No compromise on food standards: India to US

Written by ASHOK B SHARMA | New Delhi, January 11: | Updated: Jan 12 2008, 23:26pm hrs
India has categorically told the US that it will not compromise on the quality and conformity to safety norms for food products and drugs and that it has constituted a working group in the Planning Commission to focus on this aspect.

According to an official press release when the US secretary in the department of health and human services, Michael O. Leavitt called upon the Indian commerce minister Kamal Nath on Thursday evening and tried to impress upon him the need for modifying food safety norms the latter said that India was very conscious of the critical importance of quality and conformity to safety norms, particularly for food and drugs consumed by people and would work out its own norms.

Both the sides discussed the progress of ongoing cooperation in many US-India health and life sciences activities and the safety of consumer products, particularly in the fields of research, vaccine and vaccine production.

There were reports that India was against importing wheat from the US due to the alleged presence of dangerous weeds. The delegation led by the US health secretary raised the issue of India refusing to dilute its safety norms for allowing imports of wheat from the US. New Delhi had also ruled out diluting safety standards to facilitate wheat import from the US.

India imported 5.8 million tonne wheat in 2006, and has also contracted for about 1.8 million tonne in 2007, partially relaxing its quarantine norms. However the US could not participate in the face of India refusing to further lower its quarantine norms.

The US had criticised India's phytosanitary requirements as unrealistic and overly stringent weed seed standards for imports. "India's current (wheat import) standards translate into higher bread and flour prices for (its) consumers. The prices offered to India in the most recent import tender are significantly greater than recent purchase prices by other wheat importing nations," the US had said in July 2007.

During the discussions, Nath referred to the setting up of a working group by the Planning Commission to focus on quality and food safety issues and recommendations for the implementation of good hygiene and good management practices, in a phased manner. He further stated that India and US have bilateral institutional frameworks to further trade like India-US Trade Policy Forum and the India-US Commercial Dialogue.

As far as safety of drugs and medical devices exported from India to the US is concerned, Nath explained that US FDA conducts thorough examination before certifying Indian facilities for production of goods destined for the US and inspects them regularly. Indian companies have always been very cooperative in verification of requisite standards.

Prior to his current assignment, Leavitt was head of the US Environmental Protection Agency and served three terms as Governor of Utah. He organised a nationwide campaign to transform the Nation's healthcare sector into a value-driven healthcare system. This was his first official visit to India.

Leavitt had a discussion with the Indian health and family welfare minister, A. Ramadoss. While addressing an interactive session organized by the Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry on Friday Leavitt disclosed: "I had a discussions with the health minister, A. Ramadoss and he the desire to create a US FDA type of an agency in India. Such a proposal was indeed laudable and the US would support India's initiative by providing technical assistance for setting up such an agency."

Leavitt emphasized the need for Indian companies to meet the quality standards set out by the US. This would facilitate Indian companies in accessing US consumers. This means that Indian companies would have to get their food and pharma products certified by an agency that the US Administration trusts, he said.

Some senior US officials underlined the need for common standards across the world to reduce the burden of the regulatory process on producers. Such harmonisation of standards would enable companies to become globally competitive. At present there are different sets of standards globally, making it extremely difficult for companies to devise products suited to the specific requirements of different countries.

Leavitt, however, said that both US and India have a mutual commitment to ensure that products that are produced for consumers are safe and of high quality. The US, he said, was committed to supporting India for eradication of polio, malaria and HIV.