India should open up vegetable and fruit retailing to foreign investors as this will help farmers get a better price while consumers will get cheaper rates, Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal said. She also said there was a fear psychosis and confusion in the industry after the controversy over Maggi noodles, the court order and the recent detection of impurities in packaged pasta in Uttar Pradesh. In an interview with ET’s Madhvi Sally and Himangshu Watts, Badal said that if companies are in the wrong, they should be punished, but if inspectors are blackmailing companies and damaging them, strong action should be taken against them. Excerpts:
What is the mood in the food processing industry after the Nestle issue?
Figures clearly show that they have received a huge setback which we can’t deny. The setback has been there in many ways besides what the Maggi issue did, even the courts declaring that FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) orders need not be followed anymore. So the industry is in a limbo. There is no clarity. So, of course, the industry is suffering and as per law,product approval is not required but as approval has been the norm for so many years, industry is not sure that if they go for it tomorrow what happens. So it much more important for FSSAI to create those protocols, transparent environment to what is needed and what is not.
You have an inside view of the government. Are things happening in that direction?
What I have been telling FSSAI is that we need to harmonise with international standard. So eventually we are looking at Make In India, it had to be in par with what is happening globally. So first step was that this product by product approval needs to be stopped, self-regulation needs to come in, transparent systems needs to be in place, so that a person producing knows what ingredient he can put in his product and the way it will be tested. FSSAI could go about monitoring the situation, rather than approving thousands of products which take a number of years to be on shelves. From 300 safety standards for food items put by FSSAI, they have now finalised 12,000 standards for food additives and ingredients, which are in harmony with Codex standard. Once this system is done, it eases the situation. It is a step in the right direction.
Another ministry says the class action consumer suit against Nestle will continue.
I can’t comment on what another ministry is doing. At the end of the day everyone is trying to safeguard the people of the country and ensure what they are eating is safe and healthy. I don’t know why they took this step. They must have their reason and I can’t comment on it.
Once the court’s order came, one thought the issue has been resolved.
As the food processing minister I have to answer a lot of questions when I travel abroad and to ask them to invest in India. Unfortunately, with Maggi being approved in so many countries and Nestle being such a worldwide company, throughout the world everyone heard about this Maggi episode. So it’s important for us to get our product approval system act together in place.
Again there are reports that some inspector in Uttar Pradesh has found lead in Maggi pasta.
When I said that the industry is under fear psychosis, it is for this reason also. Any inspector getting up anywhere and with the level of corruption at all levels, it’s worrisome. This was a sitting duck for anyone to walk into and say that I have found this and I will take it up and ban it (product). It happened in my state also. Luckily those people were able to get through to .me as I could be approached. When we checked the issue, we found that someone (food inspector) was up to some mischief. That’s why it is important if what this guy finds that pasta is not ok, there should be a lab to do that test in a specified time, in the correct form and if the person has taken a wrong call, he should be held responsible for misleading and spoiling the name of the brand. It takes a lot of time to build up the brand and the name of the product. Someone come and chuck muck at you which is proved to be incorrect, you have lost your business. End of the day whether it was Maggi or anyone else, they did lose business, even when court declared all was ok. There has to be absolutely transparent system in place.
Is that is your view on foreign direct investment. Will it help your sector?
My personal view is that FDI in the agriculture and food processing will be a huge boost.
If a company like Walmart wants to buy directly from farmers and cut middlemen, what will you say?
It will be perfect and it should be allowed. FDI is a call taken collectively for retail. FDI in foods, fruits, agriculture and perishable processing will be a great idea. We are democratic alliance of various parties and everyone has to be brought into it to accept this. The decision is taken by the cabinet. I will definitely welcome it as it will give a boost to the sector, help the farmers, and help the industry if FDI is allowed in the perishable business of the food processing industry.