Cooking up a rice story?

None of the lab reports across the country have found plastic in rice samples. Bangalore researchers' exhaustive analysis concluded the so-called plastic rice is not plastic after all; it's just plain bad rice says Samantha Machado (Twitter: @SamanthaMachado)

Like she does every day, Maria a homemaker in Bangalore, boiled two cups of rice for lunch on the afternoon of June 12. However, when she removed the lid of the utensil, she was shocked to see a distinct, translucent layer instead of the usual starchy water. Upon touching, it felt like a thin sheet of plastic.

The 30-year-old, who was reluctant to share her full name, told Karnataka Today that it alarmed her and she promptly returned the 10 kg pack of the rice to the store she had bought it from in Lingarajpuram. Maria's happens to be one of the many such cases reported in the state.

Of late, rumours of plastic rice having entered Indian markets have gained strength. A week before Maria, a resident of Mumbai's posh Lokhandwala locality had complained that she had got fake rice from a supermarket after the boiled rice smelt different and was not tender. "When I made balls out of that rice, the balls bounced like ping-pong balls," media reports quoted her as saying.

Videos have surfaced on Facebook too, with people demonstrating how lumps of rice are bouncing off hard surfaces like a sports ball. As such reports began emerging from Karnataka and became a topic of debate for print and broadcast media alike, the Legislative Assembly discussed the issue and on June 9, Karnataka Health and Family Welfare Department ordered a probe. Rice samples from Mandya, Ramanagara and Koppal districts were sent to the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), Mysore, for examination.

The lab reports found no foodgrain made of plastic in the samples.

About the same time, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, independently analysed samples of supposed plastic rice that it had obtained from a consumer. The researchers cooked, roasted, physically examined the foodgrains and ran multiple tests. After thorough examinations, they found no trace of plastic in what the consumer believed was fake rice. However, its physical examination and nutritional analysis indicated that it was low-quality rice.

Rumours a business decision?

CFTRI director Ram Rajasekharan told Karnataka Today that if a rice sample is indeed adulterated with plastic replicas of the foodgrain, the fake rice will begin to float when put in a bowl of water.

He speculated that the organised sector's entry into the rice market could be behind the rumours. "So instead of buying some [loose] rice today, you will buy a branded rice and the shop where you go will decide what you buy and which brand it'll sell. That's the only possibility I can think of," he said.

As plastic rice and the hazards of ingesting it became a hot topic, advertisements of branded rice duly surfaced. A couple of days after these rumours hit headlines, India's fastest growing FMCG company that makes Ayurveda-related products placed quarter-page advertisements of its packed rice in multiple newspapers, apparently to exploit the safety concerns surrounding unbranded rice.

The president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Narendra Nayak, put out a press release in the midst of the controversy. It said: "The recent publicity for plastic rice made me ponder on why these rumours are being circulated. After a lot of analysis and a few experiments later the truth flashed upon me- it is the organic, yoga lobby!"

Mangalore-based Nayak, who is also a biochemist, reasoned that adulterating rice with plastic grains made no economic sense. His press note highlighted that while good quality rice costs about Rs40 a kg, plastic cost nothing less than Rs120 per kg. Incurring further expenditure to give this plastic the shape of rice and then selling it for a fraction of the production cost is a loss-making idea that doesn't make sense, he pointed out.

A political ploy?

According to the state minister for Food & Civil Supplies, UT Khader, some "vested interests" are circulating rumours about plastic rice. He explained to Karnataka Today that the state government's flagship Anna Bhagya Scheme--below poverty line families get 7 kg rice per family member for Re1 a kg--had proven to be a great success. He said such rumours were being fanned to tarnish the Congress government's reputation.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of and does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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