The humble banana is probably the most widely eaten fruit in the city. But did you know that the banana that reaches you may have been treated with highly toxic chemicals like calcium carbide and ethrel, banned by the government. At the Byculla wholesale market, which supplies bananas to fruit vendors all over the city, Mumbai Mirror discovered workers using the chemicals with abandon to hasten the ripening process.
According to nutritionists, when such fruit is ingested, the toxins multiply in the body resulting in a plethora of diseases. Artificially ripened bananas can be identified by the fruit’s yellow colour and dark green stem, says nutritionist Naini Setalvad.
One of the workers at the Byculla storehouse, oblivious to the dangers of the chemicals used, proudly showed us how the ripening was done. “We use small bhattis (store rooms) to store the raw bananas and treat them with calcium carbide to accelerate ripening.” Calcium carbide produces acetylene, an analogue of ethylene, a natural fruit-ripening agent.
The ripening process is accelerated since acetylene imitates ethylene. The amount of carbide needed to ripen the immature fruit is more, say experts. When asked about the treatment with ethrel, the workers said it was only used in emergencies. “Normally, we prefer calcium carbide, but sometimes when the temperature is very low and calcium carbide does not give the required result, we treat the fruit with ethrel,” said the workers.
“Ethrel works quickly on the fruit and the desired result can be achieved within a few hours. But this is done only on rare occasions,” said another senior worker from one of the biggest wholesale shops in the market. Meanwhile, both the BMC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the two bodies responsible for this market, only kept passing the buck, “It is the food inspector, the medical officer or the market inspector who is supposed to look into this. The usage of calcium carbide is definitely illegal. The statutory provision under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act & Rules, 1955 clearly states that calcium carbide should not be used for ripening of fruit. But, we can only seize the product if the law is flouted. Beyond that the corporation has to deal with them as it is the licensing authority,” said a senior official from the FDA. When contacted, Dr J G Patenkar, deputy executive health officer (HO) of the BMC, revealed that the corporation had a two-way mode of action in such matters, “Routine market examinations by the food inspector is one, the other is action on a complaint. We also follow the guidelines issued by the FDA in this regard. It is the ultimate authority in such matters. However, on Monday, I will instruct the officers to initiate action. At the moment we will collect samples and send it for analysis to the food analysis lab. I doubt it will show negative results. But, now that it has been brought to my notice I will ensure that action is taken. If laboratory reports reveal the presence of any toxic compound we will definitely do something about it,” said the HO.
The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954
44AA: Prohibition of use of carbide gas in ripening of fruits: No persons shall sell or offer or expose for sale or have in his premises for the purpose of sale under any description, fruits which have been artificially ripened by use of acetylene gas, commonly known as carbide gas
• When treated with calcium carbide, the banana, which works as an “anti-depressant”, can actually cause depression.
• It has been established that these toxins can induce carcinoma (cancer) of different parts including breast and bladder. Infertility, asthma and hormonal imbalance are other diseases associated with these toxins.
• Normally, bananas have a soothing effect and are highly recommended for the treatment of ulcers. They also help fight ailments like constipation, depression, stress, anaemia, blood pressure and PMS.
— Naini Setalvad, nutrition expert