The plan to expand the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is proposed to be shelved by the government. In 2014, the government had mooted a draft cabinet note for a Rs 1,750 crore-central scheme for strengthening of FSSAI, e-governance, food safety surveillance and expansion of states’ capacity.
In contrast, a note written by the chairperson of FSSAI, Ashish Bahuguna on January 6, this year to his staff has suggested that the FSSAI would wind up its regional offices and leave enforcement of safety laws to state governments. With the Rs 800 crore support to states under the central scheme being shelved, Bahuguna has also recommended that regulations be amended, allowing state officials to monitor food safety as an additional duty and not necessarily on a full-time basis. He has also recommended that instead of setting up government labs to test food samples, as was previously planned, FSSAI should depend on private labs.
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Bahuguna’s note comes after meetings in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to assess the functioning of the Authority which functions under the health and family welfare ministry. FSSAI had faced pressure and flak from some quarters within the government for its battle with Nestle over the ban on Maggi noodles..
In the January 2016 note, Bahuguna states, “It is understood that we are required to revisit our proposal for strengthening the food regulatory system in the country.”
He goes on to say, “We could transfer all powers of enforcement to state governments and not keep any machinery centrally. The power to act upon violations of central licensing conditions etc could also be passed on to the state governments through appropriate provisions in the regulations.”
In an interview to Business Standard, he initially suggested that he had not made such recommendations but later said the note was more of a “brainstorming thing”. He described it as a shock and awe tactic to provoke out of box ideas in his team and not a final decision. He, however, also had several changes that have already been put in place. “I think what we have done is to rethink things through and look at whether those instruments are appropriate or not,” he said.
Pointing to weakness of existing food safety law, he also idisclosed that a government committee had already made recommendations to amend it, though he personally recommended a wholesale rewrite of the legislation.
At the moment, under the food safety law, certain functions of licensing and enforcement of food safety in the states are reserved only for central government officers posted either at Delhi or the regional offices. This, Bahuguna recommends, could be done away with. Since the note was authored, two sub-regional offices of FSSAI (in UP and Punjab) have been shut down. Some other changes that were recommended by Bahuguna have also been acted upon — the powers of inspection of imported food products have been handed over to customs officers in more than 50 locations, instead of enhancing presence of food safety experts of the authority.
In the note, he wrote, “Provisions for building infrastructure for the enforcement machinery at the state level could be best left to the state governments. We could, however, amend the regulations so as to provide scope for state government personnel to do food safety related work on additional charge basis.”
When asked, Bahuguna said, in many states food safety work was already being done by officers as an additional charge, despite the law providing otherwise.
He has asked that the work of state-level tribunals, specifically meant for food safety regulations, also be passed on to the consumer disputes redressal forums.
The scheme earlier mooted by the NDA government earmarked Rs 800 crore for “upgradation of manpower at the state-level”, “strengthening of food safety infrastructure at state-level”, “strengthening of state-level laboratories” and “setting up a robust surveillance system” apart from capacity building activities.
FSSAI chairman’s note also indicates that government has decided to revisit the proposal to build its laboratory network for testing food products. “Our efforts for the expansion of laboratory network should focus on the private sector. The regulations could be amended so that only failed samples from the private sector are sent to government labs for referral and final analysis. This too could be provided through amendment of the regulations,” Bahuguna wrote.
The FSSAI had earlier mentioned in its Result Framework Document of 2012-13 that its strategy was to “Build infrastructure for food testing through a network of reliable food testing laboratories.”
In the aftermath of losing the case against Nestle in Mumbai High Court, the FSSAI had also decided to seek time from the courts to enhance and accredit its laboratory network.
The draft cabinet note of 2014 for the centrally-sponsored scheme too mentioned that the funds would be used for “strengthening of central-level laboratories and establishment of National Food Science and Risk Assessment Centre.”
Bahuguna’s note concludes, “We would then be left with the freedom to perform our primary duty of risk analysis, standard setting, product approvals and generation of consumer awareness.”
During the interview, Bahuguna reiterated that he sees setting standards as the first priority of the FSSAI.
He said, in wake of greater devolution of funds to states under the finance commission, they could now build their own infrastructure.
Since the note was written, the FSSAI has eased the product approval regime for proprietary food – which did not have already set product-specific standards. It has moved away from setting standards for each new proprietary product. It also shut down two of its regional offices through an order on February 9, 2016 – in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. The offices were asked to wind up operations by March 31, 2016. At the time of closure of these two offices, Pawan Agarwal, the CEO of FSSAI told the Times of India, “The decision to close down the two offices was carefully considered. They had limited staff and were not adding value. Our attempt is to downsize and rationalise our resources. We don't want food safety officials to be a nuisance to businesses. Rather we want citizens to have confidence in them.”
He told the news agency, PTI, “These (sub-regional offices) were aberration. Most of the licensing work is done online. On careful analysis, it was found that these two sub-regional offices were not contributing much.”
When asked if the regional offices of FSSAI could have done better enforcement if their staff and infrastructure was boosted up as previously planned, instead of shutting them down, Bahuguna said, “Yes if my aunt had moustaches she would be my uncle. That is no logic. The point is that there is no particular gain – and it is only the north zone that has these sub-regional offices (the two shut down). There is something unique about the north zone.” But, he reiterated that enforcement would not be side-lined. He also said he believed the focus of the FSSAI’s work should be more on other traditional foods rather than processed food industry.