By Assad Bhuglah

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Some food manufacturers have taken processed foods to a whole different level by making rice out of plastic. The news of plastic rice started in China, but has now reached Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and India. Certain rice production factories in China and other Asian countries are producing rice made of synthetic materials (mostly plastics). They are doing it because it is an incredibly cheap way to make money off of unsuspecting hungry humans. The end result of consuming plastic rice actually looks and tastes like rice with the addition of fragrance sprayed on. But this synthetic rice is toxic and dangerous for health. At present, this news is being treated as an unconfirmed rumour pouring out of various parts of Asia.

This food fraud is being created using a mixture of broken rice, other cereals, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and synthetic resin (plastic) as binding agent. These ingredients are mixed together and formed into “grains” which very closely resemble the appearance of actual grains of rice. The rice substitute is then sprayed with a fragrance to mimic the smell of fragrance rice, making it difficult to decipher between the two versions.

Ordinary persons cannot differentiate between plastic rice and the real rice. When running the grains through the fingers, on first impression nothing would give the sense of fake rice.  Plastic rice when ingested along with the real one is not digested and leads to serious gastric ailments. A Vietnamese resident recently told a local newspaper that she selected some of the uncooked grains and put them into a frying pan. After being fried for five minutes, the grains started to melt and burn like plastic. She said plastic rice may have been mixed in the rice batch.

According to The Hindu newspaper of 7 June 2017, the Telangana Civil Supplies Department is being flooded with complaints about hotels in the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad using 'plastic rice' in their food items. Samples have been collected from various hotels to verify the claims. And this is not limited to Telangana alone. Over the past few years, rumours of 'plastic rice' being sold have been doing the rounds and a public interest litigation was even filed before the Delhi High Court. On 20 August 2015, a Bench of Chief Justice G Rohini and Justice Jayant Nath agreed to hear on an application alleging that the “plastic rice” was being sold by mixing it with real rice.

Eating just three bowls of this fake rice is thought to be the same as consuming an entire plastic bag, causing serious and even fatal digestive issues, especially if consumed daily as is often the case. Research has found potentially serious health risks associated with bisphenol A and a class of chemicals called phthalates, commonly found in plastics. Bisphenol A has the ability to disrupt the functions of our hormones, particularly estrogen. It has been linked to effects on reproductive development in several animal studies. Meanwhile, phthalates are a group of “plasticizers” that are found in various products, despite having been banned in the EU since 2005. Phthalates can also disrupt hormones; however, unlike bisphenol A it is testosterone that is affected.

While it may be difficult to distinguish fake rice with genuine rice when in raw conditions, however, there are some simple tricks that can help to identify it. Just take one glass of water and drop some rice in the glass. After stirring it, the fake rice will have tendency to float at the top. There is another simple process. Just take a bit of rice and simply burn the rice by using matchbox. If any grain of rice is made with plastic, then it will give a plastic smell. It can also be checked after boiling the rice. Simply put the boiled rice in one bottle then just leave it for 2-3 days. If rice has plastic, then it will not get fungus and will remain unaffected

The act of manufacturing, importing or trading of plastic rice must be considered as highly condemnable action because trafficking in materials likely to cause injury or damage to health is an offence, which must be dealt with appropriate sanctions. As a preventive measure the food safety agencies must keep a strict vigil on the quality of rice in circulation. Samples must be subjected to starch, moisture content, floating and flame tests as well as Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy analyses. However, despite persistent claims of plastic rice on the market, authorities in several countries have dismissed them as ‘rumours’ because those reports are either hoaxes or unproven. Rice exporters and traders have ruled out there’s any such thing as “plastic rice” or rice mixed with plastic because plastic is costlier than rice. It is believed that organic food lobbies could be behind the rumours so as to promote organic farming and dethrone rice in favour of millet or other alternative cereals. So even as there is no conclusive evidence of plastic rice, branded basmati rice producers are feeling the heat of such rumours.

 While investigations about plastic rice are ongoing, it is still good to exercise caution when purchasing different brands of rice. Over the recent years, the world has witnessed numerous food scams, such as the 2010 scandal when the Chinese company Shaanxico was discovered adding flavoring to ordinary rice and selling it as Wuchang rice. And in 2008, baby milk formula from China was laced with a plastic compound called melamine. Six babies died and 300,000 more were diagnosed with serious kidney complications. The story about plastic rice cannot be sidelined as mere rumour as there could be no smoke without fire. Even if plastic is costlier than rice, nothing could prevent a band of rogue manufacturers to get into this murky business by using smuggled or waste plastics in order to get their money laundered. Given the fact that artificial sugar, artificial meat made of soya, artificial fruit tastes and artificial fish chunks are already on the market, it clicks the minds of consumers that artificial rice could be a reality. Adulteration of food is a scary issue and not something which can be taken lightly. The plastic rice mania has certainly hit social media in a big way; all this is done to create doubt and confusion in consumer’s minds, unnecessarily. Plastic rice, whether true or fake, is already causing collateral damages.