Apex food regulator Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is planning to ring-fence itself from conflict of interest related controversies by making its engagements with the private sector follow a set of official guidelines.
The draft guidelines cover all areas of public-private collaboration including selection of private industry representatives to scientific panels and standards review groups, collaboration with private food laboratories for quality testing, training and capacity building, third party accreditation and outreach and awareness creation.
The authority has invited public comments on the draft until October 25.
"FSSAI works with a wide range of stakeholders including the private sector, both in food and non-food sector and industry associations with the objective of building a culture of self-compliance and preventing food hazards across the food supply chain. While the participation of private entities is encouraged, there is a need for full accountability and complete transparency and care to address any potential conflict of interest in various areas of work," the draft guideline states.
One of the areas where the guidelines give specific instructions is in the appointment of Food Authority and Central Advisory Council as prescribed by the Food Safety and Standards Act. It states that the representatives of food businesses or associations who will be inducted into these bodies will have to declare conflict of interest, if any, before each meeting of Food Authority and CAC and will also have to recuse themselves from that particular meeting. Similar declaration of commitment and annual declaration of interests will be must for members who are part of the scientific committees and panels. It also prefers consultations with industry associations over individual companies during stakeholder discussions. The guidelines suggest the inclusion of a consumer protection organisation in technical panels meant to develop code of practices and guidance documents.
In the case of recognising private food testing laboratories as national reference laboratories, the guidelines talk about a proper framework agreement designed to prevent any risk of conflict of interest. The guidelines also specify that private organisations empanelled for training laboratory personnel or regulatory staff should avoid promotion of proprietary technology or product and should not have any interest in food business.
Outreach and awareness campaign, the most visible areas of private public participation spearheaded by FSSAI, will also be undertaken under new guidelines soon. The key is to ensure that FSSAI's private co-partner does not promote a particular business, brand or interest. The draft guidelines also mention that if the collaboration is for purposes other than what has been pointed out in the guidelines, specific clauses on neutrality and non-profit will have to be included before finalising the partnership.
"There is no format given to seek inputs for conflict of interest declaration. This is a big risk because the declaration can be sketchy and may just be an eyewash. FSSAI may study OCED and WHO formats and make the Indian version more stringent," Vijay Sardana, a food expert comments.
The public interest groups that have been increasingly complaining about FSSAI's close linkages with the private sector have welcomed the guidelines. They have asked for more clarity on the regulator's relationship with foreign-funded NGOs as some of them are alleged to have been involved in campaigns that can harm the interests of domestic and small-scale food businesses.