The Half-Baked Bread Story!

Potassium Bromate and Potassium Iodate are flour improvers used in baking industry for increasing dough strength and are approved ingredients as per the standards of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). The recent study and subsequent publication by Center for Science and Environment (CSE) about the usage of Potassium Bromate in bread industry and its carcinogenicity (ability to cause cancer) has created massive stir in the industry and created panic in minds of consumers. As a result of this some of the well-established companies have suffered loss of business and trust among the consumer base which they have gained over years. Without proper verification of facts and scrutiny of the data, the issue grew into a massive controversy and the reaction of most manufacturers is not very surprising, considering the recent losses and snowballing of issues that a notable food company had to witness. This whole incident point out to the lack of proper mechanism for handling and delivery of scientific information to the concerned stakeholders like regulatory authorities, media, concerned industries and more importantly, to consumers.

The referred study was not comprehensive neither in terms of quality of the test method employed nor in terms of inferring and reporting the results. While in the report, ambiguity was maintained everywhere by publishing “Potassium Bromate/Iodate”, the inferences were associated only to Potassium Bromate. Potassium iodate is a safer ingredient in comparison to potassium bromate. The small footnote mentioned in the report about the inability of the test method to distinguish between the Potassium Iodate and Potassium Bromate is not proportional in any scale to the scare and mistrust it has been creating in the minds of consumers. The lack of proper rationalization is clearly evident in the report. Like in this instance, the report says- “Only one brand – Perfect Bread – labels Potassium Bromate. This directly suggests use of Potassium Bromate in it and the bread industry in general. No maker among those tested labels Potassium Iodate”. Potassium Bromate till now is an approved food additive for use in bread as per FSSAI standards and those who are using it are bound to label it and it is not rational to generalize the whole bread industry on the basis of one company. It does not make any sense to point out the industry for not labelling Potassium Iodate while the analysts themselves are not sure whether they have tested Potassium Bromate or Potassium Iodate. The report also states companies whose samples are tested were approached for confirmation and some of them denied use of these ingredients. That’s probably because they might have not used them. In these days of advanced analytical capabilities, companies can’t lie about ingredients and get away with it. That too for an approved ingredient, they don’t need to do so. This also suggests the need for further analysis to validate the chance of Potassium Iodate from salt in the formulation being reported as Potassium Bromate. Coming to the case of Potassium Iodate, rather than a subjective statement that it leads to excessive consumption of iodine, no critical argument is presented in the report. There is no comparison of cooking and absorptive losses, or if it is considered in the diet of the consumer or if this quantity is coming from salt.

The levels of Bromate reported from Pollution Monitoring Lab (PML) of CSE are multiple times more than those reported by external laboratory and in none of the cases external laboratories reported higher levels of Bromate than what PML has reported. While the footnote points out this to batch to batch variation, it is equally reasonable to assume that improper testing is more of a possibility than the formulation of products changing from batch to batch. That too when number of samples tested are very less. The study could have been carried out in a systematic manner for a logical and real life solution rather than just creating unnecessary hullabaloo. It lacks evidence that whether it is reporting Potassium Bromate or Potassium Iodate. The same report also states that PML is equipped with “Atomic absorption spectrophotometer (AAS)”. A conformation test could have been conducted on AAS to exactly know whether it is Bromate or Iodate, to report it appropriately. This would have cleared ambiguity and helped to formulate an optimum resolution mechanism, since the level of seriousness associated with Potassium Bromate and Iodate is different. The report never mentioned whether the samples were tested in duplicates/triplicates, whether multiple batches were tested in PML or any statistical analysis of the results conducted, which is one of the core steps for any scientific study. Publishing such a structured report with all the data and statistically validated results will help the stakeholders to opt for right solution.

Is Potassium Bromate banned all across the world? It is an approved ingredient in some countries and banned in some other countries. If we see the approval status of thousands of food ingredients, most of them are not with uniform approval status across the countries and regulatory systems they follow and the reasons behind them are multiple and complex. The excerpt of one of the reference mentioned in the report says- “There is sufficient evidence for the carcinogenicity of Potassium Bromate in experimental animals. No data were available on the carcinogenicity of Potassium Bromate to humans”. That is why it is reported in Class 2B of IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) Classification and not in any higher order. Opposing to findings being titled as “A bite of Cancer?” would it have not been more apt if it is titled “A bite of Cancer with a sip of Cancer?”, considering coffee is also reported as a class 2B carcinogen, and most consumers also have coffee with bread in their breakfast. Some of the carcinogens in class 2B are used in many day to day products. A more professional and scientific title rather than a scary one would elicit correct response form the stakeholders. If FSSAI is convinced of its expert committee’s suggestion to ban Potassium Bromate, it will take a structured decision and would bury this ingredient rather than creating unnecessary ruckus and hype in the public. So should be the method for any currently approved ingredients to be banned in future. Consider a situation like this, where a scientific study is submitted to FSSAI, which then reviews it and issues a directive to manufacturers to stop using the Potassium Bromate and media reports it and everyone gets aware of it. A win-win for everybody.

In any of the arguments that are being considered here, consumer safety and welfare is non-negotiable. It is a welcoming step to scrutinize and analyze the products and particularly in food products where the level of emotional attachment is more, reporting needs to be accurate and professional. Considering similar incidents that have happened earlier and that are to come in future, it is the need of the hour to consider a proper redressal mechanism where all the stakeholders like regulatory authority, manufactures, consumer organizations, media, judiciary and scientific community can participate in collective decision making and validation protocols, rather than lighting a wild fire and later dousing it. FSSAI can formulate such a structure to address problems like these and equip itself better to raise to the level of its peers like US FDA, EFSA and Food Safety Commission of Japan. FSSAI should engage in research based notification of permissible ingredients and notify it periodically to be in tune with scientific advancements that are taking place in understanding safety of food ingredients and it should have a scientific journal on its own in the lines of EFSA, where it can verify and publish similar reports and guidelines. It is very important to control irregular reporting and NGO policing when the growth of the food industry of an agriculture dependent country is at nurturing stage. Meanwhile it will be interesting to watch if any insulating measures will be taken by food industries and trade associations to address similar incidents in future.


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