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Monday, May 16, 2005

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Something is rotten in fruit trade

D. Murali

IN a Jimmy Buffett lyric a chorus that one comes across is: "I ate the last mango in Paris/ Took the last plane out of Saigon/ Took the first fast boat to China/ And Jimmy there's still so much to be done."

True, mango is a mood-lifter, you'd agree, be it as pickle with curd rice or as juice on a scorching day. Yet, before you eat the first mango here, and do all other things, there's still so much to be known about how it turned ripe.

For, a few days ago, local officials in Tirunelveli destroyed 8.5 tonnes of the fruit because the traders had ripened the mangoes using calcium carbide stones. What's this chemical? The site www.answers.com explains: "Calcium carbide is a greyish-black crystalline compound, CaC2, obtained by heating pulverised limestone or quicklime with carbon and used to generate acetylene gas, as a dehydrating agent, and in the manufacture of graphite and hydrogen."

Top on a second search for health dangers of the chemical brings up a hazardous substance fact sheet on www.state.nj.us of the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. "Calcium Carbide can affect you when breathed in. Contact can severely irritate and burn the eyes and skin causing permanent eye damage and ulcers on the skin. Exposure can severely irritate the mouth, nose and throat causing sores, cough and wheezing... Calcium Carbide is a flammable and reactive chemical and a dangerous and explosion hazard," it cautions.

`International Chemical Safety Card' for the chemical on www.itcilo.it (of ILO's International Training Centre) has alarming things to say: That the substance can be absorbed into the body by inhalation; that it is corrosive to the eyes, the skin and the respiratory tract; and that inhalation of the substance may cause lung oedema. Chemical dangers are as follows: "Shock-sensitive compounds are formed with silver nitrate and copper salts. The substance decomposes violently on contact with moisture and water, producing highly flammable and explosive acetylene gas, causing fire and explosion hazard."

An apple a day may keep the doctor away. So we have heard, but www.indbazaar.com warns that those who consume local fruits on an almost daily basis may have to think twice before they bite into that ripe plantain or mango, as rather than keeping the doctor away it's likely you would need to rush to your doctor, more so when what look delicious come with traces of arsenic and phosphorous.

"The commonly used agent in the ripening process is calcium carbide, a material more commonly used for welding purposes. The carbide is imported from countries such as China, Taiwan and South Africa. The low price of the carbide, 250 gm for Rs 15, results in their indiscriminate usage," states the site. One learns that 100 gm of carbide is used per 50 kg of fruit. Indole acetic acid is another chemical that helps cut lead-time, though with serious side effects such as cancer and ulcer.

It seems close scrutiny can show if the ripening has been artificial. How? "When tomatoes are uniformly red, or mangoes and papaws are uniformly orange, one could easily make out that carbide may have been used. Plantains can also be identified if the stem is dark green while the fruits are all yellow."

Not long ago, the Regional Analytical Laboratory (RAL) in Ernakulam found not only calcium carbide usage in mango trade but also the pesticide Benzene Hexa Chloride (BHC) beyond the permissible limits in samples of grapes. "The great majority of people in the US have never eaten a naturally ripened banana, pineapple, mango or orange (or for that matter, fruit from a tree on its own roots)," states Douglas Hinds on http://library.wustl.edu. We aren't alone!

While ethylene is a natural fruit-ripening agent, acetylene that is released when the chemical is dissolved in water imitates ethylene; the trade-offs for the ripe looks achieved thus are toxicity and tastelessness. Again, while traditional paddy straw method for ripening takes three-four days, the chemical shortcut ripens the vegetable in a day, to help meet surge in demand. In this way, pressures of commerce can turn otherwise healthy fruits into lumps of poison.

So, if `there's still so much to be done', rethink before you sink your teeth into the mango!

E&OE@TheHindu.co.in

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