The Food Safety & Standards Rules, 2011, replacing the 50-year-old Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, will come into effect in August. P I Suvrathan, chairperson, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, spoke to Nivedita Mookerji on the objective of the new law, challenges in introducing it and more. Edited excerpts:
What is the status of the new Food Safety & Standards Rules?
The integrated food safety law has been passed by the government. Currently, we have six to seven separate food laws for meat, milk, edible oil, fruits and vegetables, etc. The idea is, like all developed countries, we should have an integrated food law, laying down standards of food items uniformly across the country and a central mechanism on food safety. Implementation will be done by the government, states, municipalities and panchayats.
Why must India have these rules?
Food science has changed beyond recognition. The focus of safety must be on the entire supply chain: production, processing, distribution, and marketing. For the first time, the law puts the responsibility of food safety on the manufacturer. So far, it was the inspector going and inspecting and prosecuting a person. Now, that will not work at all. It’s a very complex industry, where millions of people and processes are involved. Then, there’s a whole lot of things that India didn’t do so far, for instance, safety of imported food and risk analysis of what is coming into the country. Customs does its job, but now we’ll look at these things comprehensively.
What next in terms of implementation?
The law has been passed by Parliament but we need rules and regulations for its implementation. Three months from now, this law and its accompanying rules will be implemented.
What are the main hurdles?
Food interfaces with a whole range of other issues. Ministries of agriculture, rural development, consumer affairs, industry and water resources all deal with food issues.
Do you foresee any problem?
Introduction is a major job. Other countries took centuries. The US took two centuries to get it done. We have done it in a couple of years after it was conceptualised.
How will it be different?
The old system had food inspectors, the new one will have food safety officers. Their functions will be different. The way samples will be taken will be different. Significantly, the supply chain concept is going to come in. The focus will not be on inspection, but on each person in the chain — sourcing, manufacturing, storing, distributing.
Won’t ‘right storage’ be an issue?
Each is an issue. Safety of ingredients, water, storage are all issues. As you know, 85 per cent of food-borne diseases are due to water.
Will the penalty become stringent for those violating the Rules?
Under the existing PFA (Prevention of Food Adulteration) Act, the penalty is already stringent. If you do not have the mechanism to implement a law, no point making a tough one. In this case, it is about local implementation and de-criminalisation of law. Under PFA, lots of cases have been pending in the courts. Rate of punishment is just one to two per cent. In the new law, it has been decided to separate the not so serious cases from those directly impacting health. If the violation does not have a direct impact on health, the adjudicating officer will decide to penalise the violator without going to court. If the case is serious, it will go to court. Speed of disposal will pick up. We estimate 50 to 60 per cent of cases will be disposed without going to court.
How will the Rules compare with international laws?
It will be on par with international laws. We looked at laws of the US, the EU and Australia before framing it. We also circulated the draft to other regulators. In fact, the US has drawn from our norms.
Will there be a problem in introducing the new law?
We have 2,000 inspectors all over the country. We need around 6,000 food safety officers. States have to do it. But since state governments do not have the money, the Centre has to help. The second issue will be shortage of quality laboratories. There are about 75 public labs and 100 private labs. The results from these are haphazard and lack uniformity of standard. Luckily, some private labs are of international level.
What will be the cost of implementing the law?
We are working on the estimate.
What else is needed to make the law effective?
There’s no food safety provision in the Five-Year Plan prepared by the Planning Commission. The 12th Plan (2012-17) may include food safety as a component, under the health ministry. We want to make food safety a more professional discipline. Food safety officers will have to work with manufacturers, street vendors and retail owners. Also, we want to make the food industry one of the easiest to get into for somebody with no other means of living, but we will see to it that safety norms are adhered to. It will be something like Thailand or Hong Kong. If somebody wants to start a food business in India, authorities have to say yes or no, with reasons, within 60 days.
What is the biggest challenge at this point?
How do you put it on ground. Millions are involved in this — how do you incentivise these people? We are thinking of a concept called a food safety plan for each town and village.
Will the new rules have a bearing on retail outlets and malls?
In case of large retailers with operations in more than two states, they will be centrally licenced, rather than being governed by states.