Regulating food standards: Food safety laws in India are sufficient but lacking in enforcement : The Tribune India

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Regulating food standards: Food safety laws in India are sufficient but lacking in enforcement

The food safety laws in India are sufficient. What’s lacking is strict enforcement and regular revision of the legislation to comply with international standards

Regulating food standards: Food safety laws in India are sufficient but lacking in enforcement

The Indian food industry, particularly the packaged food sector, has seen many controversies during the past few days. ISTOCK

Renu Sud Sinha

The Indian food industry, particularly the packaged food sector, has seen many controversies during the past few days. The Ministry of Consumer Affairs recently asked the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to take appropriate action against multinational conglomerate Nestle after a report was published by Swiss organisation Public Eye, known for its investigative work and public advocacy, in collaboration with the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN). It revealed that two of the best-selling baby food brands marketed by Nestle in low and middle-income countries in Asia, including India, Africa and Latin America contained high levels of added sugar, while similar products sold in Europe were found to be free of added sugar.


British multinational company Cadbury is also facing trouble after a social influencer raised concerns over the high sugar content in Bournvita and its branding as healthy and beneficial for child growth by the company. The Ministry of Commerce subsequently issued an advisory to e-commerce websites recently, asking them to remove dairy, cereal or malt-based beverages, including Bournvita, from the ‘health drink’ or ‘energy drink’ categories.

Indian spice brands MDH Pvt and Everest Food Products Pvt are also under the scanner after Hong Kong and Singapore banned the sale of some products for allegedly containing a cancer-causing pesticide beyond permissible limits. These include three of MDH’s pre-packaged spice products — ‘Madras Curry Powder’, ‘Sambhar Masala Powder’ and ‘Curry Powder’ — and Everest Group’s ‘Fish Curry Masala’.

Hong Kong’s Centre for Food Safety had collected samples of these spice mixes for testing under its routine food surveillance programme when it detected the presence of ethylene oxide. FSSAI will reportedly conduct quality checks on these products.

Most experts agree that all recent incidents have one factor in common — the lack of any clear-cut or proper food safety standards by the FSSAI.

“The FSSAI has also not revised its food safety standards for a decade. And that makes it difficult to put the blame on any of these multinationals in the absence of any valid proof that they have violated the law,” says Ashim Sanyal, COO, Consumer VOICE (Voluntary Organisation in Interest of Consumer Education), an international NGO working in the field of consumer awareness and education.

The food regulator did not respond to repeated queries by The Tribune.

“India has good standards that match international standards. However, when it comes to implementation, we seriously lag behind and not just in food safety but in many other sectors. That’s why these cases are cropping up,” says Simi TB, who works at CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group working for over 40 years for consumer welfare.

The poor enforcement of laws also emboldens manufacturers. “That’s why we have such blatant violations of law,” says Pushpa Girimaji, a specialist with nearly 50 years of experience in consumer law and safety. She echoes Sanyal’s views about the need to regularly review and revise food safety rules and regulations to ensure that these are in keeping with not just international safety standards, but with the latest research, to protect the life and safety of consumers.

Most experts rue the slow progress in making any lasting impact. “Because kindness towards food industry is much higher than kindness towards consumers’ health,” feels Dr Arun Gupta, convener, NAPi (Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest-India), a think tank on nutrition.

Manufacturers are a very strong lobby, agrees Girimaji. Dr Gupta is searing in his critique: “The FSSAI, I feel, looks more at the interests of companies rather than of consumers.” Sanyal, whose NGO has been working for consumer advocacy for over 40 years, says, “The food industry has muscle power, money power as well as political outreach and easily prevents things from happening.” He cites the issue of adoption of front of pack labelling (FOPL), held in abeyance for 10 years. Despite a large number of consumer organisations joining hands for adoption of FOPL, “the food industry is not allowing it to happen”.

Adds Dr Gupta, “Companies are increasingly participating in government programmes through public-private partnerships to project themselves as the good guys. And slowly, they are influencing the policy-making process.”

CUTS, being a part of stakeholder consultations, highlights the uneven playing field. “During the discussions on FOPL, we have seen massive representation from the industry and very less from consumer representatives, consumer organisations and professional health experts. There were more than 20 to 25 participants from major industry associations and national/multinational food industries and hardly 4-5 representatives of consumer organisations,” says Simi.

This, she claims, had a strong impact on the framing of draft regulations for FOPL by the FSSAI. “Twice these regulations were favourable to consumers, but were withdrawn because of industry pressure. In 2022, the FSSAI introduced new draft regulations which completely favour the industry. Majority of the consumer organisations and health experts are totally against this draft proposal. If this gets adopted any time, the 10-year fight will go down the drain,” says Simi.

The earlier two regulations, “that were dropped largely due to industry pressure”, advocated WHO nutrient profile models suitable for South and South-East Asia. While the food industry would prefer not to have any labels at all, the 2022 draft regulations proposed by the FSSAI and favoured by the industry seek introduction of Indian Nutrition Rating (INR) similar to the health star ratings (HSR) introduced in Australia and New Zealand in 2014. No other country except these two follows the HSR system.

However, experts cite huge concerns, pointing out that the INR system can be easily manipulated. “For example, in case of sugary cereals, the earlier regulations proposed a warning symbol, such as a red dot, as it is high in sugar. But with INR, the manufacturer can easily get better ratings as the system is based on the overall nutritional value, and any inclusion of healthy ingredients like fibre and protein to an otherwise unhealthy product could easily cancel out its unhealthy ingredients (i.e. sugar in this case). Studies in Australia and New Zealand have not shown any favourable findings about better consumer health after the HSR introduction,” adds Simi.

However, she also points out the challenges faced by the food safety regulator. “Shortage of food safety officers is a major problem, acknowledged many times in Parliament debates. There is a massive gap between the size of the food market and the FSSAI/government’s capacity to supervise and manage this sector.”

There are about 600 districts in the country and the population per district is sizeable. On an average, there are just one or two food safety officers per district, which is far from sufficient. The inadequate food safety staff also affects market surveillance and regular sampling surveys, says Girimaji.

The food testing infrastructure is also lacking, points out Simi. This inadequacy of staff and infrastructure helps violators, as many cases of violations remain undetected.

The sole food safety regulator, FSSAI, needs to get its act together and fast. “The primary role of the FSSAI is to protect the consumer, not the manufacturer. As the Supreme Court has termed not just the right to food but right to health and safe food a fundamental right, the FSSAI has to ensure that this fundamental right is protected. It cannot abdicate its responsibility. In case of Bournvita, action was initiated only after the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights stepped in. That’s sad because the food regulator should have taken or initiated action on its own,” adds Girimaji.

Even then, the ministry has only issued an advisory, not a notification or law, to remove Bournvita and other such drinks from the health drink category, which remains a loophole, says Dr Gupta.

Sanyal says they have now written to the Central Consumer Protection Authority to issue notices to FSSAI and the Ministry of Consumers Affairs on this issue. His NGO is also strongly advocating that the FSSAI should upload the names of companies which have been penalised for violation. “People have a right to know about these violators,” he adds.

However, Sanyal counts as a big win the fact that Bournvita has now reduced the sugar levels, and the removal of such products from the ‘health drink’ category. Cadbury has reduced the quantity of added sugar in the chocolate-malt drink mix after the public outcry. Earlier, it consisted of 37.4 gm sugar per 100 gm. The new packaging reveals that it has 32.2 gm of added sugar. Hindustan Unilever has also renamed its ‘health food drinks’ Horlicks and Boost as ‘functional nutritional drinks’.

An all-pervading feeling across most consumer organisations and activists is that consumer safety has taken a backseat with the sole food safety regulator. Many find it difficult to approach or convince the FSSAI on some crucial issues, they claim.

In such a scenario, what should the consumers do? What’s the way forward?

Girimaji wants consumers to be proactive and put pressure on the government and the food regulator to protect their interests.

“Consumers should boycott unhealthy foods, and the manufacturers perforce will have to then come up with healthier versions. The food regulator should ensure stringent standards and their proper enforcement, and strict action against violators. The states also have to give adequate importance to implementation of food safety standards,” she says.

Dr Gupta suggests a complete relook at the FSSAI’s legal framework. “We need a strong legal framework to protect people’s health.” He also suggests FOPL implementation with High Fat, Salt and Sugar (HFSS) warnings, restriction on misleading advertisements, and imposing higher taxes on all such foods.

Sanyal feels the FSSAI needs to be proactive. “Many new products are gaining popularity but there are no standards. The authorities come up with regulations when the market is already flooded with non-standard goods. The FSSAI needs to borrow global standards, regulations and best practices and adapt it for Indian consumers.”

Simi feels the food regulator needs to significantly improve its food testing infrastructure, have adequate staff and focus on awareness and capacity building of the staff.

In many states, majority of food safety officers are not aware of the ongoing issues like FOPL, and even the concept. But above all, consumer organisations want proper definition of HFSS foods. This, they insist, will ensure that manufacturers have no escape route. The safest way, according to them, is to adopt the WHO health guidelines for South and South-East Asia. Till then, the onus is on consumers to protect their health.

Immense political, administrative commitment needed

The spice brands in question are among the country’s finest and we need to remember that there is a vast unregulated or poorly regulated market of lesser-known brands or unbranded spices. This does not bode well and calls for an enhanced and proactive role of the FSSAI. As in the case of pharmaceuticals, the spotlight is on regulators, who need to recognise that quality assurance is as relevant for accessing the global market as for not exposing the citizens of India to any avoidable risks. Regulatory agencies need not just resources, but immense political and administrative commitment where people’s health and food safety are stated priorities. Greater engagement with and participation of consumer groups is important, as are social audits. — Rajib Dasgupta, professor and former chairperson, Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, JNU

One way forward

We feel it is not our role to tell the Indian government what it should do. But if it wants to put an end to these practices, it could probably use, to some extent, the existing legislations such as the Consumer Protection Act, which prohibits misleading marketing. Also, the government could strengthen standards by prohibiting the advertising of unhealthy products and ban the addition of sugar in baby foods. It would be worth exploring inserting a dual-quality provision in the Indian legislation, to ensure that no company can sell in India any products of lower quality than what they sell in their home country. — Laurent Gaberell, research & policy team, agriculture & food expert, Public Eye, Switzerland

Safe food

1 The first step to promoting healthy eating habits is to help people understand what’s in the food they buy. The government should, therefore, make efforts to introduce mandatory front-of-pack ‘high in’ warning labels, allowing consumers to easily identify and avoid products high in unhealthy nutrients.

2 India should adopt and adhere strictly to the World Health Organisation’s South-East Asia Regional Office (WHO SEARO) guidelines on High Fat, Salt, and Sugar (HFSS) foods.

3 Provide subsidies to make healthy and sustainable foods more affordable and at the same time, introduce taxes on food products that fail to meet nutritional standards.

4 FSSAI should prioritise enhancing food testing infrastructure and ensure strict compliance with existing food standards and regulations. Despite having legislation and standards comparable to international level, consumers in India suffer due to a lack of strict enforcement. So, more proactive measures are needed from the side of the food regulator.

5 Strengthening the capacity of food safety staff at the state level is crucial for effectively implementing food safety regulations and standards. This ensures consistent monitoring and enforcement across different regions.

6 At the same time, it’s important to teach people how to read labels and be careful about what they eat. By educating consumers, we empower them to make informed choices about the food they consume. — Compiled by Simi TB, CUTS International

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