Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Sep 06, 2022 Updated 18 Days ago
The low-awareness levels, high prices of edible oil, and the lack of commercial channels to dispose of the UCO compel people to re-use edible oil despite the adverse health implications.
Out of the Frying Pan, into the Fire: The Menace of Used Cooking Oil (UCO) in India When food and nutrition are talked of in the same vein in the context of food security, the divergence between the two sometimes gets blurred. Incidentally, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework acknowledges food and nutritional security under SDG 2, while health implications under SDG 3. However, it is the nutrition component of food that is inextricably linked to SDG 3, thereby, reinforcing that mere food quantity is not sufficient for food and nutritional security. This entire contention of causality between SDGs 2 and 3 gets perfectly exemplified in the context of the edible oil value-chain, where used cooking oil (UCO) often emerges as a consumable primarily as a response to the increasing edible oil prices, the price risks emerging from the global markets (due to India’s high import dependency in edible oils), and low-awareness levels across the value chain.

It is the nutrition component of food that is inextricably linked to SDG 3, thereby, reinforcing that mere food quantity is not sufficient for food and nutritional security.

And, indeed, they have adverse health implications. UCO is linked to several chronic ailments, including cancer, heart disease, and organ damage. Due to its adverse health impact, the consumption of UCO in any form is technically prohibited in India. However, as per the estimates of India’s food safety regulator, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), almost 60 percent of the UCO generated in India makes its way back into the food chain, through home and commercial re-use. Incidentally, the situation with the use of UCO is so alarming in terms of its widespread use that even the top-performing state in terms of FSSAI’s State Food Safety Index of 2022, Tamil Nadu, reveals a dismal picture. A recent survey by a consumer rights group across 13 districts in Tamil Nadu laid found that nearly 1 in 10 food vendors reuse edible oils till the last drop, while 1 in 5 mixed fresh oil with used cooking oils (UCO). One can pretty well make out the conditions in lower-ranked states. A recent study by The Observer Research Foundation and Koan Advisory Group revealed ubiquitous use of UCO in major Indian metros, despite the existence of better consumer awareness, As per their survey of over 500 food business operators in New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai, the practice of re-using edible oil till the last drop is all-pervasive, especially amongst small eateries and food vendors.

The state-level food safety authorities that enforce UCO management rules on the ground are often short-staffed, poorly funded, and lack the necessary testing kits and technology to verify food quality on the spot.

The study also indicated that regular under-reporting of UCO use by large eateries is indicative of either re-use of toxic cooking oils in food preparation or illegal sales to downstream buyers. The two demand drivers of UCO are prices of edible oils and low-awareness levels of food safety regulations amongst business operators. Much in keeping with FSSAI findings, the study also revealed that lower propensity of Chennai eateries to re-use UCO due to better awareness levels and commercial channels to dispose of UCO. The same does not hold true for New Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata, as per the observations of this study.

The leeway from this menace

The FSSAI understands this menace. It launched the Repurposed Used Cooking Oil (RUCO) Initiative in June 2018 to combat this menace by shifting UCO away from the food supply chain towards biofuels, soaps, and oleochemical industries. However, in 2022, the FSSAI took a perplexing step back by allowing the practice of topping up UCO with fresh oil to prolong its use on account of a lack of regulatory capacity to enforce rules. The findings of the ORF-Koan study are, therefore, a clarion call for all stakeholders in the value chain that more needs to be done on the ground to promote GoI and FSSAI’s avowed Eat Right India Movement. We recommend four steps towards this:
  1. The state-level food safety authorities that enforce UCO management rules on the ground are often short-staffed, poorly funded, and lack the necessary testing kits and technology to verify food quality on the spot. There is no substitute for beefing up their capacities from the ground up.
  2. The ORF-Koan study found that higher levels of awareness reduce the likelihood of both large and small-size eateries reusing cooking oil by 98 percent. It follows from here that the FSSAI needs to engage with food industry associations, consumer groups, industry bodies, public health experts, doctors, and nutritionists. It should co-opt such stakeholders to run awareness campaigns targeted at food operators. Additionally, there is a need for campaigns aimed at consumers to broad base the risks associated with UCO and provide guidance on safe UCO disposal at the household level.
  3. The stakeholders in food manufacturing and services industries must play a proactive role to ensure compliance with food safety standards and regulations. This will require a market-based incentive mechanism that has been successful globally to incentivise responsible food manufacturing and service industries to develop partnerships with UCO aggregators and collectors to sell the waste oils to biofuels, soaps, and oleochemical industries. Given the growth of such non-food industries, there is large scope for commercial linkages to divert UCO from the food stream.
  4. Finally, compliance with regulation is contingent upon an enabling infrastructure, including serviceability and access to UCO collectors and aggregators. This will require the FSSAI to engage with the private sector and municipal authorities to improve the physical infrastructure for UCO storage, collection, and disposal.
These steps can help combat a silent epidemic and meet India’s goal of safeguarding the health of its citizens and building a safe, healthy, and sustainable food supply ecosystem.
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Authors

Oommen C. Kurian

Oommen C. Kurian

Oommen C. Kurian is Senior Fellow and Head of Health Initiative at ORF. He studies Indias health sector reforms within the broad context of the ...

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Nilanjan Ghosh

Nilanjan Ghosh

Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh is a Director at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India. In that capacity, he heads two centres at the Foundation, namely, the ...

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Contributor

Nikhil Goveas

Nikhil Goveas

Nikhil Goveas is Head of Special Projects at Koan Advisory Group a New Delhi-based consultancy. Nikhil leads Koan's work on agriculture and sustainability.

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