In a spot
Food Regulation in India
In a spot
Globally, the quality criteria for food are becoming more stringent and parameters pertaining to safety of food have taken the centre stage, especially in countries of the developed world. At the same time, as food supply becomes increasingly globalised, the need to strengthen food-safety systems in and between countries is becoming more and more evident. All this has highlighted food safety as a major area of concern. This article juxtaposes the larger scenario of food regulations globally with the situation in India, where the system of standards and the mechanism of implementation and ensuring compliance are far from being sufficient.
Right to safety is the foremost right as proposed by the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection in 1985. As consumers, it is our right to expect that anything we buy from the market is safe for consumption. Including food. Unsafe food can make us fall ill and cause different types of diseases, neurological and hormonal damage as well as cancer. From production to consumption, it is the responsibility of governments, the food industry and consumers themselves to ensure food is safe. Ensuring food safety is becoming increasingly important in the context of changing food habits, popularisation of mass catering establishments, and the globalisation of our food supply.
Consumers expect that domestic and imported foods meet basic quality and safety standards and requirements related to food hygiene, labelling and certification, use of food additives, limits for pesticide residues, etc. Scientific developments have allowed a better understanding of the nutritional qualities of foods and their health implications. This has led
consumers to become more discriminating in food matters and to demand protection from inferior quality and unsafe foods.
Food Standards and Regulations across Countries
In order to provide safe products to consumers, governments and regulators in various countries have been promulgating and enforcing certain regulations and policies. Food safety regulations and standards evolved differently around the world, as countries responded in their own ways to food-safety crises and prepared themselves for perceived exposure to emerging food-safety risks. In the main, globally the regulations and standards for quality of various products have been shaped by:
a) Experiences of countries with food safety
b) Inherent food-safety risk level in the food supply of each country
c) Ability and willingness of industries to allocate resources to control the risks
d) Food-safety perceptions of consumers and hence preferences for targeting risk-reduction efforts The main aim of regulators has been to protect consumers’ interests by setting the standards for all materials including the packaging and the labelling of ingredients of processed foods. Food-handling risks are also managed by food standards and food regulations.
Developed and Developing Countries
In the developed countries, food laws and regulations and food standards are more stringent, most of the time science-based involving various components of risk analysis, and getting strengthened with timely introduction of new regulatory standards for previously unknown or unregulated hazards. In the case of developing countries, either food regulations and standards have not received priority mainly due to food security, or the food regulations are not well defined, or there is a lacunae in enforcement or implementation of regulations. The differences in regulations and standards among countries can have a major impact on the economy of the country and can lead to international trade conflicts. Standards are often seen as barriers to trade and barriers to development for poor countries. For example, one major concern has been that standards act as new nontariff barriers diminishing the export opportunities of the poorest countries who face multiple constraints in complying with stringent standards and upgrading their supply chains.
EU Food Regulations
The European Union (EU) adheres to the understanding that all food-safety policy must be based on a comprehensive, integrated approach that spans from farm to table and across all food sectors in order to ensure a safe global food supply. An effective foodsafety system must be science-based, transparent, and independent of industrial and political interests, and must be founded on consistent, up-to-date legislation. The food law both at the national and community level not only provides health protection but also protects consumer interests in relation to prevention of deceptive practices including adulteration of food, and ensures accurate information being provided to consumers. This regulation broadens the more specific provisions in commodity labelling and advertising legislation by providing an overall principle that consumers must not be misled. The European Union Food Regulations encompass the following components:
a) Scientific basis to food laws involving systems that are science-based and integrating science and risk analysis at all its levels
b) The precautionary principle is relevant in those specific circumstances where risk managers have identified reasonable grounds for concern about existence of an unacceptable level of risk to health but the supporting data or information is insufficient for a comprehensive risk assessment to be made
c) Traceability of the origin of feed, food, ingredients and food sources to facilitate withdrawal of foods in case of any eventuality
d) Roles and responsibilities of the numerous and diverse stakeholders in the food chain so as to enable building up of a participative and cohesive framework for action for ensuring compliance with food laws
e) Food-safety requirements that comprise two elements: i) food should not be injurious to health, and ii) food should not be unfit for human consumption. Only one of these elements has to be in place for the food to be considered as unsafe
f) Principle of transparency to increase consumer confidence in the food law
In the United States
The US food-safety system is based on strong, flexible and science-based federal and state laws and it is the industry’s legal responsibility to produce safe food. The system is guided by the following principles:
a) Only safe and wholesome foods may be marketed
b) Regulatory decision making in food safety is science-based c) The government has enforcement responsibility d) Manufacturers, distributors, importers and others are expected to comply and are liable if they do not
e) The regulatory process must be transparent and accessible to the public
The principal federal regulatory organisations responsible for consumer protection are Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS); Food and Drug Administration (FDA); US Department of Agriculture (USDA); Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS); and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The department of treasury’s customs service assists the regulatory authorities by checking and occasionally detaining imports based on guidance provided.
Food Regulation in India
Until 2006, a myriad laws and regulatory bodies were responsible for determining and enforcing quality and health standards in India. Some examples: Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954, implemented by the ministry of health and family welfare; Agriculture Produce (Grading and Marking) Act, 1937, implemented by the ministry of rural development; Agmark specifications; Bureau of Indian Standards Act, 1986; Essential Commodities Act, 1955; Fruit Products Order, 1955; Meat Food Products Order, 1973; Milk Products Order, 1992; Environment (Protection) Act, 1986; Vegetable Oil Products Order, 1998.
All these multiple laws and regulations prescribed various standards regarding food additives, contaminants, food colours, preservatives and labelling, thereby leading to a system that was over-regulated and under-administered. In order to rationalise the multiplicity of food laws and bring out a single reference point in relation to regulation of food products, a group of ministries was set up to suggest legislative and other changes to formulate an integrated food law that would provide a regulatory environment conducive to industry in general and protection of consumers. Based on the recommendations of the group of ministries, the ministry of food processing industries enacted the Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA), 2006, with two main objectives:
a) to introduce a single statutory body relating to food; and
b) to provide for scientific development of the food-processing industry.
Principle of Harmonisation
FSSA 2006 incorporates the salient provisions of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954, and is based on the international legislation adopted by CODEX Alimentarius Commission. The principle of harmonisation is enshrined in the Food Safety and Standards Act. The Act clearly specifies that FSSA will be aided by several scientific panels and a central advisory committee to lay down standards for food safety. These standards will include specifications for ingredients, contaminants, pesticide residues, biological hazards and labels. The law is enforced through state commissioners of food safety and local-level officials. The Codex Alimentarius or ‘food code’ was established by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) in 1963 to develop harmonised international food standards that would protect consumer health and promote fair practices in food trade.
Brands in News for Wrong Reasons
We all know by now that Nestle’s instant noodles brand Maggi has been accused by FSSAI of three major violations, namely:
a) presence of lead in excess of the maximum permissible levels of 2.5 ppm
b) misleading labelling information on the package reading ‘No added MSG’
c) release of a non-standardised food product in the market, viz. Maggi Oats Masala Noodles with Tastemaker’, without risk assessment and grant of product approval
Maggi has since been taken off the shelves in India’s markets. Nestle, though, fully expects to have it back on the shelves by the year-end, by which time it will be done with retests as directed by the Bombay High Court. For the record, on August 13 the Bombay High Court lifted the ban on Maggi noodles, ordering fresh tests within six weeks to check if it complied with the country’s food safety norms. As for any dilution of brand equity, your guess is as good as anybody else’s – on its part, Nestle is putting together a massive ‘miss you Maggi’ campaign.
While Maggi has been in the forefront, it’s not the only one to have been put in a corner. Food Safety
& Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has rejected scores of product approval requests by Tata Starbucks, Ferrero, FieldFresh Foods, Kellogg and McCain, among others, on account of assessment of risk or safety, according to a statement on the regulator’s website. The products are a combination of imported and locally made ones. The food regulator conducts tests of random samples and in the case of imported products, checks them at ports. As mentioned in an open letter posted on the FSSAI website, companies often found it convenient to draw parallels with the US Food & Drug Administration or the EU regulatory system, “little realising that self-regulation is rather compelling in those economies, thanks to a very conscious and aware consumer base, coupled with an effective and responsive legal system.”
On the other hand, US food-safety inspectors have labelled hundreds of made-in-India snacks unfit for sale in America, according to Wall Street Journal. The US FDA reportedly found pesticides in Haldiram’s products and their website states that products made in India have been found to have pesticides and bacteria in high levels. In fact, most of the Indian snacks rejected this year by US FDA were from Haldiram’s, the famous Nagpur-based food company.
It has certainly not helped that India’s foodprocessing sector is marred by a regulator that has traditionally lacked the resources (being both understaffed and under-equipped) and know-how to effectively safeguard public health and standards. As noted by FSSAI itself, “While a new Food Safety Act was promulgated in 2006, the regulation pertaining to the limited number of food product standards and the additives, as also the regulation dealing with prohibition and restrictions, have been imported in the scheme of the new Act from the erstwhile regime without a serious review thereof.”
As things are, the entire procedure of product approval is a subject of great confusion. The FSSAI itself gives the impression that it is still figuring things out, with frequent announcements of changes in procedure on its website. Whether or not a product should be approved for sale is based almost entirely on scientific analysis provided by the manufacturers themselves – not on that done by FSSAI. The law does provide for random inspections and raids where samples can be seized (or acquired), and sent for lab testing. If any irregularities are found, the penalties (mostly in the form of fines and recalls) can be steep. However, it may be noted that while most countries in the world have a recall policy, India has only recently framed draft regulations for recall.
We need to learn this one thing – that it is our right to get safe food. We should read the label and the contents regularly, and if we get a product that is substandard or adulterated, we should approach the company/shopkeeper. If they do not respond, we can bring it to the notice of FSSAI or lodge a complaint at the consumer forum. We can also contact the tollfree number at FSSAI – 1800-11-2100.