Municipal food safety targets MNCs

Swiss firm Nestle’s Maggi noodles may be back on retailers’ racks across the country, following national testing labs and Bombay high court clearances, but it now appears to be the turn of other MNCs to face Maggi-manipulated muddle with the Uttar Pradesh government’s food safety department reportedly coming down heavily on similar products by much bigger MNCs such as Unilever and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). 

UP’s Barabanki district food safety officer Sanjay Singh found noodle samples of Knorr Soupy, Horlicks Foodles and Ching’s Hot Garlic variety carrying “ash content” well beyond the prescribed limits after they were tested positive in the government’s food analysis lab in Lucknow. The companies may face the same fate as Nestle in the coming months if similar inspections and raids are also conducted in other parts of the country. Adversely, if these raids and tests end up in a fiasco, they will bring bad name to the food safety regulator and impact the Modi government’s “Make in India” drive.

These MNC noodle brands are not market leaders. Almost 75 percent of the country’s noodle market is controlled by small local bulk manufacturer-suppliers under little-known brands. They are available everywhere – from roadside stalls to large restaurants. Few are worried about their quality in the government or among the end consumers. The regulator, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), needs to be more watchful and cautious about raids and tests, especially at a time when the organised sector food processing industry is planning big investment, creating new market for their products and riding high on large market potential. Large domestic players such as Britannia and Mother Dairy have already announced big investments in new projects.

The industry appreciates the government and the regulator’s concern about food safety even though the society, in general, cares little about the quality of foods and beverages it consumes. Spurious and sub-standard foods are taking away thousands of lives in the country in the presence of careless and dishonest food and sanitary inspectors. It is possible that some MNCs in food and beverage business too “think local and act local” to compromise on their product quality to prosper in the highly competitive business dominated by small producers. But, the issue of food safety appears to be more complicated than one would think. 

The food business is too vast and spread out, operating under multiple authorities under state and central governments. And, health and hygiene are yet to become a primary concern of average Indian consumers. What can really the government and FSSAI do to ensure a healthy growth of the roughly Rs.17,00,000 crore (US$260 billion) food and beverage industry, the country’s largest, and make sure it supplies quality products to consumers? Educating citizens of food safety, everywhere and at all levels, would appear to be a primary task of the society. 

The function of regulatory authorities will be easier and appreciated if the society largely recognises the concept of food safety. Unfortunately, food safety in India is being perceived more as an elitist concern. Few care for what the common man and underprivileged consume and how poor quality and adulterated food and beverages frequently cause disease, disability, and death among them.

The diversified nature of the sector, dominated by unorganised and small-scale operators, and its huge reach provides the biggest challenge to any food safety and standard initiative at the state and national levels. It has been one of India’s fastest growing industries. The sector comes under multiple municipal, state and Central administrations and laws. The complexities of incorporation and operational rules, inspection and control make the job of the regulator, at the apex level, quite demanding. The regulator comes under the Union Health Ministry although it addresses concerns of the Ministries of Consumer Affairs, Food Processing, Industry and Commerce among others. The sector is also one of India’s major export revenue earners.

Though few will disagree that the food sector needs to be properly regulated, a general consensus needs to be evolved at all levels as to how this could be achieved in the interest of both consumers and industry. FSSAI may be a good idea. But, the comparatively young regulator at the apex level seems to be saddled with an ocean of problems generated by multiple regulatory and inspection regimes at the state and municipal levels, all trying to come to the fore to attract attention by taking actions against some select brands.

Is FSSAI adequately armed to address consumers’ concerns after the apex court first quashed FSSAI’s 2013 advisory that all new products must be approved by the authority before they are launched? The parties were Vital Nutraceuticals and IDMA. In July 2014, a high court ruled that FSSAI did not have the power to issue guidelines to existing manufacturers, requiring them to take approval for existing products in the market. 

The court orders, supposedly based on the existing laws, seek to regulate the regulatory authority’s function. They give rise to a major confusion on such vital issue as to the need for food companies to take prior permission before launching new products in the market. The court may be right. The regulator’s role needs to be regulated.

Does the country need to amend the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, and change some of the rules in 2011 based on the act? There is opposition in the government to amend the act immediately. FSSAI is aware of that. The regulator has been periodically updating the horizontal guidelines after placing them in the public domain for comments since last year. Going forward, FSSAI would probably do well by being a body in charge of all product approvals. The question is: what should be the ideal regulatory role of FSSAI in this context? 

The regulator’s attempt to reintroduce the advisory regime has once again upset food companies. At least one of them, Vital, has moved the court again. Considering the importance of food safety and standards (which are recognised by all advanced countries), the government should ultimately aim at such practices as prevalent in more rigid environments in Europe, the US and Japan. After all, food concerns all.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)
Next Story
Share it