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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 26, New Delhi June 20, 2015

Food Safety Management—Conflict and Control

Saturday 20 June 2015, by Latika Nath

States have a primary duty to raise the standard of nutrition levels in the public, improve standards of living and prohibit that which is harmful to health. Food is one of life’s basic necessities. Food laws are enacted by states to protect the consumer with reference to food quality and safety. The UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection 1985 provides a framework for all countries.

With globalisation and commercialisation international trade has increased. In this background food quality safety standards become important. Sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures have been adopted by the developed countries while the developing countries regard SPS agreements as a hindrance to their commercial interests. These measures are to protect human life from contamination in foods and beverages also to prevent the spread of disease causing organisms. All WTO members are governed by these rights and obligations.

Inadequate food safety regulations and lack of implementation measures are barriers faced by many countries. International food trade is increasing over the years. In the Indian context there is a sufficient volume of trade, with an increasingly important role being played by MNCs and international brand of food products. We have made some effects to integrate the international food safety regime into our domestic Food Safety Standards Act, 2006. The SPS Agreement entered into force in January 1995 and the Least Developed Countries were allowed a period of five years to implement the same.

Food adulteration is a deep-rooted social evil. According to the FSSAI, “The addition or subtraction of any substance to or from food so that the natural composition and quality of food substances is affected”. Hydrogenated fats and artificial sweeteners can cause cardio-vascular diseases and cancer. MSG poses serious risks to health—physical and mental. It’s a possible neurotoxin which can cause serious health concerns to pregnant women and young children.

Quality and safety standards are of importance to the global consumer. Yet there is no consensus on international standards for appropriate levels of protection. Different governments apply different standards according to the relevance of their country’s needs—so national standards must evolve.

India enacted the Food Safety Standards Act in 2006 to deal with the maintenance of standards of edibles in the market. Food safety management refers to good practices as required. With regard to quality, no ingredient may be added so as to cause injury to health. It also brought into being a Food Authority to monitor and ensure that safe standards and processes are maintained. They are referred as food sanitary and phyto-sanitary standards. These standards are to be maintained to protect the life and health of the consumer; if risks occur, risk management must be initiated. Information must be given to the general public.

The duties of the Food Authority are to monitor and ensure that the standards and processes are safe for consumption. This includes the conduct of surveys and enforcement. This is to ensure that standards are maintained for the health and safety of the consumer. Section 13 deals with the setting up of scientific panels to check food additives, flavourings and processing of food items.

According to section 24 of the Act, advertise-ments must not deceive the general public. Yet we find descriptive words are used that leave the consumer confused. They convey an uncertain meaning. Food recall procedures can be initiated if required. Prohibition notices may be initiated. Penalties may also be imposed for misleading advertisements. With regard to offences by companies, action under Section 66 can be taken placing responsibility on the manufactureres and packers accordingly. It is a fairly comprehensive legislation. Its implemen-tation is important.

Food adulteration is not new to the Indian scenario. This can be caused by disinterest or for profit. It is usually done intentionally. We find it rampant in ground spices, edible oil, marketed water, coffee, tea and turmeric powder, for example.

In 1987 Beech and Nut paid $ 2.2 million in fines for selling flavour-sweetened water as apple juice. In 2008 there was the Chinese Milk Scandal (adulterated milk for children). In 2012 the FSSAI found that milk was adulterated with urea and detergents in samples taken from many States across India.

The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954 also dealt with some of these matters. The present issue being debated across the country and region is the problem of the popular brand of “Maggi Noodles”. For approximately three decades the company has been in India, it is said to control 63 per cent of the

“Instant Noodle” market. Yet it is surprising to note that this comestible has not been checked by the authorities. Now it has come to light that the “Tastemaker” has additives injurious to health, especially of children. Lead can cause mental retardation and damage. MSG—monosodium glutamate—is a non-essential amino acid, often used in the food industry to enhance flavours. It is generally recognised as safe and is a permitted additive within the prescribed limit in India as well as in many countries across the globe. It is harmful if used in excess. Recent tests have proven this, which led to its ban in sale in various States and by the GOI (a temporary measure). The MNCs need to be more careful especially when they trade internationally. Corporate self-regulations are actions that go towards the social good of society. These encourage a positive impact on environment and society. It is a positive action by these companies towards the health of the consumer. However, what must be underscored is Nestle’s double-standards when dealing with food items in developed and developing countries. Some of the comments about the tests and results of our laboratories leaves much to be desired. It may be noted that targeting the young consumer with a low-cost product is harmful and undesirable, Aggressive advertising brought in huge profits for the company over the decades. Consumer rights and ethical business practices in Third World countries are left unsaid. We are entitled to similar food safety standards as others globally. Non-disclosure should be dealt with severely with details of the action to be taken spelt out on the packets.

A cost-benefit analysis shows that they spend less. Customer brand loyaltyis thus destroyed, and now this brand is looked upon with distrust. Most MNCs allocate a small amount for product testing when compared to their huge advertising budgets.

In such a scenario such measures need to be taken by the governments themselves and not bow down to the MNCs and their values of profit and trade on their international standing alone.

In India some areas are grey areas, that is, some fields do not come within the preview of the authorities. Food safety standards are not universal; they differ according to the region. It is most likely that the developing countries adopt lower SPS standards. Perhaps it is time for these countries to fully participate at the international level. By this it would be a positive step towards strengthening their own food safety regime.

With competition for products, the food processing industry has gone ahead with aggressive marketing to target large sections of the public. We need to pay attention to food labelling and additives. In order to strengthen and implement the food safety regime, it is necessary to develop regional offices of the FSSAI at various levels, and develop necessary standards to check the foods being sold in India. Regular checks on various products will help maintain healthy trade practices and product safety. A comprehensive approach and strategy will force the MNCs to comply with safety standards in a similar way as they do in the developed countries. Half-measures, misleading facts and aggressive marketing strategies have adverse effects on the consumer. In the current matter of “Maggi Noodles”, the tastemaker was not subjected to any tests. Mere conducting food surveys regarding adulteration in samples is insufficient. Where due care is lacking, action under the provisions of law must be initiated, regardless of the corporate concern. Non-compliance must be strictly dealt with. The government must initiate action.

Extraneous factors, political issues and powerful alliances must be set aside. Accredited, fully equipped laboratories and trained technicians are the demands of the present day. Many food processing units do not have the necessary licences/registration. It is also necessary to educate and inform the general public. Details on the labels must carry correct information. Control, implementation and management are key issues at the focus of attention. Differing food safety standards will have disastrous consequences for the consumer and manufactureres. Permitted food additives without posing health hazards must be emphasised, A focused approach by the government and the concerned authorities must be initiated in the light of the events that have occurred, the risks must be minimised. Many developing countries are unaware of the risks of misleading advertisements, and unhealthy business practices. Generally the presence of MNCs and the business they can bring into the country, together with the employment gene-rated, are important factors for consideration. Good governance of the government lies in its capacity to protect the public. It is time for the government to strengthen and implement the food safety regime. A comprehensive strategy would effectively cope with the challenges ahead.

Dr Lathika Nath is an Associate Professor, University Law College, Bangalore University, Bangalore.