The inspections were carried out by the Madhya Pradesh Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which found traces of harmful magnesium carbonate and tobacco in tested samples.
Gutkha is a product composed of areca nut, catchu, paraffin, lime, and sweet flavorings, and it is sold as a mild stimulant in India in small sachets that cost between 2 (4 US cents) and 10 rupees per packet.
According to the FDA, it collected a total of 122 samples of gutkha from across the state during April to December 2011, a haul which included some of the leading gutkha brands.
Though the FDA did not publish the names of the brands immediately, it said that it will in its final food safety report.
An FDA spokesman told FoodNavigator-Asia that non-compliant companies would not see their licenses renewed.
Acknowledging that most gutkha manufacturers are not based in the state and thus the FDA would be powerless to curtail production, the spokesman said that the authority would “recall batches of gutkha products from those companies.”
Contaminant a key ingredient in packaging
“These inspections [have presented us with] some very serious results. Magnesium carbonate is an often found contaminant in gutkha products that we have warned manufacturers about in the past,” he said.
Medical practitioners have for long said that the consumption of the product over a prolonged period causes oral sub-mucous fibrosis, an irreversible condition that results in restricted mouth opening.
And data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows India has 75,000 to 80,000 new cases of oral cancer per year, the world's highest incidence.
There is a ban incidentally, but no one is enforcing yet
Interestingly, there is a standing order on the ban of gutkha in India, but it is caught in a mangle of legal and political interests.
When India passed the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006, which was enforced in August last year by setting up the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), it should have been the final blow for gutkha makers.
Under the act, the government of India had notified a complete ban on tobacco chewing products and gutkha by including a clause that said tobacco and nicotine couldn't be used as ingredients in any food products.
However, this was almost immediately challenged by manufactures of gutkha and tobacco chewing products in the country in several high courts across the, saying that these products could not be treated as food.
The matter ultimately reached the Supreme Court of India, which ruled, via an order in late 2010, that since pan masala, supari and gutkha are eaten for taste and nourishment, they are all food within the meaning of food safety act.
In addition, the highest judicial body also ruled that, under the act, the authority to ban an article of food or an article used as ingredient of food, on the grounds that it is injurious to health, belongs to the government of India.
In effect, with gutkha and chewing tobacco products having been classified as ‘food’, and the FSSAI becoming a body with legal enforcement powers this month, the production and sale of these products was effectively banned.
But top gutkha manufacturers in the country have not curtailed the production of these products as the FSSAI has yet to notify them of the ban.
However, they have privately told media sources that because the industry is a large employer and gutkha is a largely consumed stimulant in rural India, which represents a huge vote bank, a ban would not be enforced by the government.