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Maggi controversy: We need a strong food regulatory system

Maggi controversy: We need a strong food regulatory system

The country does not have the necessary infrastructure for test facilities and even existing testing units do not often meet global standards. There are only 166 approved laboratories that are capable of testing samples collected from the near 24 lakh FBOs.

Know your product: Customers checking out food items at a supermarket (Photo: Shekhar Ghosh) Know your product: Customers checking out food items at a supermarket (Photo: Shekhar Ghosh)

What is more harmful? Worms in a bar of chocolate or high lead content in a popular brand of noodles ? Both sound unpalatable, and unacceptable. But our concern, as consumers, is whether brands in India are let off too easily compared to certain other parts of the globe due to the absence of clearly defined food regulations.

The recent Maggi Noodles controversy - after the Uttar Pradesh Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found monosodium glutamate (MSG) and lead beyond permissible limits - has yet again brought to the fore the fractured food regulatory norms in India and raised questions on how safe packaged food really is. All of a sudden, India's food regulator, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), also seems to have woken up from a stupor and has asked state food safety commissioners to verify the quality of various brands of noodles, pastas and macaroni (with tastemaker) - items that are categorised under non-standardised food products.

It is not just about the quality of products.It is also about the lackadaisical regulatory approach to food safety standards and their implementation. The fact that the FSSAI was formed as recently as in 2006, and the rules were enacted only in 2011 - Food Safety and Standards (Food Products Standards and Food Additives) Regulations, 2011 and Food Safety and Standards (Contaminants, Toxins and Residues), 2011 - speaks volumes.

In fact, India is still trying to evolve guidelines for various sections of the food industry. For example, laws for food recall procedures became operational only this year. Further, the food authority approved standards for food additives, standards for milk and milk products, microbial standards for fruits, vegetables, fish and alcoholic beverages on January 16, 2015. It will take some time before these are made into laws. "The biggest challenge in India is that there are no objective norms. And, even the existing norms are ambiguous and conflicting," says Mayank Shah, Deputy General Manager, Parle Products.


According to Rajeev Bakshi, CEO of Metro Cash & Carry Retail, and the former PepsiCo India head, the worst nightmare of his career was the pesticide crisis that had hit the beverage brand in 2001. "The pesticide issue was raised by an NGO based on certain data. The government stepped in later and attempted to bring in regulations," he says. However, R.S. Sodhi, Managing Director, Amul, disagrees: "The standards were always clear. Most companies interpret them as per their convenience and look for loopholes when the regulator questions them."

Sodhi says most food brands in India tamper with ingredients. "When a company launches a brand, it invariably uses good ingredients. In the long run, after sales pick up, they replace it with cheaper ingredients to get cost efficiency." Citing the example of butter, where according to FSSAI standards the product must have 82 per cent dairy fat, salt and water, he claims most brands substitute dairy fat with high levels of hydrogenic fat to produce low-fat butter. Sodhi is, however, not sure whether they adhere to the prescribed limits.

Similarly, the FSSAI has set a cap of 18 per cent sugar content in dairy whitener, but in order to reduce costs, manufacturers increase sugar levels and reduce milk powder levels.

The CEO of a leading packaging company endorses Sodhi's views. He says that a leading confectionary company used a particular preservative beyond permissible levels just to increase the shelf life of its product. "The company could get away with it only because there were no objective norms in place. It would have never dared to use that ingredient in a matured economy which has strict food laws in place."


The other big issue is the lack of a foolproof mechanism to enforce the laws. While the central regulator's job is to frame rules, enforcement, including grant of licences and sales, rests with the states. A few years ago, the central government had thought of strengthening food and drug administration in India along the lines of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But currently, only seven states - Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Haryana, Gujarat and Goa - have proper food and drug administrations. Orissa, Delhi, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have a food safety department, headed by a food safety commissioner. In the remaining states and union territories, the job of ensuring food safety is entrusted with health and family welfare departments.

Regulatory sources say manpower to monitor the over $25 billion food industry is the biggest issue in most states. As of February 2015, the FSSAI has granted 18,736 central licences, while states and UTs granted another 5,50,808 licences. There is also a registered base of 23,73,484 food business operators in the food sector. Sources say at least an equal number of unregistered FBOs operate in India. It is practically impossible to collect samples and monitor all the units on a regular basis.



R.S. Sodhi

MD, Amul

Statistics also reveal the pitiable enforcement scene in the country. In 2013/14, only 72,200 food samples were examined across the country. Of this, 13,571, or nearly 19 per cent, were either found to be misbranded or adulterated. The agency initiated action against 10,235 defaulters, but only 3,845 were convicted or penalised. Similarly, in 2012/13, 69,949 samples were examined, and 10,380 were found to be nonconforming. Only 5,840 of the culprits were prosecuted, while 3,175 were awarded penalties or convicted.

Data also reveal that several states are either not equipped or bother to monitor the industry regularly and test samples. Figures for 2013/14 show only one sample was taken and tested in Andaman and Nicobar, six in Dadra & Nagar Haveli, 40 in Daman and Diu, 704 in Goa, 213 in Arunachal Pradesh, 236 in Himachal, 17 in Meghalaya and 66 in Nagaland. Even in states where a large number of samples were analysed, the violators got away. For example, Andhra Pradesh found 716 adulterated or misbranded food samples, but nobody was convicted.

The country does not have the necessary infrastructure for test facilities and even existing testing units do not often meet global standards. There are only 166 approved laboratories that are capable of testing samples collected from the near 24 lakh FBOs. Of this, there are 90 NABL (National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories) units, apart from around 12 referral labs of repute. But their workload is huge.


"We need to find out what kind of testing apparatus these laboratories have. Most food labs in India do not even have proper apparatus. So, is the testing being done properly?" asks Debashish Mukherjee, Partner, A.T. Kearney.

The Indian food regulator may be crippled and may take a while to come out of its comatose state, but the Indian consumer has already evolved. He or she is not ready to be taken for granted any longer and the furore over Maggi stands testimony to it. "If you are a great brand you also have a great responsibility towards your consumers. You cannot exploit loopholes in the system to your advantage," says Raghu Vishwanath, Managing Director of brand valuation company Vertebrand.

Just as Hindustan Unilever proactively withdrew its Knorr range of noodles, as it awaits FSSAI approval, Vishwanath says Maggi could also have turned the situation in its favour by assuring consumers that it would reformulate its product.

(Follow the authors on Twitter: @pb_pbjayan; @AjitaShashidhar)

Published on: Jun 19, 2015, 8:04 PM IST
Posted by: Gaytri Madhura, Jun 19, 2015, 8:04 PM IST