The wine stand-off

Written by Magandeep Singh | Updated: Aug 3 2014, 07:18am hrs
IN INDIA, growth happens in spite of ourselves and the ongoing tiff between the authorities and smug Indian businessmen of the liquor trade is quite the spectacle. Now, before anybody judges me, either the authorities or especially these said businessmen, I assure you (and them) that I empathise with their pain even as I try and evaluate the benefits of this new system.

A little about the pain first then. The Food Safety & Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is a body under the Food Safety & Standards Act, 2006, in line with WTO guidelines, and is entrusted with the task of ensuring that all goods available for consumers of the worlds largest democracy are fit for consumption and state their ingredients clearly and precisely with nothing omitted or concealed. The FSSAI has fairly sophisticated laboratories to assist them in this hound-like activity.

But the official tasters of the Indian republic hit quite the flummoxing roadblock when it came to wines. How was it possible that this product continued to sell without any ingredients or expiry date, and not just in India, but the world over

Till now, the state excise used to confine its interests to collecting tax based on the total volume and percentage of alcohol. Beyond that they didnt concern themselves. But the FSSAI, governed neither by revenue nor commerce, did. Laws were passed circa early-August 2011 for all products (mostly food, but liquor and wine were also included) to comply with the labelling laws of the nation. Although there was a period when suggestions were invited on a public platform it wasnt till December 2013 when the authorities went ahead and enforced the rules that the importers started objecting to. Since then, consignments have been stuck, bad press is being generated globally and utter confusion has prevailed.

But the importers arent entirely wrong. To be fair, the FSSAI hasnt really managed to address the issues they wish compliance on. Here are a few:

1. Exact address: They require the exact address for a winery right down to the street, which is often not possible, as many wineries in a village are landmark enough to not need a specific road or house number.

2. Lack of tie-ups: Liaising with other similar foreign laboratories so that tests once conducted anywhere are valid here too, thereby reducing the duplication of reports and expenditure. For now, everything is tested in spite of being compliant with EU norms, which, too, are in line with WTO policies.

3. Date of manufacture and expiry: Wine doesnt come with an expiry just like humans dont come with a fixed life expectancy. It depends on many factors (the making process, storage, etc) and determining this is impossible.

4. Listing of ingredients: This is a problem when it comes to certain proprietary beverages, which have a guarded recipe. Jagermeister comes rushing to mind. Other liqueurs, too, would face this brunt. This makes me wonder how are brands like KFC and Cola managing It means that for Scotch whiskey, the constituents will need to be listed, even though it is acceptable the world over as a single ingredient.

5. English/Hindi labels: This becomes a problem with high-end wines, which are imported in absolutely tiny quantities, as it becomes difficult to customise labels for such small, once-a-year orders.

6. Bottle formats: The same wine can come in different sizes and to have to submit a large format can be difficult for an importer, as (a) they dont import more than a handful; and (b) each bottle is extremely costly. Miniatures for rare 40-year-old whiskies dont exist, so entire bottles (worth hundreds of dollars) need to be submitted.

7. Ambiguity: Certain importers have complained that different inspectors have brought up different anomalies for the same label and this shifting-the-goalpost tactic makes it difficult to know what is needed precisely. The FSSAI needs to release a sample label, as the data on the site is mostly for food and not for winethe importers words, not mine.

8. Measuring units: We need millilitre (ml), not centilitre (cl) even though the latter is used in Europe. But this can be easily redressed.

9. Transition pains: Importers have had to return entire shipments, as they werent allowed to bring in the new labels and stick them on to bottles that had already arrived, thereby not only killing revenue, but also incurring extra costs.

10. FSSIA logo and licence number: Although there is relaxation till 2015 for this one, to incorporate a new logo for many big brands is a question of balancing aesthetics. Also, this wont happen without due diligence.

In the long run, a system like this will be most beneficial in ensuring the good health of consumers, but transition is an ugly phase. I can only hope the two sides find a way to cooperate and work together towards resolving the situation instead of pointing fingers at each other.

The writer is a sommelier.