Food safety testing could be separated as a purely technical function which can be rapidly performed outside bureaucracies
The growing debate over food safety in India has taken a turn for the better with the chairman of the scientific panel of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) calling for a complete overhaul in the testing apparatus, which should be led by scientific principles rather than administrative compulsions. This is in line with the intent of the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006, which concatenated various legislations relating to food, from the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954 to various lesser Orders governing classes of food, like fruit and meat, into a single law organised on the basis of science.
In fact, since food testing should be conducted routinely nationwide, there is an argument for hiving off testing from ministries to a wholly-independent, technocrat-led body. Currently, the working of the Food Safety and Standards Act is left to the health ministry, but perhaps testing could be separated as a purely technical function which can be rapidly performed outside bureaucracies. The current system is like the Bureau of Indian Standards, which was established by an Act of 1986 and functions under the ministry of consumer affairs, but that is a system of certification by application—manufacturers apply in order to gain market acceptance. A certification regime for food should be based on field inspection and would require enforcement. India has allowed food safety to languish and the impact on public health, while largely anecdotal, must be very large. Accelerating the first step—random sampling from the field—would help the food industry to catch up with international standards much quicker.
The FSSAI panel chief has opposed the dilution of Indian standards and proposed, rather, that we follow the Codex Alimentarius, the international bundle of standards piloted by a commission under the Food and Agriculture Organisation in 1961. The World Health Organisation weighed in two years later and the body now has 186 member nations, apart from the EU, and continuously evolves standards for all ingestible substances except pharmaceuticals. Its latest meeting in the first week of June focused on various food products of the Near East, including hummus, camel milk and gum arabic. The list of substances suggests that it is impossible to geographically compartmentalise the food trade any more. Hummus is produced on every continent. Most of the world’s gum arabic comes from the Sahel, which is not in the Near East. And the camel milk business is of some interest to India, where a research centre focused on monetising camel products has been in operation at Jorbeer in Bikaner since 1984.
The Codex Alimentarius is a set of recommendations but, de facto, it has become a standard of compliance since the World Trade Organisation depends on it for dispute resolution. Nations whose domestic safety regimes compare well with the Codex would be perceived to be on stronger ground in the event of differences of opinion. But how is the divergence between quality in the field and the Codex to be attenuated? The obvious way, as the FSSAI’s panel has indicated, is to raise a substantial cadre of personnel specifically trained to test food—not materials alone—who are themselves tested from time to time. This insurance policy would be recommended, since Indian products have been repeatedly blocked or banned by the EU and the US.
But what should this cadre be testing? Certainly not noodles, in the long term. The present drive against instant noodles and a few other products owes to a scare which had to be stemmed immediately. Two harmful substances have been discovered in noodles, monosodium glutamate and lead. The latter is a serious toxin and may have contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire, whose upper-class kitchens used water from lead pipes and cooked in lead pans. Now, the long-term challenge is to go up the production chain from noodles and discover which processes or ingredients delivered the contaminants, which are probably instrumental in producing other foods, too.
There is another challenge to food safety which is yet to be addressed. It was thrown up years ago but has not emerged in the present controversy, which is limited to branded, packaged foods. But huge sections of the food processing and retailing industries are in the unorganised sector, where testing does not penetrate very readily. The safety of street food had become a serious issue in Delhi, where the courts had ruled that food sold in the streets must be cooked elsewhere. As the corner kebab-wallah would tell you, this policy is unworkable and was dropped. Courts should not be required to opine on such matters. Rather, a large cadre of scientifically-literate food inspectors must be created. Or would that create yet another inspector raj? Yet again, will outcomes owe to administrative rather than scientific concerns?