This article is about food safety and food adulteration in urban India. Situated at the relational interface of foods and their contaminants, it considers ways of thinking and acting at the porous boundaries between bodies and environments. The article details how people attempt to detect where food and its adulteration begins and ends, through ethnographic reflection on several events of adulteration in Mumbai and a context of changing food safety policies in India. The article develops the concept of reliability as a lens onto food politics different than one delimited strictly in terms of consumerism. Reliability refracts the politics of difference at work in times of toxic food environments, in contemporary India and elsewhere, wherein tensions between poison and nourishment take on renewed charges. This framework recasts a choice-focused approach to thinking about food safety by centralizing how living with harm – rather than ridding the world of it, element by element – is what is at stake.
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These are terms in Hindi that are ubiquitous in both official and everyday speech in Mumbai, where the city’s Hindi dialect derives vocabulary from Hindi, Urdu and Marathi, among other languages. The community in which I conducted research primarily speaks Marathi, Hindi and English.
I did not have the opportunity to speak with milk sellers themselves, but Alter (2000b) offers insights into milk adulteration from their point of view. Alter’s ethnography is based on the life of a milkman named Dil Das, whom Alter knew since his own childhood spent in the North Indian hill town of Mussorie. Alter devotes an entire chapter of the book, entitled “Dairying”, to Dil Das’s stories about life as a dudhwala (milkman). Milk adulteration and the milk economy more broadly represent what he calls “the gastropolitics of postcolonial India”: “In coming to represent health and wealth among those who consume it, milk, for those who produce and sell it, has become a fluid channel through which resources are being drained away”, he writes (p. 111). Alter’s analysis of milk adulteration, told from the perspective of Dil Das and other milkmen, brings to light the instability of local, regional, and national milk economies. Milk adulteration is one way in which farmers and local milkmen brace themselves against the contingencies of price fluctuations and the loss of labor-contributing family members to life events such as marriage and illness.
This has been an abiding anthropological concern marked by the work of Douglas (1991), and in the Indian case, by Marriott (1968). These works show how alignments of purity and impurity around food are locally and historically contingent. For example, in the United States, food contamination was a regular occurrence and sparked concerns about the industrialization of the food system (see Cronon, 1991).
Here one can see the overlaps between food and drug, a topic that Ecks (2014) takes up in detail.
On the concept of meshwork as a frame of materiality, see Ingold (2011).
See Rademacher and Sivaramakrishnan (2013) on questions of urban ecologies in India.
Also relevant to the discussion of plastics is the fact that Barad raises the issue of “transparency” in her analysis of how things are “substances-in-becoming”, a notion Ingold (2012) mobilizes as well in his treatment of materials and materiality.
When I use the term “bodies in Mumbai”, I am referring to bodies with a visceral, vernacular history of unreliable substances absorbed and expressed. I describe the insults, absences, and refusals around food and plastic in order to show that plastic does different work in different places, and that different places make plastic’s work differentially possible because the bodies in question are not universally malleable (Roberts, 2012).
This vantage point is nonetheless thoroughly industrial. The expertise and labor involved in the food packaging and petrochemical industries infuse the plastic that appears in the stories that follow.
Manderson (1996) describes in detail how in colonial Malaya, concerns about the governance of population health often emerged through concerns around milk, “because of the risk of bacterial contamination through adulteration from watering down prior to sale (that is to say, through the use of unclean water), and because of the possible risk of the transmission of tuberculosis” (p. 125).
Nichter (2001) has a generative phrase used to frame his study of indigestion and the critique of modernity in Karnataka: the “double-voiced commentary on life” that surfaces when his interlocutors praise the improvements made to India's food system but also critique the ways that food shows itself to be too-often less than ideal because of contamination. This double-bind is, in a different register of thinking, quite in alignment with the double-bind of patterns and elements discussed in this article.
I thank Mike Fortun for pointing this out to me.
On the resonances between trust and science, see Shapin (1994).
A pseudonym, applied to all persons and things in this article.
For a detailed engagement with decentering what is eaten to focus on relations of science (specifically, those of the metabolism and of circadian biology), see Landecker (2011).
To be precise, hum can also indicate “I”, wherein a first-person plural pronoun can still refer to the singular. However, the context of the video suggests strongly that the man is speaking is using hum to mean the first person plural, ‘we’.
A different possible means of interpretation here is that burning is an etiological critique; see Hamdy (2008) for an elaboration of what she terms “political etiologies” in the context of body-environment injuries in Egypt.
Consider the case of tensions over the nutritional supplement called Plumpy’Nut, a plastic-wrapped packaged peanut paste developed by a French food company to treat severe acute malnutrition. In this instance, plastic fixes hunger by working as the counterpoint to cooking. It makes food ready, anywhere and anytime. However, the Indian government refused the product, and ordered UNICEF to stop procurement of it on the grounds that the government’s priorities lay in building up the infrastructure of programs such as the Anganwadi and Midday Meal Schemes, where meals are cooked on-location (Janeja, 2013). Here, the state is the agent that refuses plastic. On the politics of food security in relation to global health, see Yates-Doerr (2014).
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This research received support from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the National Science Foundation Cultural Anthropology Program and Fulbright-Hays. I am ever-grateful to my friends and neighbors in Mumbai who shared with me different possibilities to think about eating, especially Thelma Poojari, Vikram Doctor, Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed. I thank Emilia Sanabria and Emily Yates-Doerr for their careful reading, thoughts and encouragement. I also wish to thank Jennifer Ashley, Anne Blackburn, Lawrence Cohen, Mike Fortun, Hayden Kantor, Stacey Langwick, Nadine Levin, Lenore Manderson, Kathleen Millar, Michael Montoya, Amy Moran-Thomas, Elizabeth Roberts, Ian Whitmarsh, Gabriel Rosenberg, and the Editors and anonymous reviewers at BioSocieties for their guidance and feedback.
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Solomon, H. Unreliable eating: Patterns of food adulteration in urban India. BioSocieties 10, 177–193 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1057/biosoc.2015.10