On March 26, 2014, when a government regional public laboratory on the BRD Medical College campus in Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh detected the presence of monosodium glutamate (MSG) and higher than the permitted quantity of lead in samples taken from a batch of Nestle India’s Maggi noodles, the findings went almost unnoticed before it were confirmed 14 months later by the Kolkata-based Central Food Laboratory, a referral lab.
That Uttar Pradesh had raised the initial red flag over the quality of Maggi being sold by Nestle India may have raised some eyebrows, but the state seems to have been among the most active on levying convictions and penalties against processed food companies. Over the last four years, the state figures right on top, both in the terms of number of cases where it levied penalty and the amount recovered in the form of penalty in such cases.
A look at the report of annual testing laboratories across states shows that five states — UP, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh — account for more than 90 per cent of the total penalties levied in the year 2014-15 and 84 per cent of the amount raised in penalties. The trend is similar even in previous years when these states accounted for over 80 per cent of the total amount raised from penalties.
Food adulteration comes under the Food Adulteration Act, which is administered entirely by the states and therefore the powers for seizure, for conducting inspections, for seizing samples, filing cases etc., lie with the state governments.
The regulator, however, is the Food Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) which falls under the Ministry of Health. So, the standards set by the FSSAI have to be enforced and implemented essentially by the state governments. Unlike other sectoral regulators, this is one such case where the regulator does not have enforcement powers and it has to rely on the states for the same.
Data collated by FSSAI gathered from all states and Union Territories clearly shows a pattern in rise in adulteration over the last few years.
While less than 13 per cent of the samples collected by all states were found to be not conforming to the standards in 2011-12, the percentage rose to 14.8 per cent in 2012-13 and further jumped to 18.8 per cent in 2013-14. Also this has resulted into a rise in convictions/penalties and amount collected in penalties and jumped five times from 764 in 2011-12 to 3,845 in 2013-14.
With rising instances of adulteration, the government is looking to sensitise its officials to check on the same.
According to a written note submitted by the Department of Consumer Affairs before a Parliamentary Standing Committee, it has initiated a process of holding regional conferences with state secretaries, food commissioners and legal metrology officials in various zones where concerned officials are being impressed upon to carry on special drive against adulterations.
While the food safety machinery in a few state seem to be actively pursuing cases, there are many that seem lagging far behind. Bihar, for instance, seems to be more lenient on the issue. Out of the 1,763 samples that the state received in the year 2014-15, the tests conducted found only 7 adulterated and misbranded samples and penalties were levied in only five cases during the year, raising a total of Rs 38,000 in the form of penalties. In the same year, of the 5,018 samples received by UP, 1,223 samples were found to be adulterated and misbranded. The state levied penalty in 646 cases raising a total of Rs 2.5 crore in the form of penalties.
A senior official with the Department of Consumer Affairs has, however, stated in a deposition before a Parliamentary panel that the government is looking to increase the collaboration between the states and the regulator to curb instances of adulteration. “We propose to hold periodic meetings with FSSAI for mutual cooperation in tackling the menace of adulteration in all consumer items including food products. The laboratories under our department are being offered for utilisation by state government enforcement officials for quality checking and standard verifications.”
When asked if Department of Consumer Affairs is proposing stricter penalty for commission of offences like food adulteration, it said in a written note said, “The FSSAI, which is the designated agency for food standards, has already laid down strict penalties under its Act against food adulteration. As advised we will again write to them for strict implementation of legal provisions and also for conducting regular enforcement drives through their food commissioners and field staff.”
Lapses in regulation
While there are talks of stricter implementation of the regulation by states and union territories, the FSSAI order issued on Monday ordering recall of several more products further noted that the safety of such products has not been assessed as per the product approval procedures and thereby points at the lacunae in enforcement.
While ordering various noodles, pasta and macaroni manufactured by seven companies– Nestle India, ITC, Indo Nissin Food Ltd, GSK Consumer Healthcare, CG Foods India, Ruchi International and AA Nutrition, the order said, “The safety of all other such products in these categories has not been assessed as per the Product Approval procedures. As such, the same are unauthorised and illegal and cannot be intended for human consumption. Accordingly, you (commissioners of food safety of all states and UTs) are advised to draw samples of the food products mentioned and take action as per provisions of FSS Act and other applicable laws.”
This clearly shows that the central food regulator feels that the state’s enforcement authorities have not assessed the products and therefore for such unauthorised products, states/Union Territories have been told to ensure that such products are recalled, removed from the market and destroyed.