The threat of agroterrorism

License does not ensure food is safe for consumption

An end-to-end solution for food, water and air quality testing / auditing in the country, Equinox Labs is a Food Safety And Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) notified laboratory. It also has accreditation from the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) and is among the first few private Food Safety Training And Certification (FoSTaC) partners in the country. Ashwin Bhadri, chief executive officer, Equinox Labs, in conversation with Ashish K Tiwari, speaks about the delisting of food business outlets from various online food delivery platforms, the purpose it serves in the area of promoting food safety and hygiene. Edited excerpts…
What’s your take on the recent uproar on food safety and hygiene issues with large and small food service businesses in the country?
The situation is not as bad as it looks like. There have been a few instances of videos going viral on social media platforms but those are just a handful of fly-by-night food service businesses bringing a bad name to the industry. It’s like if there have been few instances of Ola or Uber cab drivers misbehaving or being unprofessional doesn’t mean people should stop using their services. It can’t be a one represents all scenario. There is no denying that there have been instances of food safety and hygiene issues and whether online platforms are involved or not, it is a concern and a critical aspect for every (food industry) player irrespective of the size.
What stops food business operators from following safety and hygiene practices?
There appears to be a perception that following food safety norms is expensive, it is not. There is a lack of awareness and knowledge gap among food business owners. I have been in the food safety domain for 13 years now and have trained over 45,000 people. From what I have witnessed, it’s not that a food business owner / handler deliberately wants to cause food poisoning. The issue is that no one has taught the food handler the dos and don’ts of doing it right.
The FSSAI has a training programme for creating awareness on that front.
FoSTaC is a great initiative by FSSAI where they have now made it mandatory that at least one person in 25 needs to get trained and s/he can then train the remaining. That’s the onus being passed on to the food safety supervisor. That’s a programme if it actually gets to the root wherein 80% to 90% of the people in the food service business are trained, it will have a much bigger impact on food safety and hygiene practices across the industry.
The main challenge however, is with food businesses in the lower strata where one person managing the entire operations and makes Rs 200 to 300 a day, the person doesn’t have enough time on hand to ensure food safety and hygiene standards because s/he is short on staff. You can’t blame such players because s/he is struggling for her/ his livelihood and cannot afford additional resources to support the business. But as you go up the food chain wherein people are a more responsible and have the resources they need to take it very seriously and should invest in educating their employees on the dos and don’ts of food safety and hygiene standards. That’s where the FoSTaC programme plays a very crucial role.
Does having a licence or a certification ensure dispensing of safe food?
Just because someone has a license it doesn’t mean the food being dispensed is safe for consumption and vice-versa. Many people confuse safety for license/ documentary compliance. Delay in procuring a license is an issue faced largely by the newer restaurants. The business owner has invested significantly in setting up a modern kitchen and waiting for the authorities to audit and issue a license. The regulatory delays sometimes compels the business owner to start operations as license and related certifications are already work-in-progress. So, just because they don’t have a license it doesn’t mean s/he is dispensing unsafe/ unhygienic food.
The FSSAI has asked food delivery platforms to delist non-registered food business operators.
Delisting the FBOs is a good move but it will have some repercussions on the online food delivery platforms. That’s because almost 50% of the paying food service operators will go out of system and that’s certainly going to impact revenues. While due procedure is being followed for listing new FBOs, it will take time to get all the details from the existing ones who are now being delisted for lack of necessary documents/ certifications. Food delivery platforms are proactively working on finding a solution to the current challenge in the market. Initiatives include setting up a helpline, asking food service businesses to submit licences, assisting those who do not have one and so on. A lot of good work is happening in this space but it will take some time to streamline it all. While everyone is working on meeting the deadline set by FSSAI it may be a challenge to achieve it in such a short span.
What are the possibilities of FSSAI license and registration becoming mandatory irrespective if whether one is selling from food delivery platforms or not?
Food businesses license is mandatory for any outfit to function but that’s not the case with the FSSAI certification, which is generally issued by third-party auditing agencies on behalf or in lieu of FSSAI. It’s not mandatory at present but is very likely to become mandatory in the coming years. It cannot be done overnight because there isn’t enough bandwidth to implement the same. Even FoSTaC was started as a voluntary programme two years ago and now it has been made mandatory.
Efforts are also being made to promote self vigilance through food safety display boards that tell the customer 10 things to expect (from the food handler at the outlet) in terms of food safety and hygiene. If there is a discrepancy the consumer can bring that to the notice of the food safety officer by calling or sending a visual on the contact details provided on the display board. This was voluntary earlier but is gradually being made mandatory across food catering businesses. The idea behind making it mandatory to have a FSSAI license/ registration number for a food business outlet is basically for quick and efficient traceability. For instance, if there is any issue with food being delivered from an FBO registered with one of the online food delivery platforms, it will become easy to track/ trace that FBOs through the FSSAI number. So there will be a central helpline as well as a local branch number to call and complaint. If there is no satisfactory resolution at the local level then the consumer can esclate it to FSSAI on the central number.
Won’t it make doing business more challenging for food businesses?
The compliance requirements may appear to be blocks / hurdles initially but what’s been done through all this is that the entire food business value chain is being brought into the FSSAI system. It definitely increases problems for the food business owners one way or the other. The FBOs will have no option but to quote their FSSAI registration number to be able to do business on any of the e-commerce / food delivery platforms. Not only that, it may also happen at a later stage that major suppliers will not be able sell to FBOs that do not have a FSSAI registration number. So whether one likes it or not, every FBO owner will be forced to come under the FSSAI system. Very much like what’s being done through the goods and services tax (GST) number. While GST was rolled out much quicker, FSSAI will take it slow.

Food safety needs a collaborative approach

With better understanding of nutritional qualities of food and their health implications, consumers increasingly are rejecting inferior quality and unsafe foods. Photo: Mint

With better understanding of nutritional qualities of food and their health implications, consumers increasingly are rejecting inferior quality and unsafe foods. Photo: Mint

Our country, though agriculturally abundant, is still struggling to provide its large population with the right nutrition. In a few decades, as we continue to grow in numbers and economically, the situation can turn more challenging — if not alarming — if we don’t come up with innovative food safety and security solutions now.

A growing economy, higher incomes, rapid urbanization and rising consumer awareness are influencing the Indian palate like never before. While the average Indian consumer is increasingly demanding more variety in food choices and healthier alternatives, she is also equally concerned about where the food is coming from, its quality and safety.

Harmonize food standards globally

With increasing globalization of food, it is imperative to aid free movement from areas of surplus to areas of deficit. However, when it comes to food, there are several safety standards that each country follows and, in an ideal case, these should be a standardized set of science-based parameters that are common across geographies. In reality, however, we are far from such a unified state of affairs. Conflicting food standards and testing procedures make it extremely cumbersome to trade in commodities and food across countries.

The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) supports the global food safety standards based on the Codex Alimentarius Commission, initiated by the World Health Organization (WHO) along with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In India, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has harmonized standards for many food additives, in line with the Codex standards. Also, work is underway to implement these in other food categories. While we are adopting global standards where relevant, it is important to keep in mind the local, cultural and geographical origin of the food items while adopting or setting the standards. The objective of nutritious and safe food is common to all countries across the globe and, hence, as far as possible, we should have common parameters to ensure this. Harmonizing Indian food standards with global standards is critical to achieve this.

Monitor more efficiently

FSSAI, the apex food regulatory body, establishes food safety standards at a national level and implementation, including administration, licensing, and compliance, is a state subject. After some initial teething problems, FSSAI has come into its own and is actively working towards ensuring food safety for all through various initiatives, including citizen guidance and capacity building under the Safe and Nutritious Food (SNF) programme. With the regulator and states working in tandem, we will be able to deliver food safety seamlessly across internal borders.

It is imperative to add more certified food labs with access to better equipment/ technology and better testing capabilities to check compliance. Implementing authorities on the ground need to be regularly trained to enhance their knowledge and experience required to administer these laws. To speed up capability building at the implementation level, support can also be sought from global food safety organizations, a step that has been taken by some other emerging economies.

Responsible approach to food labelling

With better understanding of nutritional qualities of food and their health implications, consumers increasingly are rejecting inferior quality and unsafe foods. The discerning Indian consumer does not just want to know if his food is safe, but also details about the ingredients, certifications, energy content, nutritional benefits, and food additives. In light of this, it is important to educate consumers about the food they are consuming and its nutritional properties, so that they can make informed choices. As we move towards a more evolved food pattern and while it is ideal to reduce consumption of high fats, sugar and salt to promote healthy eating habits, we must not forget that India faces the unique double burden of malnutrition. On one hand, there is a growing urban population that is facing over nutrition challenges; at the other end of the spectrum, we still have a majority of the population that continues its daily battle with under nutrition.

Overall, what everyone needs is good quality food that provides better nutrition. Standards of nutrition also need to be viewed in the context of average Indian diets, which are still largely prepared at home and deficient in some essential micro nutrients. Hence, care needs to be exercised to ensure consumer education and labelling requirements done with the objective of consumer awareness do not cause consumer scare.

The author is chairman, Cargill India

FSSAI-Nestle partnership: A telltale business affair?

The FSSAI’s corporate functioning style, partnering with private multinationals has come under the scanner raising serious questions on food safety regulations in India. 

The legal tussle between FSSAI and the leading multinational player in the FMCG sector, Nestle, in 2015 is not one that can be forgotten easily. It was a case that brought the issue of public food safety and all its malaises to the limelight, exposing the lack of political will and unclear food regulatory policy, setting the stage for rampant bureaucratic bungling and scandals in the sector.

The country’s apex food regulatory authority FSSAI issued an immediate ban on the sale and manufacture of the most loved and widely cooked instant noodles after Maggi samples representing 165 million Maggi packets in India were found to contain lead (Pb) and Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), above permissible limits making it unsafe for human consumption.

So serious were the accusations against the Swiss company for indulging in unfair trade practices, false labeling and misleading advertisement that it cost them a class action suit by the Indian government seeking damages of about ₹640 crores. They were also dragged to the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) using a provision for the first time in the nearly three decade old Consumer Protection Act. So, after all the hullabaloo, where currently the matter of such grave nature still remains pending in the Supreme Court, what caused the very same regulator that assumed the role of the messiah of public health and safety to turn around and engage in a partnership with the prosecuted company?

In a bid to mend fences and seek ways to engage with food multinationals to ensure marketed food safety, the new FSSAI CEO Pawan Kumar Agarwal inaugurated the 250 crore Nestle Food Safety Institute in Manesar to provide guidance and training on food safety, more than two years after the Maggi noodles controversy.

Many claimed it to be a brazen conflict of interest between the said private and public entity. Regulators are not known to be friendly with corporate entities as its primary job is to keep companies under its ambit in check. Many feared a trespass of public accountability in the hands of bureaucratic corruption. Well, it is not the first time FSSAI’s integrity is being questioned. In October 2015, the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), the All India Food Processors Association and the Indian Drugs Manufacturers Association formed a joint action committee to press for enquiry by the CBI into functioning of FSSAI with one going as far as to call the regulator a “den of corruption”.

“It is wrong that the food safety authority should align with any multinational companies and  promote the sale of packed food in India. This works in contrary to the interest of traditional and domestic practices in our country and reflects the bias that the government has towards the MNCs as well. The environment in FSSAI is like that of a private limited company. It has become autocratic; there is no actual representation of consumer organisations or business organisations on its committees.” Praveen Khandelwal, General Secretary, CAIT.

However, previously, FSSAI’s Mr Agarwal has defended his stance on conflict of interest by claiming that FSSAI lacks the staff strength and technology standards of USFDA making it an independent initiative to ensure consumer food safety. This having been said, it is important to observe that if FSSAI is in such dire need of adequate infrastructure to prepare themselves, why did they not ask for state funds?

On contacting Navdanya, an NGO which promotes biodiversity conservation, organic farming, the rights of farmers, and the process of seed saving, the spokesperson said, “The FSSAI is solely focussed on implementing pseudo-scientific solutions to solve the nutritional problems
in our country that favour the interests of the corporates. For the FSSAI to become able regulators
they need to understand the community, the people they work for, without community inclusion
the process becomes dictatorial and unscientific. The solutions have
to keep the public in mind, and not the interests of the corporates.” 

If making the FSSAI adequate is what Mr. Agarwal aimed at, then what is needed is a complete overhaul of the testing and analytical capabilities of FSSAI where there is an effective appropriation of resources to regulatory units, institutional strengthening, capacity building and tighter strategic and operational coordination among agencies. Integrating this goal with the intervention of a private entity whose main business is manufacture of food is a dubious move indeed.

This questionably close partnership of Nestle and FSSAI does not end here. Recently, Swadeshi Jagran March, an RSS affiliate on economic issues questioned the credibility of FSSAI’s tie-ups with Nestle Nutrition and four other MNCs allowing imported infant speciality food for its Diet 4 Life scheme that aims to address the challenges faced by infants suffering from Inborn Errors of Metabolism (IEM).

When Dr. Arun Gupta a senior paediatrician and senior coordinator for Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India was contacted, he took a firm stand saying that his organization, BPNI condemns the efforts the FSSAI to keep foods for special medical purposes (FSMPs) out of the IMS Act.

“We believe the exemption to FSMPs is a flawed policy as we consider all baby foods should be under the purview of IMS Act. The exemption for FSMPs came out of the FSSAI steering committee at a time when a front organization of the baby food industry (which also manufactures FSMPs) IYNCI was part of this committee. Infant Young Child Nutrition Council of India (IYNCI) was formed by the four big baby food multinationals Nestle, Danone, Abbott and Mead-Johnson. FSSAI says its efforts are to make sure that parents of children with IEM can easily get these special foods in India. However, the focus of the efforts seemed to be more on keeping them out of
out of purview of IMS Act than on resolving their availability issues”

After much media advocacy and civil society pressure, as an interim action, FSSAI heeded out cautionary advice regarding conflict of interest and removed IYNCI from the Steering Committee. FSSAI in its press release published on 28 February 2018, committed taking a long-term measure, where the Regulations of Foods for Infant Nutrition will be harmonized with IMS Act. It remains to be seen what comes of revision for BPNI has written to FSSAI on 10 April 2018.

The FSSAI is the primary agency that is responsible to ensure that the standards, quality and safety of what we consume are protected, in the light of such allegations of an underlying conspiracy it is important that a thorough investigation is undertaken to understand the real motives of these decisions. The consumers have a right to know that their safety is upheld by authorities with integrity and have nothing, but welfare of public in mind. It is pertinent that this body is steered clear of all allegations so it could perform its vital functions optimally.

The writer is a law student at the Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi. She can be reached on twitter @anahita_mehra

Time for ‘Safe to Eat Place’: expert

N. Anandavally 
UN ex-official cites Technopark cafeteria inspection and resultant row
It is high time the State government implemented the Safe to Eat Place programme in association with the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation , says N. Anandavally, former Food Safety Consultant of the United Nations.
Talking to The Hindu, Dr. Anandavally said food safety inspection in a cafeteria at Technopark and the subsequent unpleasant scenes reported in the media a few weeks ago should be an eye-opener.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) regulation or any global regulation based on science is transparent and easily implementable. But, the way in which it is being implemented is disturbing for those who knew about the international or Codex system.
Dr. Anandavally said the intent should be to improve and educate those who are unaware of the importance of food safety and take action in case of serious deficiencies or non-compliance.
Proper procedure
It would be improper to go to a food handling facility with an army of police personnel. Instead, two or three food safety officials may visit the facility, evaluate the Good Hygiene Practices (GHPs), Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), and the layout or design of the facility, and provide a foolproof report to the authority concerned as is being done elsewhere, she said.
It is also the responsibility of the food safety officers to convince the management who may not be that knowledgeable in the area of food safety, she said.
Citing the recent seizure of stale curd from a godown in Ernakulam, Dr. Anandavally said the government should not wait for a crisis situation to act in the area of food safety.
Need for guidance
Any inspection should be a sort of communication of information and education for those who are being inspected. They should be guided for application of GHPs and GMPs even in a small facility so that issues related to hygiene and food safety would be minimised.
Dr. Anandavally, who initiated the concept of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) to address food safety in 1990, has already conducted more than 5,000 training programmes on food safety.

Food safety rule violations: Regulator should get its act together on wrong-doers, say experts  

In the context of Maggi noodles episode recently (where the district administration of Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh, slapped a fine of Rs 45 lakh for noodles containing ash ‘above permissible limits of human consumption’), and a number of companies that have been penalised for compliance issues, a question arises: Why are more companies being found not to be FSSAI-compliant?
FSSAI, on its part, says that the test done on Maggi noodles was incorrect as the content of ash found in the noodles was within the limits set for human consumption. “We have done away with ash residue in all food requirements. There is a limit for insoluble ash in food products. Some products seem to have ash-like substance and it is not harmful,” said Pawan Kumar Agarwal, CEO, FSSAI.
Questioning the lab findings, Nestle India said it has not received the order yet and would file an appeal urgently once it receives the order. “While we have not received the orders passed by the adjudication officer, we have been informed that the samples are of year 2015 and the issue pertains to ‘ash content’ in Noodles,” said a Nestle India spokesperson.
What should the FSSAI do to make companies compliant with safety standards? Experts suggested that the regulator can follow some of its suggestions to make it powerful and instil fear in companies so that they do not flout rules.
Heavy fines should be levied: Why are more companies being penalised? Is it that the regulator is becoming more vigilant? Or is it that the companies themselves have no fear of repercussions, ask experts. “It could be either one of these reasons,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). Companies are not worried as the fines are a pittance, he said. Bhushan pointed that all the non-compliant issues raised are done at state-level, arguing that the state-level bodies are more regular.
FSSAI needs to be more stringent: The FSSAI should consider bringing in independent experts into the regulatory framework so that views of others besides of its members are taken into account, said an industry expert.
Bhushan pointed to a CSE study that unearthed the abuse of antibiotics in chicken served by fast food companies. The hypocrisy, according to Chandrabhushan, is that most of these fast food majors have agreed to ensure that there will be no misuse of antibiotics in countries abroad where they are located. “However, nothing of this sort is being done in India,” he said.
FSSAI has set the tolerance level for antibiotics and other pharmacologically active substances only for sea foods including shrimps, prawns or any variety of fish and fishery products under the Food Safety and Standards (Contaminants, Toxins and Residues) Regulations, 2011. No tolerance level has been set for antibiotics and other pharmacologically active substances in poultry meat and meat products by FSSAI. However, the FSSAI is taking cognisance of the same, he said, after CSE flagged the issue.
Onus on companies to self-regulate: The food industry makes products for consumers and it is the duty of companies to ensure it is safe, say experts. How many companies in India recall products like in the West? For instance, Toyota withdrew 270,000 vehicles because its engines were faulty Or Unilever recalling its icecream because it may contain metal in it. “We don’t hear of any company in the food sector doing this in India. Are they waiting for the regulator to catch them?” asks Bhushan.
He says food industry is not lacking in technical or managerial expertise. What they need to do is to ensure they are responsible for the entire chain — from procuring raw materials to production and distribution — they are involved with. He cites hazardous pollution level in Delhi. “Why can’t companies upgrade their pollution norms and not wait for the government to clamp it down? Aren’t they responsible,” he asks.
Companies should work with farmers: From farm to fork, there has to be a co-ordination, says Bhushan. “If you are a good company, you will work with farmer, ensure good farming practices and see water is not contaminated.
Instead of just providing farm loans waiver, the government should also make farmers responsible for the methods of farming, said Smita S Lele, member, Fellows of Maharashtra Academy of Science, and the Biotech Research Society of India, registrar and professor of biochemical engineering, Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai. “Most of our raw material grown in our country would be disqualified if measured against high-end machines,” says Lele.
Currently, the FSSAI does not have high quality equipments, enough laboratories or manpower like the US or UK does, said Bhushan, adding that it is a severe constraint.
We are not a policing agency: Pawan Kumar Agarwal, CEO, FSSAI says as a food regulator the aim is to work with food companies so that they meet the set standards. “No food company will want to jeopardise its reputation by deliberately not meeting rule of the land. The company’s and brand image is important for them and we as a regulator are not out to tarnish them,” he said. However, he says, the entire ecosystem is evolving and the bar is being raised continuously, adding compliance issues will crop up. “No company in the world will be 100 percent right.”
The FSSAI neither has all the required machinery, nor does it have resources to ensure each process and every food item is tested before it enters the market, said Aggarwal.
“When a batch of food products is found to be not meeting food safety standards, it does not mean a particular company is good or bad. Only random samples are tested. But the FSSAI will ensure that more and more companies continue to be careful and the margin of error gets minimised,” he said.

Should you boil pasteurised milk ?

The dilemma of boiling or not boiling our favourite Indian drink, milk, has crossed many of us. With new technology coming in every second day, it is scary for us to let go of our ancient practices. It is this debate of what our parents followed and what we need to follow that let us to this pertinent question – Should we boil milk or not?
What is pasteurization?
A method invented in the 19th century, pasteurization involves heating milk to an extremely high temperature and then quickly cooling it before it goes for packaging or bottling. This helps keep the milk fresh. The method of pasteurization is best to kill bacteria present in milk which can be harmful for us. Dangerous bacteria such as salmonella can affect our health in more ways than one.
Milk is heated upto 161.6 Fahrenheit for 15 seconds and then immediately cooled. This process is known as high temperature short time pasteurization, which is the most common method used across India and many parts of the world.
Will boiling pasteurized milk help?
While India is used to the tradition of boiling fresh dairy milk, experts feel that this practice has lingered on even with the newly packaged pasteurized milk. Professor Saurabh Gupta, Food Cooperation of India (FCI) says, “When we are heating milk to such a high temperature during pasteurization, we are increasing its shelf life. If we boil this milk further, we end up lessening its shelf life.”
According to Dr Saurabh Arora, founder, food safety, there is no need to boil pasteurized milk at all. “As it has already been given heat treatment during pasteurization, milk is microbe free. Therefore, there is no need to boil this milk further, which was ideally the reason why people started boiling dairy milk in the first place.”
The newly packaged pasteurized milk is now fortified with the added benefits of many vitamins. If we boil pasteurized milk, we end up diminishing its nutritive value. “When it is done at an industrial level, the process is called flash pasteurization, which reduces the total degradation of milk. But when we boil the same milk at home, we end up wiping out its nutritive value because we do it at a lower temperature for a prolonged period of time. This causes a heat loss effect,” says Dr Arora.
The common misconception of boiling even pasteurized milk is due to two reasons, firstly, since it is inbuilt in our system, consuming milk straight out of a tetra pack or plastic pack does not seem right to many and secondly, it is falsely believed that the shelf life of ‘boiled’ milk is more.
“Pasteurized milk can be stored at less than 4 degree Celsius for atleast seven days. If you boil this milk, you are only lessening this time period. The nutritive value of simple pasteurized packeted milk and tetra-pack milk is comparable. Boiling them will only damage their nutritive value,” says Dr Anil Kumar, assistant professor, department of food science and technology, GB Pant university.