The great Maggi’ de­bate

In­dia still does not have a re­call pol­icy for con­tam­i­nated food prod­ucts

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TSafety and Stan­dards HE FOOD Au­thor­ity of In­dia (fssai) or­dered a na­tion­wide ban on all vari­ants of Maggi noo­dles on June 5,lead­ing to a mas­sive food prod­uct re­call—the big­gest in the coun­try so far.The re­call was ini­ti­ated af­ter fssai author­i­ties found lead be­yond the per­mis­si­ble limit and monosodium glu­ta­mate with­out ap­pro­pri­ate la­belling in the pop­u­lar two-minute noo­dles.

Food re­call pro­ce­dure in­volves re­mov­ing a po­ten­tially harm­ful prod­uct from the mar­ket to en­sure con­sumer safety and has been recog­nised as the most ef­fec­tive means of pro- tect­ing public health glob­ally. Ear­lier this year, fssai had or­dered the re­call of sev­eral energy drinks, in­clud­ing Mon­ster and Rest­less, due to non-com­pli­ance with safety stan­dards.But this was not part of any sys­tem­atic food re­call pro­ce­dure in line with global prac­tice. Un­like Western coun­tries such as the US and Euro­pean na­tions, In­dia does not have an of­fi­cial re­call pol­icy, says Be­jon Ku­mar Misra, an ex­pert on con­sumer pro­tec­tion pol­icy. Sec­tion 28 of the Food Safety and Stan­dards Act, 2006, pro­vides for re­call of food prod­ucts, but it does not spec­ify nec­es­sary de­tails, such as the role and re­spon­si­bil­ity of food busi­ness op­er­a­tors (fbos), in­clud­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers, re­tail­ers, im­porters and

sup­pli­ers, timeline of the re­call process, track­ing of com­pli­ance and fol­low-up.

Re­call pol­icy a must

The ab­sence of such crit­i­cal guide­lines ex­plains why food com­pa­nies such as Nestlé have acted less re­spon­si­bly when it comes to safety stan­dards. De­spite ex­ces­sive lead found in sam­ples,Nestlé con­tin­ues to main­tain that Maggi noo­dles are safe and is con­test­ing the re­call or­der in court.This is in con­trast to the re­call of beef prod­ucts in Europe by Nestlé in 2013 af­ter find­ing horse dna in two of its prod­ucts. Un­like in In­dia, the com­pany took re­spon­si­bil­ity and apol­o­gised to con­sumers.

In some cases, re­call has been vol­un­tary—re­call of Sunchips by Frito Lay’s and Spe­cial K red berries by Kel­logg’s in the US this year (see ‘Back from the mar­ket’). Mean­while, there have been 32 food re­calls in Canada since March and 33 in the US since April.“In gen­eral,food com­pa­nies vol­un­tar­ily per­form re­calls when ap­proached by gov­ern­ment agen­cies. How­ever, there have been a few in­stances when they have not and the gov­ern­ment has been forced to take le­gal ac­tion to re­move the prod­ucts from com­merce,” says Tony Corbo, se­nior lob­by­ist at Food and Wa­ter Watch, a Wash­ing­ton­based con­sumer rights group.

Draft gath­ers dust

fssai had de­vel­oped rules for re­call in 2009, but there has been no up­date.No fssai of­fi­cial was avail­able for com­ment. In April this year, the apex food body is­sued a draft reg­u­la­tion, “Food Safety and Stan­dards (Food Re­call Pro­ce­dure) Reg­u­la­tions, 2015” for public com­ments.It is open to the public for feed­back till Au­gust 1.

The draft is a com­pre­hen­sive doc­u­ment on the re­call process. Ad­dress­ing the com­mon in­ter­est of in­dus­try, gov­ern­ment and con­sumers, it clearly men­tions pos­si­ble rea­sons or trig­gers for a food re­call,meth­ods of re­call com­mu­ni­ca­tion and role and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of fbos. The draft puts the onus of re­call largely on fbos, with the food au­thor­ity, Cen­tral and state, act­ing as a su­per­vi­sory body to mon­i­tor progress. As stated in the draft,a re­call can be ini­ti­ated due to any com­plaint or public health haz­ard iden­ti­fied by the man­u­fac­turer, con­sumer or food au­thor­ity. With lit­tle vari­a­tion, the pro­posed reg­u­la­tions are broadly in line with fea­tures of re­call pro­ce­dures adopted by sev­eral coun­tries such as the US,Canada and New Zealand.

While the draft in­cor­po­rates most of in­ter­na­tional prac­tices, it misses out on a few as­pects that are in­te­gral to the in­ter­na­tional re­call sys­tem. These in­clude “re­call clas­si­fi­ca­tion”, which de­ter­mines the level of haz­ard in­volved. No­tably, the 2009 rules had such a pro­vi­sion. The latest draft also needs to be strength­ened with re­spect to a safety alert sys­tem. The food au­thor­ity should have a web-based fa­cil­ity to mon­i­tor the re­call and keep the con­sumers in­formed. “Gov­ern­ment re­call mech­a­nism needs to be more trans­par­ent, ”says Devin­der Sharma, a food and trade pol­icy an­a­lyst. An ex­am­ple of such a trans­par­ent fa­cil­ity is Europe’s Rapid Alert Sys­tem for Food and Feed. It de­tails the list of prod­uct re­calls that have taken place, prod­uct type, cat­e­gory, no­ti­fi­ca­tion date, rea­sons of alert, haz­ards and ac­tion taken.

In­dia ur­gently needs a com­pre­hen­sive doc­u­ment on food re­call and fssai should fi­nalise the pro­posed draft with­out much de­lay. “Prod­uct re­call is a log­i­cal step in the reg­u­la­tory sys­tem. Un­for­tu­nately, the In­dian reg­u­la­tory sys­tem is weak,” says politi­cian Brinda Karat.

J P Dad­hich, sub-re­gional rep­re­sen­ta­tive, In­ter­na­tional Baby Food Ac­tion Net­work, a global net­work of or­gan­i­sa­tions, wel­comes fssai’s move, say­ing it is a step in the right di­rec­tion. “The chal­lenge now is to fi­nalise the guide­lines quickly and im­ple­ment them ef­fec­tively, ”he says.

Sharma notes that the re­call of Maggi should serve as a wake-up call not only for the gov­ern­ment but also in­dus­try. Con­sid­er­ing the huge num­ber of food prod­ucts avail­able in the mar­kets to­day, in­creas­ing cases of con­tam­i­na­tion and grow­ing glob­al­i­sa­tion of food and food chains, In­dia needs to have a sys­tem in place wherein an un­safe prod­uct can be timely put out of con­sumers’ reach, a sys­tem that can tell the end con­sumer in the re­motest parts of the coun­try about the risks as­so­ci­ated with un­safe but avail­able food.

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