Packaged food import becomes a sticky issue

Importers protest as food safety regulator demands adherence to recent law on labelling, blocks entry at ports for packs with stickers

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Sushmi DeySounak MitraViveat Susan Pinto New Delhi
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has put its foot down and said “labelling requirements will not be relaxed” for any packaged food supplier, as these are very “sensitive” products. It maintained that the law mandates printed or inseparable labelling on such products.

“The law of the land is valid for everyone — for domestic suppliers as well as importers — and all are expected to follow it. A regulator’s duty is to implement the law and not violate it…Food is so sensitive and there is no question of relaxing the requirements for pre-packaged food products,” FSSAI’s chief executive officer, Dillip Kumar Samantaray, told Business Standard.

This comes in the wake of several containers of packaged food products carrying imported chocolates, crispies, gourmet cheese, olive oil, biscuits, noodles, pasta, jams, honey, oats and sauces, etc, being recently blocked at various ports and airports across the country, in the absence of a clearance from FSSAI. The regulatory agency, which supervises import of food items to ensure quality, refused permission by citing the labelling requirements in the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006, which took effect in 2011.

According to Samantaray, a 1982-batch IAS officer, these products were refused permission during visual inspection to check the labelling requirements, among other things. He said most of these products were carrying stickers with various information, whereas the law says stickers are only allowed to differentiate between vegetarian and non-vegetarian products, and to specify the name and address of the importer. “The law of the land requires all other information to be printed on the pack,” Samantaray insisted.

He said food was a sensitive commodity and products such as jams and chocolates were mostly consumed by children. So, quality and specifications could not be compromised. “If domestic manufacturers export products to other countries, they are required to abide by the law of that country. Then why should India not ensure the health of its citizens?” asked Samantaray.

When asked why the sudden stringency, when products with deficient stickers had been available in Indian markets for a long time, the regulator said, “India before 1947 was colonial, so should we continue to be like that even now?” He said products had been barred from entry in the past two years as well.

October-December being the festival season, the blocking of consignments might have impacted the business more than usual. Government sources indicate packaged foods worth Rs 750-1,000 crore was stuck at various ports and airports across the country.

Importers, irked by the lacklustre Diwali sales, say if the issue is not sorted soon, it could impact business during Christmas and New Year, too. About 50-55 per cent of packaged food imports in India happen during the festive season, since it is utilised mainly for gifting, apart from consumption.

Amit Lohani, convenor, Forum of Indian Food Importers, says they’ve already made numerous representations to FSSAI, to resolve the issue. "On October 31, FSSAI came out with a notification agreeing to one of our demands, which is to allow the food safety logo on a sticker. This is with immediate effect," Lohani, who imports Danish cookies, meats, beer and coffee, among other products, said.

Samantray confirmed FSSAI had received representations from various companies as well as industry bodies. It had responded, explaining its stand. Sources say some countries backing the importers have also approached the ministry of external affairs and the ministry of health.

Says Saloni Nangia, president, Technopak Advisors; "The FSSAI's move to enforce labelling standards is a step in the right direction. India, for long, has been a dumping ground for products well past their sell-by-date. Now, there will be some accountability. Product quality is compromised with the use of stickers. FSSAI is attempting to stop that."

  • Food Safety and Standards Authority of India’s CEO has said as food is a very sensitive product, there is no question of relaxing labelling requirements for pre-packaged food
  • Asked about the sudden stringency of regulations, the regulator said that India, before 1947, was colonial but the old norms couldn’t continue now
  • Government sources indicate that packaged foods worth Rs 750-1,000 crore were stuck at various ports and airports across the country
  • October-December being the festival season, the blocking of consignments impacted the business more than usual

First Published: Nov 08 2013 | 12:49 PM IST

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