WHEN the Indian cricket team travels to Zimbabwe next month, its members will not be carrying any nutrition supplements — instead, they will obtain their supplies from South Africa. Even for the Test series that started in Dhaka on Wednesday, the players received their hydration and recovery supplements directly from Australia.
It’s an inconvenience that they’ve got used to over the last couple of years because of the complex process involved in importing these supplements back home.
But at a time the controversy over lead content in samples of Maggi Noodles has shone the spotlight on food safety standards, it also exposes the massive disconnect between the food regulatory body and the market — the authority has no clue about what the country’s sports stars are consuming.
According to Raj Makhija, CEO of Smart Nutrition, whose clientèle includes the who’s who of India’s sporting fraternity, the problem is the authorities’ “lack of knowledge and awareness” regarding nutrition supplements and their absence in the Food Safety and Standards (FSS) Act.
“I’ve been waiting for five-six years for the Indian government to make some laws for the import of nutritional supplements but to no avail. They haven’t even included a separate chapter on these supplements or on sports nutrition in their Act. So, ever since the problems in terms of importing high-end products became acute two years ago, we’ve started sending them across outside of India,” Makhija told The Indian Express.
It’s not just the cricket team. Later this week, Makhija will coordinate a shipment of such products for the Indian hockey team, which will be in Belgium for the Hockey World League semifinal.
Makhija’s clients include badminton superstars Saina Nehwal and P Kashyap, apart from Olympic medallist wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt. In all, Makhija says, he caters to over 3,000 elite athletes in the country, including a number of franchises in the IPL.
These are products that have cleared the norms laid out by WADA, the world governing body on doping norms, have been declared free of all banned substances and used by top sportspersons across the world.
Take the case of the Indian cricket team. A letter from the team management to BCCI, accessed by The Indian Express, lists four products — Viper Active, Viper Boost Hydration, Promax Protein Bars and Cyclone Protein Powder — that are mainly supplements to aid hydration and recovery, and made by UK-based MaxiNutrition, which is owned by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).
Confirming the list, Ramji Srinivasan, the team’s former trainer, told The Indian Express: “Raj has been providing supplements and nutritional advice for the Indian team since 2006. We were totally reliant on him in these matters.”
Makhija says he took the decision to stop importing his products into India after facing unyielding obstacles, ranging from opaque clearance procedures and ceaseless delays.
“As soon as a product landed, the customs officials would say, ‘OK, get an NOC from the FSSAI.’ But the FSSAI doesn’t have a chapter or procedure for importing food or nutrition supplements. So they wouldn’t give an NOC. Then I would go back to customs and they would say, ‘If they don’t give a NOC, we won’t release the shipment’,” he said.
Makhija said that the FSSAI finally introduced a clause that ensured that shipments didn’t remain stuck in transit.
“This clause called for me to produce an affidavit undertaking, in which I confirm that my products were only for the consumption of athletes, or say the IPL teams, for a period of time and not on sale for the general public. And also that the extra stuff would either be sent back or consumed in entirety,” he said.
This affidavit, he added, allowed him to at least release a portion of his shipment even though the process would take six to seven days, at times even more.
“They were being held back in high temperatures of 40-45 degrees C and 99% of our ports do not have climate-controlled holding cells. Our products are all sensitive to anything over 35 degrees C. You can imagine my duress. So I decided I’m better off coordinating shipments and couriers overseas than having to go through this ordeal,” he said, adding that the issue is now being tackled in various courts, including the Supreme Court.
When contacted, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) officials said none of the products listed by the Indian team were on their radar because GSK has never applied for product approvals for them.
Yudhvir Singh Malik, CEO, FSSAI, said nutritional supplements were brought in the category of food by the FSS Act of 2006. “So many of the supplement companies which earlier had to go through the more stringent regulatory mechanism for drug regulatory approval now go through us, and there are problems,” he said.
“Packaged, ready-to-eat sports supplements, including energy drinks, bars and powders, is emerging as a huge area that has gone largely unmonitored. According to the FSS act, only companies that are manufacturing and importing food products to India are mandated to apply for product approvals; if somebody is buying for personal consumption it is not our concern. But if it is being marketed in any way, anybody who part of the supply chain is in violation of law, including manufacturers and distributors,” said Malik.
When contacted, a GSK Consumer Healthcare spokesperson in India told the The Indian Express, “GSK Consumer Healthcare does not manufacture, import or market these products in India.”
“We have not applied for any product approvals for these products because we do not manufacture or import them,” a source said.