still grow folk rice varieties. The area started getting fortified rice as rations only last year. 

Here, Catherine Tithio a tall gaunt Adivasi farmer was plucking mustard saplings that had sprouted in her fields after scattered showers. “Goda-dhan, Chosaarh, Kalamdaani, Ranikajar,” she counted the indigenous rice varieties her family continued to plant, which grew without fertilisers or irrigation. Along with these, they grew little millets and potatoes, she said. Still, Tithio too said she did not trust the new fortified rice because of its appearance. “I have heard that this is plastic. I cannot say,” she said. “It looks different from our rice, and it does not look good. To be cautious, I separate it out while cooking.”

In the remote forest hamlets of Subdega block in Odisha district Sundargarh, Albisia Lakra a rice farmers she was not convinced that the rice was laden with vital nutrients. “It is too white! It looks quite distinct. I separate it out,” said Lakra. 

She had dried various produce in her courtyard – yam, gourds, and berries – and had dried kulthi dal, horse gram lentils on the floor of her hut in Deogaon-Kalumara village. Lakra confirmed that the village health worker, the ASHA(Accredited Social Health Activist employed by health ministry) had informed the village residents that it was “vitamin rice” and instructed them to eat it: 

“But if we wash the rice with warm water, boil it to cook the rice, rinse it, then anyway the water is washed away,” said Lakra, as she separated the rice grains out on a sieve, distinct opaque factory-made grains, away from the bulk of grains it had been mixed into. 

“Vitamin nahi bahega? Kya Vitamin bachega? How is it possible that the vitamin is surviving the cooking process? I do not believe it,” she said. 

This article has been republished from The Wire. 

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