What took this iron fortified salt so long to commercialise
The research for this started about two decades back when anaemia was as much a problem as it is today. At that time, the iodine fortified salt had not hit the market. While the technology to fortify salt with iron was being mastered, the iodisation of salt was made mandatory. So you couldnt possibly prescribe two different salts.
However, you couldnt fortify salt with iodine alongside iron which is oxidising and reactive and would have eliminated iodine from the salt. There was a need to find a stabiliser which could allow iron and iodine to co-exist.
After many trials, sodium hexametaphosphate was found to be an approved stabiliser, already being used in food products. Then of course the requisite studies on temperature, shelf life were done in different parts of the country under different weather patterns to ensure that the stability of combination lasts for 15 months, even though salt usually gets consumed within three-four months of production. The safety studies and acceptability studies followed to rule out bad effects on taste or discolouration of food items. Subsequently, efficacy tests were carried out initially in a tribal belt in Andhra Pradesh where a malaria breakout interfered with the trials, but we saw an improvement in iron storage. We tried it out in the mid-day meal programme in a school for the whole academic year, and there were conclusive evidence of haemoglobin shooting up.
There has been some resistance to using it in public health and public distribution programmes. What have been the other challenges
There has been criticism saying a nation-wide large-scale multi-centric study should be conducted for more evidence. My only argument is that such a study would easily consume another 4-5 years. Till then, if you have any alternative method to address anaemia, then you should go ahead. Or if you find a better way to tackle the issue in next one or two years, replace it.
Also, we were asked by the Comptroller and Auditor General on why did we not patent the technology and licence it out for a fee. I almost thought I was getting into a CAG scam (laughs). However, if we had patented the technology, only a big player such as Tata Chemicals could have licensed it leading to a monopoly situation. This way, atleast any player which is manufacturing salt can produce it. The only clause is to bind them to share 20% of their produce with the government at a cost determined by the government. Through this, we are making the private player pay a royalty to the country.
The real challenge before us is that we have factored in an intake of 10 gm salt per person per day. We are now recommending that the salt intake should be brought down to 6 gm. In that case we have to double the iron and iodine or use a better iron salt than ferra sulphate which we chose over others only because it was the cheapest.
Are you working on some other fortification technologies
We are working on iron and vitamin fortification of other food items, such as wheat flour and rice and oil fortification with vitamin A and vitamin D. We have also prepared a document for industry, setting standards on what food items can be fortified with which vitamins and nutrients and to what limits.