The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), country's apex food standards watchdog, has the mandate to ensure that every food item, processed or fresh, remains safe. There are close to 35 lakh food businesses registered with the entity. In an exclusive interview with Business Today's Joe C. Mathew, FSSAI CEO Pawan Kumar Agarwal talks about the broad mandate the agency has, and how his 350-member team is trying to transform the nation's food safety and nutrition landscape. Excerpts:
Globally, food product recalls are a common practice. Why is it so rare under FSSAI's watch?
The famous one that we had was Nestle's Maggi (instant noodles). The learning - from that episode - was that we have to be very cautious while dealing with businesses in terms of product recalls as it can hurt their reputation. Recall does not always mean that the product is bad, and even if you think it is bad, it is quite possible that one particular batch of that product is bad, and hence the recall of that batch. In other countries, companies themselves do it, but in India, it is still considered as taboo (by the consumer). So, we need to educate consumers that recall does not mean all products of the company are bad. Further, there is a lack of regulatory support for product recall in India. We will now come out with regulations for recalls. It is in the final stages. On product recalls, we will be somewhat cautious.
Did the Maggi episode affect FSSAI's credibility?
No, it helped us introspect on the systems and processes we have in place. It helped us look at our food testing systems more closely and improve upon them. It also sent a very strong message to the world at large that India's food safety system has come of age and is now even acting against big companies if required. So it did not do any damage to the reputation of FSSAI, but yes, this unfortunate episode was avoidable.
Do you see any change in the approach of companies?
We have been working with food companies very closely for the last one and a half years. They realise that at the end of the day, they have to ensure safety of the food they bring to the market. There is absolutely no way that we will be able to do it with a handful food safety officers who are inspecting their premises. So, it is primarily the responsibility of businesses.
There were reports that FSSAI had found fault with the quality of some Patanjali products?
Individual products do not require FSSAI approval. The company may have a recipe for which there is no standard, and such product is called a proprietary. In such cases, the ingredients that they are using have to be safe. The additives have to be as per the standards laid down. They have to abide by horizontal standards, which are essentially standards on microbiology, heavy metals, pesticide content, etc. Once these standards and regulations are there, all food companies, including Patanjali, are free to manufacture their own products. Now as and when there are concerns about the quality of such products, the state enforcement machinery will take samples and get them tested. When testing happens throughout the country, there are small and large food businesses, where problem is found. It is not an isolated case. This happens all the time.
What is the role of states?
The standards are set by FSSAI. It is maintained by food businesses, and compliance is to be checked by state commissioners and their staff. This is a legacy mechanism. So, there are a lot of challenges, too. We need to build the capacities. In many states there are not an adequate number of food safety officers and wherever they exist, we have to train them, build capacities for inspections, as inspection protocols are not very robust. So work is going on to train them. Testing laboratories have also been a weak area for FSSAI. We have now taken specific steps in terms of developing a state food lab system. We are supporting 45 state food labs with high-end equipment and training of manpower there. In addition, we have about 25 private labs which are currently notified by FSSAI for such tests.
How do you plan to overcome the human resource problem?
We are trying to address the shortage of manpower by allowing third-party audit and third-party inspections in food premises like in other sectors. Once that happens, your hands for inspections multiply. There are a lot of credible players, both national and international. These are like NACB, that does accreditation. We are in the process of notifying such audit agencies.
Do we need any standards for genetically modified (GM) food?
It is the ministry of environment that should decide whether to allow GM food or cultivation of GM crops in India. Once they okay it, we will treat that food as any other food, and they will have to pass the same safety laws.
But imported processed foods made of GM grains are available in India. What about those products?
We are aware of this. The authority is considering labelling norms for such products if GM proteins are above a certain threshold. The matter is being looked at by our scientific panel. It will go through a process of approval. But in principle, the view is that GM food should be labelled. What needs to be finalised is the labelling format.
Do we have any specific safeguards against imported products in general?
Since we deal with food safety, it doesn't matter whether it is imported or of Indian origin. Our mandate is to develop science-based standards for different types of products.
Is there a food safety angle to the crackdown on slaughter houses?
The type of meat is not within the purview of food authority. What concerns us is that meat should be safe. And on the safety of meat, there are huge concerns because the hygiene and sanitation levels in our abattoirs are quite dismal. It needs to be improved. We have, what we call Schedule 4, the hygiene requirement for slaughter houses, but somehow those hygiene requirements were for big slaughter houses. When we reviewed it recently we found that much of the slaughter happens in smaller slaughter houses in the unorganised sector in India. Some requirements were very onerous, so smaller slaughter houses were not able to meet those requirements.
Our standards were too high, and most slaughter houses could not maintain those. Now we are looking at field realities and creating standards which suit smaller slaughter houses. Once the guidelines on smaller slaughter houses are released, they will be enforced.
Have you defined junk food?
The expert committee has given its recommendations. One of the significant recommendations is about labelling. Regulations on food labelling are being drafted; they have also been approved by the food authority. After approval of the ministry, it will go for draft publication. I think that will take care of lot of concerns about junk food. The other recommendations do not fall under the purview of the authority. It will be front and back labelling. The three major concerns are about salt/sodium, overall sugar and added sugar and fats, particularly saturated fats. In these three areas, what will be the recommendatory level per serving will be mentioned on the label. Over a period of time, we hope that there will be greater awareness among citizens to choose their own food.