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Lethal Meal

times of India
10 June 2010
By Prithvijit Mitra
Kolkata, India

Cancerous dye in every bite of your favourite street biryani
Not So Good AS it Looks Not So Good AS it Looks
Cancer comes at Rs 15 a plate in Kolkata and is sold at every crossing and locality in the city. The street biryani you tuck into in a hurried lunch break or have home–delivered from that well known restaurant is laced with metanil yellow, an industrial dye and a known carcinogen.

The biryani’s yellow colour that should come from kesar is replaced with this cheap lead–based dye. Kesar comes for Rs 200 a gram whereas metanil yellow costs just Rs 4 a packet. More than 90% of street sellers in Kolkata and even some well known restaurants use the yellow dye to make a fast buck. And you tuck into the plate of meat and rice thinking you have struck a delectable little bargain.

Metanil yellow is sold under various brand names. One such packet in TOI’s possession claims that it is ‘permitted’ for use in food. Its contents list mentions tartrazine –a synthetic lemon yellow dye –as the principal component. The packet has even got an ISI seal embossed on it and claims to have been approved by the agency.

Even though tartrazine could be of food quality, it cannot be sold at Rs 4, pointed out experts. “A 10–gm packet of food–grade tartrazine costs more than Rs 350. The fact that they are selling it so cheap proves this is fake. Also our tests show that these turn pink or blue when treated with hydrochloric acid, which means they have metanil yellow,”said Utpal Ray Choudhury of the department of food technology, Jadavpur University.

But Kolkatans don’t seem to bother. An estimated 1,500 plates of biryani are sold in central Kolkata alone every day. Between the Jawaharlal Nehru Road–Park Street crossing in the south and Lyons Range behind Writers’ Buildings in the north, there are around 60 stalls selling biryani. At Park Street crossing, you have half–a–dozen stalls. More than 20 in Esplanade do brisk business. BBD Bag has around 20 more. The price tag varies and keeps dropping as you travel north. While a plate of chicken biryani at Park Street crossing costs Rs 35, it comes down to Rs 25 at Esplanade and slides to just Rs 12 at Lyons Range.

Most food vendors refuse to admit that they use metallic colours. Some say they bought packets of ‘kesar’ from local shops for the yellow tinge. “I don’t know its composition but everyone uses it,”said Bablu a biryani seller at Lyons Range. Neither Bablu nor any of his neighbours dishing out plates of steaming biryani has any idea it could be carcinogenic. Couldn’t they avoid using it? “No”, he said. “There won’t be any takers without the yellow rice,”he explained.

Metanil yellow packets are widely available at Janbazar on SN Banerjee Road, Sealdah, Bowbazar and Park Circus. A Janbazar shopowner said he sells 10 packets a day. “This is cheap kesar and gives a nice, dark yellow colour to the biryani. Most biryani sellers use it,”he said.

Doctors warn that Metanil could seriously affect the health even in the short term. “It contains lead, which neither gets absorbed nor released from your system. Metanil wrecks the digestive system, affects kidneys and damages brain tissues. It also impedes the functioning of the central nervous system. It could lead to anything from indigestion or food poisoning to cancer,”said Subir Ganguly, senior oncologist.

Not only biryani, sweet sellers, too, use the carcinogenic dye. A survey by Saviours and Friends of Environment (SAFE), a green NGO, reveals that barring a few leading sweet shops, most use metanil yellow. “It is more worrying because even the shop owners are not aware that the colour is prohibited or that there are permissible food–grade colours,”said Sudipto Bhattacharya of SAFE.

The survey also revealed that chemicals like lead chromate, auramin, napthal yellow, citrus red and iron oxide were commonly used in street food.

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