The most important step is the rollout of a nationwide plan to train street food vendors.
I have been a long-time critic of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the country’s premier food regulator, because of its obsession with food imports and the randomness of its actions, which not only provided ammunition to the government’s critics, but also made India seem like some floundering medieval state in the eyes of the world.
I also used to belabour the point that the FSSAI should take the industry along and establish a national food safety partnership in the interests of the consumers, rather than behave like yet another danda-wielding instrument of bureaucratic interference and corruption.
It’s been a year-and-half since the FSSAI got a new CEO, Pawan Kumar Agarwal, a West Bengal-cadre IAS officer who was promoted and moved from the ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship at a time when the organisation had been stung by the Maggi ban fiasco.
The low-profile officer has demonstrated that 18 months can be a long time to transform an organisation — and that change can come about faster if a statutory authority works along with the principal industry stakeholders.
The FSSAI initiative that first caught my attention was the “food smart consumer portal” (foodsmart.fssai.gov.in) that the FSSAI has got up and running (it is a work in progress, having gone live only on May 16, but it promises to get better). What I like about it is that it does not hedge when it shares information on matters that could rile industry interests.
Street food vendors are among the key upholders of the ageless character of our classical cities.
For instance, it categorically states that what is palmed off as “brown bread” may be “brown” only because of the addition of caramel colouring.
To qualify as “brown” or “whole wheat bread”, it must have 50 per cent whole-wheat flour. It leaves us with no doubt about why “sugar-free food” is more harmful than sugar.
“(They) may be loaded,” says the website, “with fats, refined cereals (white flour, starch) and even hidden sugars (maltitol, fructose, corn syrup, molasses), and have a high amount of calories.”
About oils, it busts a load of myths: no oil is free from saturated fats; there’s nothing called a light oil, because irrespective of its source, a gram of any oil translates into nine calories; and no oil can be said “heart friendly” or “safe” for people with diabetes, because each oil is “100 per cent fat” and is safe only if consumed in physician-recommended quantities.
And then there’s the caveat that we tend to forget in our obsession with “fat-free” or “low-fat” foods.
“Many low fat or non-fat foods may still have a lot of calories,” says our “food smart” adviser. “Often these foods have extra sugar, refined flour or starch thickeners to make them taste better. These ingredients add calories from carbohydrates that may lead to weight gain. Many of them may also have ingredients such as fat replacers.”
If this site is pumped up with better design and audiovisual content, and is eventually made available in Indian languages, I believe it can put out of business an entire industry that survives on false assurances.
Three related initiatives, all aimed at creating a safe food culture (which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said is critical to his vision of a “Swasth Bharat”), are also commendable.
The first is a national campaign to fortify edible oil, milk, salt, wheat flour and rice with essential vitamins to address endemic micronutrient deficiency in the country.
The second is a programme for the online certification of three million designated people employed in the food business — from hotels and restaurants to the railways, places of worship, offices and schools — to become “food safety supervisors” in their outlets. They will get their training and certificates delivered online via the portal fostac-@oldfssai.-gov.in.
It is definitely a work in progress, for the links given are all dead — a defect I hope will be rectified sooner than later.
In a related move, all food business operators, from restaurants to fruit and vegetable vendors, will soon have to put up food safety display boards to guarantee that they follow certain guidelines meant to safeguard our health.
The third, and perhaps most important, step is the rollout of a nationwide plan to train street food vendors, who, I believe, are among the key upholders of the ageless character of our classical cities.
By attempting to free street food vendors (in alliance with their national association, NASVI) from the taint of being antagonistic to good health, a charge that is being upheld by municipal bodies and courts, the FSSAI is taking an important step forward to safeguard the livelihood of an important yet unseen mass of food business operators.
Well begun, they say, is half done, but it will remain so, unless the FSSAI keeps its momentum up.