UK/Singapore results show FSSAI in a very bad light
Even when the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) was making it appear Nestle’s Maggi noodles were India’s biggest food hazard, it looked more than a bit odd since there were conflicting reports from regulators in various states. The food regulators’ tests in Goa, Maharashtra and Kerala, for instance, found no problems with the noodles while Delhi, Uttarkhand and Gujarat found a problem in terms of the lead and MSG levels. All of this, however, pales now that food regulators in both Singapore and the UK have found Maggi products fine. Not surprising then, that food processing minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal has said that FSSAI was creating ‘an environment of fear’. After banning 9 variants of Maggi, FSSAI blacklisted over 500 products including a breakfast cereal from Kellogg’s and 33 items from Starbucks. While every country is free to come up with its own standards depending upon its average food basket, there is an urgent need to relook both the testing protocols as well as the actual capability of the FSSAI to deliver. In the Maggi case, for instance, there was the issue of whether the tastemaker had to be tested separately or whether the noodles should be prepared with the tastemaker and then tested since that is how it is consumed—the UK and Singapore regulators have used the latter method.
There is also the issue of whether FSSAI even has the capability of doing the job assigned to it. As Delhi-based lawyer Kunal Kishore pointed out in his column in FE (goo.gl/2YDBZv), many of the standards prescribed by FSSAI fall in a legal grey zone—indeed, there is even a Supreme Court case pending on FSSAI’s powers. With a budget of a mere R56 crore in FY14, FSSAI’s annual report itself says ‘enforcement of the FSS Act is difficult in the absence of a network of accredited food testing laboratories’. There are a total of 82 accredited laboratories across the country—of which, a mere 5 test the food in all of eastern India. Perhaps why, in a country the size of India, FSSAI managed to examine just 64,593 samples in FY12, found 8,247 to be ‘non-conforming’, launched 6,845 prosecutions and got just 764 convictions. All of which suggests that food safety standards in India are very strict, or that they are observed more in the breach—given the reality of how street food is prepared, the latter seems the more likely case. Now that the Maggi controversy and its aftermath have brought the issue to the fore, the government needs to re-examine the FSSAI structure and find ways to strengthen it and provide it with the necessary funds. Indeed, it is not just FSSAI, most regulatory/inspecting agencies in India are hugely understaffed and underfunded compared to their global peers.