Underfunded FSSAI means lax regulation of eateries
A recent report brought out by a trade body representing restaurant-owners says that only 4.67 lakh places for eating out of the total of nearly 25 lakh in the country—including restaurants, eateries, dhabas and kiosks—are licensed by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). The trade body was seeking to highlight the fact that a lot of the eating-out joints in the country are in the informal sector—implicit in the focus on formalisation is the fact that the informal players either must be brought into the regulatory net or face closure. But, why should a restaurant be the only option for safe and hygienic food? Indeed, of the `4.2 lakh crore food service industry, 65% is informal.
The failure of FSSAI and state food regulators to regulate informal joints endangers public health; the efforts, therefore, must be towards increased regulatory reach. The FSSAI has asked state food safety authorities to issue licences to those eligible within two months of filing and has ordered that petty food business can start operations if the registration is not granted, or if inspection isn’t carried out within a week or the decision not communicated within a month. But with the food safety regulator, last year, instructing app-based food-ordering services to effectively delist those without an FSSAI licence, regulatory uncertainty is likely to hurt industry.
FSSAI and the state regulators must get their act together. But that doesn’t look easy. A 2018 parliamentary committee report notes that FSSAI’s staff crunch is severe and the regulator is presently “operating with staff from (the) state apparatus.” The committee held that without permanent technical staff—given food safety is a “specialised job”—the food regulator can’t function at its optimum level. It recommended that FSSAI be restructured from the top—chairman and CEO included—so that the best professionals with domain knowledge people the regulator’s office. Hiring the best human resource for the regulator, however, will not be possible if the FSSAI remains as grossly underfunded as it is at present.
The regulator’s budget is a small fraction of that in other countries, where the regulators have much smaller catchments in terms of eateries and consumers. Against the US’s annual budget of $1.5 billion, Canada’s $650 million, the UK’s $106 million, FSSAI was allocated just $20 million against a budgeted outlay of $49 million in FY19. Contrast this with food-borne diseases imposing a $15-billion cost on India annually. Health ministry data shows that food poisoning and acute diarrhoeal disease routinely figure among the most common disease outbreaks, and canteens, other eateries and weddings—where food is cooked in bulk—are mostly to blame.
The government must now take a considered view on the parliamentary commitee’s recommendations on staffing and funding of FSSAI, if the food regulator is to function in the interest of public health. States must be part of this, though, the committee believes that, given their resource crunch, food safety can’t be entirely left to them. Notwithstanding the states’ capacity, food safety regulation needs to be made more robust with more laboratories and expert manpower at the local level.