The indication by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) that it would reintroduce the system of pre-launch product approvals by issuing new regulations has dealt a blow to the food processing sector. This issue was deemed to have been settled after the Supreme Court upheld a Bombay High Court verdict that the system of product approvals introduced by the FSSAI through advisories was arbitrary and illegal. However, the uncertainty and confusion over this issue resurfaced with the FSSAI declaring that even while respecting the court's decree over its advisories, it will come up with new regulations to revive the approval procedure. This has turned prospective investors - both domestic and foreign - wary of committing resources in this sector. For the first time in several years, the festival season hardly saw the launch of any fresh food product, variant of an existing product or a new health food or food supplement despite over 700 such products being in the pipeline. The industry bodies are once again knocking at the doors of the government to get the FSSAI's intended move quashed.
India's food regulation law, the FSSAI Act of 2006, in fact does not require a new product to be formally approved by the regulator if its ingredients are as per the law - the generally accepted global practice. The industry maintains that the regulator cannot bring back the product approval system unless the law is amended. Even the food processing ministry feels that some of the recent actions of the FSSAI, including those against Nestle India's Maggi noodles, created a "fear psychosis" in the industry, killing innovation. There have been allegations of harassment of companies by FSSAI officials on trivial grounds. Objections are often raised to the quality of the products without getting them tested at recognised laboratories. Thus, the basic objective of the FSSAI Act of putting in place a transparent and scientific system of food safety seems to have been belied.
This does not bode well for a sector that, after a prolonged period of infancy, had begun to grow at over eight per cent a year. Food processing not only adds value to, and prolongs the shelf life of, farm produce, but it helps reduce the huge wastage of perishable products like fruits and vegetables, estimated at anywhere between 20 and 40 per cent. The FSSAI has already finalised 12,000 standards for food ingredients and additives, which are in harmony with the globally recognised Codex norms. It should also follow the global convention of allowing the industry to self-certify compliance with these standards. Such a system would end the need for cumbersome product-by-product approval, which takes years to complete. The FSSAI could monitor adherence to these standards by getting randomly selected samples tested in a non-controversial manner at accredited laboratories. The ultimate objective, after all, is to ensure that consumers get food products and health supplements that are good in quality, safe to consume, and varied in nature. Adventurism by the regulator is in the interest of neither the industry nor consumers.