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    Hello and welcome to the webchat with Nitin Sethi on the food safety mechanism in India


    Hello. Good Afternoon

  • U


    For exporting foods to developed world, Indian producers face stiff quality standards, often face rejection of lots. However, is there a similar stringent check on imports? We can see so many processed/semi-processed foods in Indian shops, (often even without details of mfg plant).


    Ujjwal, you got it spot on. We are supposed to test exports and imports of food products, both. Our quality testing on exports is lax and our quality testing for imports is far worse. The govt recently appointed more than 100 unqualified customs officers as food safety officers at ports to check food imports. Anywhere else this would have been a scandal. We have never invested in building the food safety regulatory system and the government is now in a phase of further diluting the limited capacities. For more on that read this:

  • R


    Are we reactionary in how we look at food safety in India rather than being preventive?


    Ravi our preventive capacities are near zero at the moment. A general lack of confidence that govt is ensuring food safety leads to the over-blown reactions i think at time.

  • V


    Do you think edible items available at duty-free shops should be under the food safety ambit?


    Absolutely. The law requires it. The safety of consumers requires it. The larger concern of bio-terrorism requires we do so. The FSSAI - govt's food safety arm has quietly decided to do away with ensuring food safety at the duty free shops. Its made a spurious and hilarious argument that custom duty shops fall outside the domain of Indian laws. Its a big business worth more than USD 200 million and slated to grow to USD 3 billion by 2020. It is pure dereliction of duty on the part of FSSAI to let duty free shops sell whatever they want without a check. No other country allows this. (To read more on it )

  • K


    Could you please give examples of how the government is now in a phase of further diluting the limited capacities of our food safety regulatory system? Also, what are the major areas that we need to urgently invest on to build a robust system?


    The NDA government has shelved the earlier plans of expanding food safety enforcement systems. Initially it had proposed Rs 1,800 cr plan to do so across the country. Now the food safety authority, FSSAI is proposing that it shall not be involved in enforcement of the food safety law across the country at all! It has already wound down two of its offices, one in UP and another in Punjab. It plans to let pvt sector labs get in the business - and we all know how problematic that can be. It is willing to let even state officers enforce the food safety law as an additional duty and not as a full time task, which means we wont have trained officers doing it but just another official. Oddly, all this is being done in a rather hush hush manner. On what we should be doing: bring transparency to the system. Put all testing results, recalls etc online for consumers to know. Enhance our enforcement capacities for centre and state - train people and give them jobs as regulators. set up our independent labs across regions to test food products - especially processed food. To put it simply, we got a new law in 2011 but we were only at the verge of implementing it when the govt has instead began to shrink the enforcement ability of the regulator

  • V


    In food safety, it is always said that our traditional home cooked food is the best and consumption of processed food should be limited, if not possible to avoid. But, regarding the most basic ingredients of cooked food i.e. water and vegetables, I have doubts about their being consumable and uncontaminated. And if there exist an already remedial mechanism, how do one go ahead if these basic ingredients are contaminated with pesticides and heavy metals


    Varun, Our bodies are capable of taking different unsafe chemicals to some extent. This is how the food safety systems work. Experts assess what kind of foods we get our nutrition from - say rice, bread, lentils, meants etc - in a way what makes up your average food intake. Separately the assess how much of each dangerous chemical human body in different conditions can be ok with. Based on that they set up standards on what should be the maximum level of these bad substances can be permitted in different foods so that overall in a day we dont consumer more than the dangerous level. So i would say this, while our traditional foods will contain some harmful materials as well, i would rather have that than the harmful materials from processed food because at least i am getting a healthy diet that keeps my immune system working and body fit. Of course there are some dangerous chemicals that should not be present at all in our foods and the govt sets standards demanding so. The case of finding bromate in bread by CSE is one such example. The chemical should have been simply banned to begin with. I hope i answered your query

  • H


    Consumer awareness on matters of safety of packaged foods is quite low and people are just not motivated enough to actually mobilize on this issue. This is also because there is no confidence in the safety standards set. Do people even know which ministry and which minister is supposed to deal with food safety. Why don' the concerned ministries don't speak up often enough?


    Harsha, the concerned ministry is the Health and Family Welfare ministry. The food safety authority under it is FSSAI ( Unfortunately the two have been extremely lax in actually doing much with transparency. Being a specialised area the onus on the authority should be much higher to act transparently and pro-actively. But that has not been the case. I would say the pressure from processed food industry is pretty high on most times. People would be more than motivated, I am sure, if the FSSAI began informing public of all the tests they are doing and what they are finding. Other countries such as US does this transparently and that brings awareness in public as well as mobilised people for public health.

  • S


    When we have street vendors selling food, disregarding all standards of hygiene and safety, when can we truly have safe and healthy food standards?


    This is the way I see it: There is a larger problem of hygiene and safe water etc that is wide-spread. The govt cant/wont guarantee that at the moment. The street vendors are provided no economic or other support to do any better and operate at very low margins. There are issues of hygiene and safety consequently. On the other hand are large profit-making businesses of processed and manufactured foods that have no excuse for not providing safe food products to consumers. Their desire to cut corners and serve cheap and dangerous additives or untested or unhealthy contents or making spurious claims of health impacts of their products should be unpardonable. I would treat the latter with a much more stringent set of norms while investing in the marginal and small vendors to help them provide better foods

  • V


    Recently we saw that the govt. shut two regional FSSAI offices (in Lucknow and Chandigarh). Given that these offices were involved in the run-in with Patanjali and Nestle, do you think this was due to corporate influence? And how harmful is to the food regulatory regime to send this kind of message?


    The shutting down of the two offices has a bad smell about it. There is no proof that i can quote to make an accusation though. Regardless of whether there was direct influence or not, the fact that the two offices were shut down should set off alarm bells. Why? Because under Indian food safety laws only these regional centres of the FSSAI can license food businesses and manufacturers of certain categories. If they are not there in the field then who is checking all these manufacturing facilities before giving the licenses? Say, any manufacturer that has units producing in more than two states can only be governed by the central authority. that would mean most of the big food manufacturers. you are right, it sends a very bad signal to consumers and a very positive signal to bad businesses.

  • H


    I have another question. Isn't this issue similar to the car air bag issue where consumers are more price conscious than safety conscious. Is health/safety really an issue for people here. There was more outrage at Maggi's ban rather than the presence of lead in it. As opposed to this, the consumer rights scene is much more developed and many fight pro actively to enforce their rights. Couldn't there be or shouldn't there be greater synergy between consumer affairs ministry and HFW in this matter?


    we are unfortunately being pushed in to a direction towards self-regulation for food safety of products as well just as it often happens in the automotive industry in India. and that is dangerous. Yes, you are right there should be more synergy between the two.

  • A


    Do Indian central and state regulators have the man-power to monitor food safety standards closely? What steps would you propose?


    Ankita, to put it simply: NO. Worse still, the govt is now proposing to whittle down the existing man-power further. Take a look at my answer to Kanika here for what needs to be done.


    Thank you, Nitin for your time and inputs. We also thank our readers for sending in questions.


    Most welcome

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