Harmful health supplements racket busted at Mumbai port

Jul 09, 2012, 09:36 IST | Bipin Kumar Singh

Customs at JNPT seizes products worth around Rs 8 crore that had a sugar content much higher than the permissible limit; consignments were under-declared to save on duty.

While there’s nothing wrong in aspiring to sculpt up a lean and mean physique, it’s imperative you read the fine print before munching on those health supplements from a neighbourhood store.

Picture for representation

In several busts at Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT), customs officials recovered imported dietary supplements worth crores. The charges are these commodities contain artificial sweeteners in far greater amounts than permitted in India, and the consignments were hugely under-declared to save on customs duty, revealed sources at JNPT.

Representation pic

“In the last two months we have held a large number of health supplement consignments being imported by as many as a dozen companies. What we have noticed is that these firms under-declare the value of shipments by about ten times to save on tariff and later sell these products at about ten times higher than the maximum retail price in the market,” said a senior customs official at JNPT.

Hard to digest
What’s also a huge cause for concern is the fact that these supplements were also found to have more artificial sweeteners than permissible limits during lab tests. “We sent the samples for laboratory examination where we found that these products have about 60 per cent of artificial sweeteners, which is banned for import as well as family consumption in India as per the food and drug Act,” the official added.

Sources in the customs department also revealed that in the recent past they have also intercepted cases where they have found importers are freighting health supplements, which have short expiration periods left and as they were not in much demand in the parent country, are available at cheaper rates for Indian merchants. “We have detained some cargoes, which lack manufacturing as well as expiry tags,” added another customs official.

The estimated value of the consignments is said to be between Rs 6-8 crore and belong to big players. Mumbai based Neulife Nutrition System is on the list. The shipments have been held under different provisions of customs, including, MRP-based issues, countervailing duty (additional duty) of customs etc. Manoj Krishna, commissioner of customs at JNPT, could not be reached for comment.

Demand and supply
Shoaib Khan of Mega Fitness Studio at Mira Road said, “In a city like Mumbai there are a lot of fitness freaks. But many of these people don’t get time for workout so the demand of these body supplements are very high. People who are suffering from diabetes or hyperglycaemia are recommended only to use supplements without sugar and those who don’t have such problems should use supplements carrying sugar level of not more than forty per cent.”

Bandra-based nutritionist Anjali Peswani (28) said, “People should first assess whether they actually need these supplements or not. There are products in the market, which have more sugar (artificial sweetener) content than permitted and these can be detrimental to health. Manufacturers add more sweeteners to make the products tastier and increase the shelf life. More sugar content leads to weight gain and water retention. It also affects teeth and gums and other parts of the body.”

Neulife speaks
The Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA) is a new Act to regulate and control the manufacturer, import, distribution and sale of any foodstuffs in India including dietary supplements. The entire dietary supplement industry is aggrieved because since April, the FSSA isn’t providing an NOC to any supplements to clear customs. Samples have been drawn from shipments and sent for laboratory testing for over 45-60 days (instead of the mandatory 5 working days) while the goods lie in the heat awaiting clearance, getting spoilt. These products are 100 per cent safe and have been approved by every food regulatory body in every country around the world and tested for safety, efficacy and label claims. We don’t have any ‘seized’ shipment. The FSSA isn’t granting an NOC to customs to clear any food supplement shipments because of the presence of sucralose sweetener, which is used in beverages like DietCoke and DietPepsi. FSSA has allowed the use of artificial sweeteners in carbonated and non-carbonated drinks, jams, jellies, chocolates and even gulab jamuns!

Neulife has been fighting the grey market for years trying to provide safe and genuine products to Indian consumers. Grey marketers under-value and import goods thus avoiding duties while still charging high rates from consumers. Some of them even provide fake and adulterated supplements. Meanwhile thousands of customers continue to suffer while this sunrise industry suffers due to bureaucratic red tape.  

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