India’s food safety and security impracticable until FSSAI and FCI are overhauled - The Probe

India’s food safety and security impracticable until FSSAI and FCI are overhauled

On World Food Safety Day 2022, we look at what is plaguing India’s food safety and security system. From rotting food grains in godowns to unsafe and ill-equipped food testing laboratories, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) need a complete revamp. Here’s why.

Kashmir labourers carrying rice bags to store at the Food Corporation of India (FCI) godown | Photo courtesy: @waseem_andrabi | Twitter

The United Nations, in a report released recently, warned the world of how the ripple effects of the Ukraine war had triggered food price surges and will lead to global food insecurity. Both the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) called for urgent action to prevent famine in the 20 “hunger hotspots” of the world. While the world has been paying immoderate attention to food shortage and price rise problems, the more significant conversation on food safety often gets cast aside.

Food safety refers to handling, preparing and storing food in the best possible way to prevent risks of food borne diseases. From sowing or production to harvesting, processing, storage and distribution, food items go through multiple stages where they are exposed to different contamination levels. Being aware of the consequences of this on public health and eliminating the risks involved is a major challenge for governments worldwide.

The global statistics on foodborne illness are startling. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 600 million cases of foodborne illnesses occur annually, and it results in 420,000 deaths every year. The disconcerting fact is that it is the most vulnerable amongst us, which bears 40% of the foodborne disease burden – children under the age of five. The World Bank, in a report in 2019, stated that the total productivity loss associated with foodborne disease in low and middle-income countries was estimated at US$ 95.2 billion a year. The annual cost of treating foodborne illnesses alone is estimated at US$ 15 billion. But food experts in the developing world say these reports only skim the surface as the actual figures related to foodborne illnesses and deaths could be much higher than the estimates.

In India, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), established under the Food Safety and Standards (FSS) Act, 2006, regulates the best and safe practices for the manufacturing, storage, distribution, sale and import of food items. But the primary challenge for the Indian food authority seems to be compliance and enforcement.

The state of Tripura being felicitated by Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare for food safety | Photo courtesy: @sonalgoelias | Twitter

According to the data shared by the FSSAI related to the enforcement metrics for the financial year 2018-2019, when 1,06,459 food samples were analysed, 30,415 samples were found to be non-conforming to the prescribed standards. 3900 samples were deemed unsafe for consumption, 16,870 samples were of substandard quality, and 9645 samples had labelling related issues and were misleading. But the data reveals that only 2813 criminal proceedings were launched, and this, in turn, resulted in only 701 convictions.

“As far as the quality and safety of food is concerned, we need to go a long way. We have reached a stage in India where they say that even the mother’s milk that the child consumes is contaminated and why is this? It is because of the kind of food that the mother consumes. What is the solution to this? Focusing on organic food alone is not going to be enough. It’s not going to be a sustainable model. What we need is the judicious use of chemicals and fertilisers through which we can get safe food. What are the steps that we are taking to eliminate the spurious food items from our food ecosystem? I think the discussion should be centred around this during the World Food Safety Day,” says MC Dominic, the Founder and Editor in Chief of Krishi Jagran.

According to the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report of 2017 related to the performance audit of the implementation of the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006, it was found that there was a possibility of unsafe and undeclared food articles being manufactured and sold in India due to the failure from the part of the FSSAI to hold those people in power accountable. CAG notes that the Authority failed to monitor and cancel the licences of the companies involved in many cases.

As per Dominic, the problem related to India’s food safety runs deeper. He says that perhaps our priorities are misplaced. “There are a lot of people starving in India. At the same time, the paradox is that we are quite a self-sufficient country in terms of whatever we need; we are able to produce it. But the question is, are we able to distribute food equitably? It is not the insufficiency or the deficiency that is the problem. It is the distribution system and the purchasing power of the poor that needs to be looked into. Can you please tell me why the food items we export outside India are rejected? There are enough policies related to food safety in our country, but these policies are not implemented properly. The fact is our farmers are not adulterating all our food. A majority of the food items are contaminated when it gets out of the farm and reaches the whole storage and distribution process.”

According to the FSSAI, the three major challenges faced by India related to food is the threat of foodborne diseases and infections, the increasing incidence of non-communicable diseases and nutrition-related problems like undernutrition or hunger, micronutrient deficiency of key vitamins and minerals in the diet and overnutrition that results in obesity. But as far as the CAG is concerned, the FSSAI itself needs to do a lot more at the organisational level to ensure its objectives of laying down safe and standard practices related to food safety is achieved.

For instance, the CAG report on FSSAI had also found that in more than 50 per cent of cases tested and checked during the audit, licences were issued based on incomplete documentation. As far as the testing quality standards of the labs in India are concerned, it was found that out of the 72 State Food Laboratories to which FSSAI and state food authorities sent food samples for testing, at least 65 of them did not possess the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) accreditation. The NABL is an accreditation body with its certification system established as per standard practices.

“The organisations that are supposed to be responsible for food safety, food distribution and food security must implement their policies effectively. But above all, the thing that needs to be kept in mind is for good quality production, we need to take many progressive steps. Our country is very rich and diverse, not just in terms of the lifestyle and culture but also in terms of the food we eat and the crops that are sown in our fields. But despite this diversity, our policies are not diverse. Our policies support mono-crops. If you look at our country’s food policy, we only have policies related to major crops. But we have a wide variety and diverse range of food products. We don’t have policies related to them. That is why we are unable to maintain the quality of our food products. Food must be localised. It must be seen from a very local level to address various problems that emerge at the local levels. Even the MSP is only on grains like rice and wheat and major items. What about other food items? Is MSP implemented in all the States? These are larger issues. The government has to bring in a comprehensive policy to address all these outstanding issues of our farming community and the consumers,” says Kumar Neeraj, Co-Founder of Khetee.

The lack of data and shortage of staff seem to be some of the biggest issues facing most of the mainstream organisations within the government that are responsible for food quality control and licensing. The CAG report on FSSAI had noted that the organisation did not maintain data on whether all the notified and empanelled food laboratories in India had qualified food analysts. The audit found that the FSSAI had an acute shortage of regular staff working at various levels. Not just regular staff, the FSSAI also had an acute shortage of even licensing and enforcement officers (Designated Officers and Food Safety Officers) in the States, which adversely impacted the food safety measures in the States. Apart from these issues, it was also found that the internally generated funds by FSSAI continued to remain unutilised for a long period of time. This, even when FSSAI had collected 100.73 crore rupees by way of the licence fee, testing and laboratory fee from 2008 onwards.

The safety standards of the testing labs related to FSSAI have constantly been under question. In a report released by FSSAI, it had noted that since there have been regular concerns regarding the quality of milk sold in India, the organisation carried out a survey in 2018 through a third party. During this survey, 6432 samples of milk were collected and analysed qualitatively from all States and Union Territories. The report notes that immediately on site in mobile food testing vans it was found that nearly one-third of the samples indicated possible adulteration. FSSAI then notes that the contaminated samples were sent to the laboratory and analysed quantitatively. The interim report released by FSSAI on 13 November 2018 states that out of the large number of samples analysed, very few samples were found to be adulterated. But the catch is that when the testing labs related to FSSAI have still not conformed to the safety standards and required accreditation, how effective are the results emerging from these labs.

The testing practices being carried out in various government labs across the country are not as per prescribed international standards. For instance, the CAG audit found that inadequate milk testing was being conducted by an ill-equipped state laboratory in Delhi because of which food products with possible harmful contaminants impacting food safety were declared safe for human consumption.

Similarly, it was found that the State Grading Laboratory of the State Directorate of Agricultural Marketing, to whom the food safety department in Delhi had sent samples, neither had the NABL accreditation nor the necessary equipment to conduct testing.

Vipin Kumar, a volunteer with Khetee, feels there is no single solution to this problem. “It is a multi-pronged problem, and it needs multi-faceted solutions. When the government says that they can produce more food and they are capable of exporting large quantities of food outside, the question that we need to ask is, what is the amount of nutrients in these food items? Are we able to maintain the nutritional quality? Are these food items safe to consume? Do they meet the regulatory standards? Are our labs that test these food items equipped to do the standard food testing?”

According to Vipin, his village in Bihar has already borne the brunt. He doesn’t agree with the government when it maintains that there is no food shortage in the country. “In my village in Bihar, wheat production has come down because farmers have been complaining about poor soil quality. Even if our farmers are safely producing food and are transporting it as per standards and set procedures, the fact is that when these food items reach the government godowns, it gets contaminated because these godowns are not appropriately maintained. After the green revolution, our soil has lost its fertility and strength because of the excessive use of chemicals and fertilisers. Climate change has only added to the woes of our farmers. Because of these issues, the production capabilities in India are reducing, and that is why there is undoubtedly a food shortage in the country today, whether we want to accept it or not. This is the ground reality.”

The FSSAI has been asked to frame transparent and standard operating procedures (SOPs) for all laboratories’ empanelment and ensure that all empanelled laboratories have qualified food analysts. Though some steps have been taken in this direction, the FSSAI has still not been able to achieve much in this regard.

“Because of the war, many countries are food deficient, but I feel India finds itself in a comfortable position despite the heatwave reducing the production. We should be very content that we are not standing with a begging bowl. But having said that, there is no denying that food quality is of paramount importance, and on World Food Safety Day, we must renew our pledge that we should produce safe and healthy food for our population. I am only peeved at one development year after year. When India exports Basmati, some consignments come back, and we say that we used too many pesticides and then the government comes up with a plan to reduce the use of pesticides keeping in mind the export targets. But the point I would like to make is why are we so concerned about the people outside our country. Why are we not worried about the people within our country? We must ensure that consumers in India get the best quality of food. When America exports its food, it first feeds its own population and also its animals and then what is left over is what is shipped. On the other hand, India feeds its people inferior quality, and the good quality is kept aside for exports. I find it strange. Why can’t we feed good quality food to our own people? If we can do it for exports, we can also do it for domestic consumption. Right?” asks agriculture expert Devinder Sharma.

According to Sharma, there are many solutions to the problem if only the government has the will to implement them. “We have to get away from the intensive farming systems that we have been made to practise. Those intensive farming systems come laden with pesticides and chemical fertilisers, and so on. I think we must now move into agro-ecological farming systems. Andhra Pradesh already has a massive programme to convert farmers from chemical to non-chemical farming, and I think they have already converted seven lakh farmers from chemical to non-chemical modes of farming. If Andhra can do it, I am sure the rest of the country can also do it, but it needs a government push for policies and effective implementation of those policies.”

While the FSSAI, which falls under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, has been facing issues, even the Food Corporation of India (FCI), run by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, has received a lot of flak for poor management of its functions. To a large extent, the government also seems to be the reason for the messy affairs in the FCI. According to the CAG report of 2017 on the Food Corporation of India, it was found that the organisation lost 35,701 crore rupees from 2011 to 2016 because the government had delayed the payments.

The report also mentions that the FCI had allowed five lakh tonnes of food grains to rot in Punjab. The audit found that the labour at various depots was handling a very high number of bags per day, ranging from 998 to 1776 when the bag handling norm was limited to 105 per day. The auditors felt that this indicated the existence of proxy labour in depots which has led to exorbitant incentives being paid to some labourers.

Though the purpose of both the FSSAI and the FCI is different, their intent is the same – to serve the public with good quality food. But this objective will remain a distant hope until the government overhauls the two organisations and makes them accountable.

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