How artificial ripening turned a fruit salad deadly

Monika Dogra
Who doesn’t like fruits, and when a friend visited me recently, I headed to the market to purchase what appeared to be fresh papaya, grapes, oranges, and bananas. My intention was to make a delightful fruit salad for my friend, aiming to provide her with the finest experience during her stay. I was delighted by the vivid colors, appealing textures, and apparent freshness of the fruits I selected.
After meticulously preparing a fruit salad for my friend, I left it with her to refrigerate and enjoy. However, when I checked in later, she mentioned feeling unwell due to stomach cramps caused by the papaya in the salad.
“Monika, my stomach is in dreadful condition, and I haven’t felt this unwell in years,” she whispered. “I have an overwhelming urge to vomit.”
I sought help from a trusted acquaintance after learning of my friend’s severe stomach cramps, without disclosing specifics. Through text exchanges, I realized the seriousness of the situation and felt regret for not being able to offer immediate support. As a zoology student, I recognized the potential for such incidents to escalate into food poisoning.
At the break of dawn, I reached out to my friend, only to learn of her distressing ordeal. She confided in me, recounting a night of relentless discomfort, where sleep eluded her entirely.
“It was as if a troupe of washermen had raided my stomach, vigorously scrubbing away at their laundry within,” she narrated.
My heart skipped a beat.
She endured persistent nausea throughout the night, unable to find relief through vomiting. The acidic sensation intensified, causing severe discomfort. The next morning, while brushing her teeth, she experienced violent vomiting, expelling a mixture of papaya shreds and other remnants forcefully.
My heart sank deeper as I imagined the ordeal my friend had endured. Yet, amidst the distress, there was a glimmer of relief: she had found some relief in the fact that her condition improved once the toxic contents had been purged from her stomach.
While I felt a slight sense of relief, the incident prompted me to ponder the root cause. Drawing upon my background as a science student, it didn’t take me long to deduce that while the fruits were the apparent culprit, the true assailants responsible for robbing my friend’s well-being were the artificial ripening agents-often hazardous chemicals-employed by vendors to hasten the ripening process.
Artificial ripening of fruits, though illegal, is rampant throughout India, with approximately 80% of fruits undergoing chemical treatment to hasten the ripening process.
Locally referred to as “Masala,” calcium carbide stands out as one of the most commonly utilized artificial ripening agents. Despite its illegality for ripening purposes, its widespread use persists due to its inexpensiveness and ready availability in local markets. Available at a mere Rs 100 per kilogram and able to ripen around two quintals of fruit, Masala presents a grave health hazard due to the presence of carcinogenic elements like arsenic and phosphorus hydride.
From gastrointestinal issues to long-term ailments like cancer, the dangers are real and concerning. Long term exposure to such chemicals damages the mucosal tissue in the stomach and disrupts the intestinal function and can cause peptic ulcers. According to studies, calcium carbide can also affect the neurological system by inducing prolonged hypoxia.
In India, Artificial ripening is banned under PFA act,1954. The use of carbide gas for ripening is prohibited under Rules 44A of Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, 1955. Those convicted under this act could face for imprisonment for three years and a fine of Rs.1000.
In India, the practice of artificial ripening is prohibited by the PFA Act of 1954. Specifically, the use of carbide gas for ripening is forbidden under Rule 44A of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, 1955. Individuals found guilty under this legislation could be subject to a three-year imprisonment term and a fine of Rs.1000.
Over the last two weeks, Indian authorities have taken action against numerous vendors who were found using hazardous chemicals as ripening agents. This included the destruction of large quantities of fruit, the arrest of those responsible, and the imposition of fines.
Nevertheless, the magnitude of the issue is such that a handful of arrests won’t resolve the problem, leaving consumers like us vulnerable. Despite improvements in India’s tax-paying system, it is imperative for authorities to take decisive action and ensure that all products sold comply with established laws and regulations, and the tax payers get what they deserve.
Safeguarding public safety in terms of consumption must be a top priority for authorities; otherwise, incidents like that of my friend will continue to increase in severity.
Although there’s some relief in knowing that my friend has partially recovered, millions of customers nationwide continue to suffer due to vendors engaging in the egregious act of endangering ordinary lives. Not only are everyday people facing significant risks, but authorities and their families are equally vulnerable. It’s imperative for them to fulfill their duties effectively to eradicate this clandestine practice of chemically treating fruits and vegetables.
(The author is an academic officer at the SCERT Jammu)