The Surveillance Series
Team starts ‘surveillance’ and testing to keep check on violators
Eyes on the Food Shelf
It is a common sight now. Every second day one sees a new product being launched, making suitably large claims and extraordinary promises to lure consumers. On their part, consumers do not have the time and resources (and perhaps inclination) to find out if those claims and promises are genuine. At the same time, there are mandatory norms and standards set by regulatory bodies of the government which product manufacturers must follow. However, consumers always cannot find out if all the products they consume are meeting those standards. Moreover, the government officials responsible for keeping a check on whether the standards are being followed are not being able to keep pace with the flooding markets – they just aren’t enough in numbers and need the support of civil society and aware consumers to accomplish their tasks. No, the picture is not gloomy at all. Manufacturers and marketers are not cheating their consumers all the time. However, there is a sense of trust deficit among consumers. There are times when it emerges that some facts that a consumer must know about the product are not being revealed by the companies or are being sugar-coated for commercial purposes. Undoubtedly there is
a need for a subtle campaign, an inclusive movement wherein consumers, consumer-focused organisations, regulatory bodies, governments, and product manufacturers come together and think of and ask the right questions, and raise an alarm or blow the whistle whenever there is an incident of a breach of trust.
Year 2015 has been quite happening for the food products industry. Thanks to a noodle-brand controversy, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) made it to the front pages of newspapers and became part of prime-time discussions on news channels. One of the interesting developments was that consumers across the country began talking about the ‘quality’ of packaged foods that they had been consuming for years. They were getting to know about the ‘standards’ that each food product on the retail shelf must follow. The noodle controversy had unwittingly become the starting point of a quasi-mass awareness campaign and made many consumers ‘conscious’ and alert about packaged foods.
As it happened, while the country was discussing and debating about ways to find solutions for a consistent check on packaged foods, Team Consumer
Voice was formalising a strategy. We planned to add value to the government’s work through market surveillance and random testing of packaged foods and food supplements.
All regulatory standards were thoroughly studied, global best practices were understood, and a list of the most commonly consumed packaged foods was made. A team of professionals was formed to test and verify each of those product categories and write unbiased factual reports in the coming issues of Consumer Voice.
The testing and reporting procedure that is being followed is simple enough. Buy product samples of popular brands from retailers, analyse their labels, and see if they follow the standard guidelines; next, send
the samples to an accredited laboratory for testing of key parameters, study the results, create a report with key findings as well as suggestions, and share it with consumers and all other stakeholders including the government/regulators.
The following are the steps to be followed for each product’s surveillance:
A team of experts from Consumer Voice regularly visits markets to study the availability of food products of various categories, as also the claims and marketing strategies of their respective manufacturers in order to understand how they influence consumers.
The team buys samples of popular brands belonging to same/similar product category, from retailers at various locations at different intervals (different manufacturing lots wherever possible). They keep a cash memo/bill of each purchase. The samples so gathered are used for label analysis as well as testing.
Evaluation and analysis of labelling claims
Label information provided on products and packages of all the purchased samples is verified as per the provisions of national standards and regulations. The primary evaluation parameters include: Packaging Marking/Labelling Expiry date/Best before Maximum retail price (MRP) Additional claims on packet In case of extraordinary claims, the Consumer
Voice technical team may seek clarifications from manufacturers and ask for the basis of their claims.
The technical department, after verifying the claims and requirements of the regulatory body/ standards, may carry out two to three key tests to verify the quality of product as well as manufacturer’s claims. Primarily, the tests will be conducted to check the presence of the following: Heavy metals like lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury Pesticides Microbiological indicators such as total plate count, E. coli, and coliform
Sensory panel test
A panel is formed to judge the food items on subjective parameters that cannot be tested in the lab. Weightage as deemed appropriate is given based on the panel members’ best judgement and reported in the laid-down format.
The key findings observed during market surveillance, the analysis of labelling claims, and the test results for products will be published in Consumer Voice for building up public awareness and will also be shared with the relevant wings of government.
When deemed necessary, Voice will reach out to the relevant government departments to take action on the findings of the tests. For example, if a national standards norm is not being followed by a particular brand, then the concerned department will be requested to initiate action against the violator.