Violating laws governing food safety in India, the central government has over the last five years allowed more than 15 million tonnes of genetically modified soyabean and canola oils to be imported into the country for human consumption.
That such imports were illegal came to light with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India’s submissions before the Supreme Court in response to an environmentalist, Aruna Rodrigues,asking for imports to be banned or for genetically modified products to be clearly labelled. Based on the food safety authority’s submissions, the court on August 11 accepted that imports of GM food continue to be banned.
Genetically modified crops, or GM crops as they are commonly known, are cultivated from seeds that are genetically altered to increase yields or tolerance to pests. Supporters say GM crops are essential to boost food production to meet the demands of the planet’s ever-expanding population. But in India and many other parts of the world, there is a debate about whether GM crops are safe for human consumption.Some scientists also fear that biodiversity will be threatened if genetic material from GM crops get mixed in with non-GM crops.
Many countries, including European Union nations, Australia and China, have strict regulations requiring GM foods to be clearly labelled so that consumers can make informed choices about whether to eat them.
In 2010, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government declined permission for the first home-grown GM food variety, Bt brinjal, to be cultivated. Since then, seed producers have urged the government to allow GM mustard to be cultivated. But the government is yet to take a final call on this. Already, the Supreme Court is hearing another case byRodrigues,urging a better regulatory regime and stricter tests for GM crops.
But even as the debate about cultivating GM crops in India continues, the government has been bringing in processed oil made from GM crops: GM soyabean oil has been imported for the past decade and canola for at least three years.
In an email interview to Scroll.in, the chief executive officer of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India agreed that GM food is not permitted to be sold in India because these products do not have approval under the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006. But, Pawan Kumar Agarwal argued, the authority could not regulate or prohibit the sale of imported soya and canola oils because it is technologically incapable of detecting the GM protein in them.
When vegetable edible oils are processed, the levels of proteins in them are reduced to negligible levels, he said. “Hence the GM component cannot be detected in refined vegetable oil,” he contended.
Imports of GM food need to be approved under two separate laws. A clearance is needed from the Union environment, forest and climate change ministry under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, which is charged with assessing the impact of GM products on biodiversity. Clearance is also needed from the Union health and family welfare ministry, which must explicitly endorse that these products are safe for human consumption under the Food Safety and Standards Act.
Importers have received the first clearance but they have operated for years without the second, the food safety authority has said.
The food safety authority’s claim that it is unable to detect genetically modified content in oils does not hold ground. There is a profusion of scientific literature on detecting genetically modified material in processed soya and canola oils. But even if the authority’s argument is accepted, these oils are still not legally exempted from the existing prohibitions on GM food.
Giving permissions for GM foods to be imported under the Food Safety and Standards Act would have required the government to first put into place a testing and labeling regime for such items. More than 60 countries in the world label all packaged food that contains or is made from GM organisms. India isyet to finalise the rules to do so.
The commerce ministry, which regulates imports in India, did not respond to queries emailed by Scroll.in.
Importers have got away without having the mandatory approval under the Food Safety and Standards Act because the two ministries passed the buck from one to the other, government records show.
Under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, the environment ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee is entrusted with granting approvals of “activities involving large scale use of hazardous microorganisms”, recombinants – cells with a new combination of genes not found together in either parent cell – “and industrial production from the environmental angle”. The law prohibits the import, sale or use of GM food products without the committee’s approval.
With the passage of the Food Safety and Standards Act in 2006, the environment ministry and the health ministry each began to claim that the other was responsible for clearing imports of food containing GM material. The debate was never settled legally. Eventually, in 2007, the environment ministry began to give clearances for imports, even though it acknowledged that permission was also required under the food safety law before imports could begin. The food safety authority neither put the regulations for such approvals in place nor acted actively to stop the imports.
After a decade ofallowing the import of GM foods, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, at a meeting on April 12, 2017, took note of the regulatory vacuum on the import of GM food and decided to discuss this with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India.
“In order to give informed choice to the consumers, FSSAI has decided to have the labelling norms for genetically modified food products,” the authority told Scroll.in. A specific date for notifying the labelling laws has not been announced. “Under these norms it is proposed to put the GM labelling on any product which contains the GM component beyond a certain threshold level. Once notified, these norms and regulations would enable FSSAI to initiate action against the food and beverage operators that import Food products containing GM ingredients.”
The authority did not respond to the question why it did not instruct the commerce ministry to stop imports of GM food in the absence of testing and labeling regulations, as required by the law.
A group campaigning for a ‘GM-free’ India has written to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, asking it to crackdown on sale of all genetically modified food in Indian supermarkets and initiate prosecution against those violating the law.
The GM foods are not permitted to be sold under the Indian Food Safety and Standards Act.
The label on various products says ingredients could be genetically modified, in various stores in locations all over the country such as Bengaluru, Noida and Mumbai, it said.
Neither Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) nor FSSAI have not approved any of these products, Kavitha Kuruganti, co-convenor of the Coalition for a GM-Free India, said.
As mentioned by Union Health Minster in Parliament on December 29, various companies have been illegally importing and selling genetically modified soyabean and canola oil for human consumption, the group said.
“We request you to take strictest action to all those who are violating the law and ensure that un-approved products must be removed from the shelves immediately, whether in a packaged form or loose,” Kuruganti said.
How safe is your bottle of packaged drinking water?
New Delhi: Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution CR Chaudhary on Tuesday furnished a statement in the Lok Sabha where he said that three out of the ten units of mineral water sold across the country have been found to be contaminated.
This shocking revelation is expected to have a long-lasting effect on India’s multi-billion dollar packaged water industry.
While replying to a question in the lower house of parliament, Chaudhary claimed that the discovery was the result of an exercise undertaken by the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India (FSSAI). As part of the exercise, FSSAI tested 743 samples of packaged water in 2016-2017 and found that 224 or almost a third of the total number of samples failed to meet safety standards that the products are expected to meet.
According to a report by The Business Standard, FSSAI, upon discovering the violation of safety standards, filed cases against 131 manufacturers of packaged drinking water. As a result, 33 were convicted while penalties were slapped on 40 of such manufacturers.
Guidelines issued by FSSAI deem a product to be ‘safe packaged drinking water’ only if it is disinfected to an extent where it does not adversely affect health once it is acquired from the sources.
However, manufacturers of packaged drinking water were found not only violating norms set by the FSSAI but also flouting Bureau of Indian Standards (ISI) ‘standard mark’ guidelines.
Representatives of the government have confirmed the same by saying that the bureau received acted on 23 complaints about packaged drinking water till February 2018.
However, food and beverage regulators have also prodded a possible presence of multiple heavy metals beyond permissible levels in packaged drinking water manufactured by such companies which have also been accused of selling their product without a BIS mark which constituted a cognizable offense on the part of the vendor.
Products manufactured by such companies also lack essential minerals, said Chaudhary.
During raids conducted in the wake of such violations of both FSSAI and ISI norms, 192 search-and-seizure drives were launched at bottling units across the country. The drive lasted three years, concluding in February of the current year.
With the intention of empowering the consumer and introducing transparency in the packaged drinking water industry, the FSSAI has launched an online portal where consumers can compare test reports of packaged drinking water including physical, chemical and microbiological information, added Chaudhary.