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A story about artificially ripening real fruits – Finshots

In today’s Finshots, we discuss calcium carbide as a commercial yet unethical fruit ripener and why fruit traders and vendors love it so much.
If you stroll through a local market you’ll often observe fruits looking invitingly plump and evenly ripe. And if you put your eyes on them carefully, you may spot an unripe patch closer to the stem from where the fruit was plucked. Talk bananas, papayas and now that the season could be here any moment, mangoes too.
Now it doesn’t take a genius to guess how a bulk of these fruits arrive at the market, ready for sale all at the same time. It’s the charm of commercial fruit ripeners.
You see, waiting for fruits to ripen naturally on trees isn’t a viable option. So fruit growers have to harvest them despite being raw. These fruits then travel in crates inside trucks to the fruit vendors’ godowns, who then artificially ripen and sell them. This helps them make quick bucks.
Now, you can’t artificially ripen all fruits. It’s just fruits like apples, bananas, mangoes, melons and apricots which need to produce a chemical called ethylene to ripen. On the other hand, grapes, green apples, pineapples, strawberries, cherries or citrus fruits like lime and oranges need their time to mature on trees before they’re harvested.
And here’s the thing. The FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India), the government’s arm that regulates food safety in India is absolutely okay with faux ripening fruits just before the sale. There isn’t anything illegal about it.
But recently, it warned fruit handlers and other folks who run food businesses against using banned chemicals and incorrect methods to do the act.
Enter calcium carbide, the bad guy that the FSSAI dislikes.
See, calcium carbide is a chemical compound that reacts with moisture to release something called acetylene. And this has a very similar effect to ethylene, the compound fruits naturally produce to ripen.
It’s quite easy to get your hands on it too. Calcium carbide is industrially used to remove sulphur from iron and even dissolve oxygen in liquid steel to improve its quality. And since the Indian industrial sector contributes a significant 28% to the country’s economy and India’s steel industry has expanded significantly in the last decade or so, it’s safe to assume that the industrial consumption of calcium carbide also rose over the years. To put things in perspective, steel production has increased by 75% since 2008 and its demand has gone up by nearly 80%.
If we talk about just the previous year, economic crises around the world have dampened the global steel industry. For instance, according to Moneycontrol, steel production in China has dropped 2% year-on-year and 7% in Europe, the US and the rest of the world.
On the flip side, India and the Middle East witnessed an average growth of 6%. This means that the Indian opportunity to produce and export its steel also gives more elbow room for calcium carbide’s rising demand. So fetching a bag of calcium carbide isn’t really a tall order.
But here’s the thing about calcium carbide. It’s life-threatening. Industrial carbide is often contaminated with arsenic and phosphorus. And if that stuff comes in contact with your fruits and vegetables, it could have long-standing ill effects ― nausea, chest and abdominal burning, skin ulcers, nasal and throat irritation and even damage to the neurological system.
That’s why FSSAI banned the not-so-good ol’ calcium carbide aka ‘masala’ as a ripening agent through its 2011 regulations. Instead, it’s flogging ethylene as the safer option. As we pointed out earlier, fruits naturally produce ethylene which helps them ripen. So passing ethylene gas through fruits stacked in ripening chambers is its closest natural match.
And although we have a safe alternative in ethylene, we also have a problem. Fruit traders can’t seem to get over using calcium carbide to sweeten fruits. They’re illegally exploiting it.
Why you ask?
Well, for one it’s the reduced time it takes to hasten the ripening process. If mangoes are left to ripen naturally it could take about 10 days. Expose them to ethylene gas for a day, and it’ll take about 5. But with calcium carbide, the magic happens in just 2–3 days.
Two, calcium carbide is just easier to use. All anyone needs to do is wrap a small portion of it in paper and keep it near the fruits in a room. The fruits respond in 24–48 hours and begin to ripen.
But think of the trouble traders have to take with ethylene. They’ll need heat and humidity-controlled ripening chambers, besides a mechanism to release ethylene from gas cylinders at a safe distance away from the fruits. And did we tell you that this doesn’t come cheap?
An ethylene gas cylinder alone costs about ₹3,000 a piece. Add to that the cost of repeated refills, and it can psychologically feel like a heavy investment. Instead, at just the price of one ethylene gas cylinder you could buy about 30 kilos of carbide averaging about ₹100 a kg. And just so you get the point, a kilo of carbide can ripen 10,000 kilos of fruit. So, if both of them do the same job, why choose the pricier option?
Besides, ethylene can also be hard to find. There’s limited availability of it in the Indian markets, as it only goes into stuff like polymers, adhesives or detergents; making us dependent on imports.
Add to that, weak regulations and you’ll be clear about why ‘masala’ is preferred to the humble ethylene. You see, there aren’t really specific laws to prevent the use of carbide. The Food Adulteration Act just prohibits its use, with a 3-year imprisonment and a meagre ₹1,000 fine if rules are flouted. But who’s checking? It isn’t as though there are strict inspections when it comes to local fruit consumption.
Sure, they’re on their way to getting stricter. For instance, in October 2022 the customs authorities refused to clear a group of Delhi traders’ ethephon or ethrel imports, a commercial ripening agent allowed by the FSSAI.
Although the issue was about a missing NOC (No Objection Certificate) from the Insecticide Board to use the ethrel for non-insecticidal purposes, the High Court roped in the FSSAI and ordered it to frame a proper, clear framework to get its act together. That’ll straighten out the confusion around acceptable ripening agents, while also making traders and consumers warier.
In response, the FSSAI’s counsel promised that the rules are definitely coming. But when?
Well, that’ll undoubtedly take time. Until then, the felonious dominance of calcium carbide will probably and unfortunately prevail.
Until then…
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