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Food Testing Laboratories: The Indian Scenario

22,September, 2015

Food is an integral part of everyday life; it provides nutrition and nourishment for leading a healthy life. The food that we consume should be safe in all aspects and not pose any harm to the body. For this reason, it is of paramount importance that the food production, from “farm to plate” should go through rigorous monitoring and testing, which is primarily the responsibility of the food business operators (FBOs). Food testing laboratories play a very important role in this whole process. Food products tested can range from processed foods to agricultural commodities, from the field to the store. The testing can be done on raw materials, the product during its processing and production, as well as the finished products.
Food Safety and Standards Act
The Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, (FSSA) is an Act of Parliament enacted in the 57th Year of the Republic of India, and received the assent of the President on August 23, 2006. The Act consolidated the laws relating to food and established the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
The FSSAI lays down science-based standards for articles of food and regulates their manufacture, storage, distribution, sale and import, and ensures availability of safe and wholesome food for human consumption and deals with associated matters. The FSSAI notifies food laboratories and research institutions accredited by NABL for the purposes of carrying out analysis of food samples by the food testing labs. The FSSAI establishes or recognises one or more referral food laboratories to carry out the functions entrusted to the referral food laboratory. The food testing labs appointed by the commissioner of food safety, analyses the food samples and submits the report within a period of 14 days from the date of receipt of any sample, failing which, it has to justify the reason for the delay.
There are 377 standardised food products that are categorised under 13 food product categories, such as dairy products, oils and fats, fruits and vegetable products, cereals and cereal products, meat and meat products, fish and fish products etc. Others include the non-standardised food products such as proprietary and novel foods, nutraceuticals, health supplements etc. (FSSA; Section 22). As per FSSA regulations, Product Approval is required for proprietary and novel foods.
Food testing labs are very important in the entire Product Approval process, literally from “start to finish.” They generate all the food analysis data as well as safety data (from clinical trials) that is required in the application process. Further, Section 22 of FSSA indicates that food analysis data should show data on ingredients etc. Other parameters include label claims (such as in energy drinks, and functional foods like dietary and health supplements) and shelf-life study data.
Importantly, functional foods are often imported, which means that the guidelines in compliance to FSS Act, Rules & Regulations have to be met in order to obtain Product Approval from the FSSAI before applying for a licence. Hence, the role of food testing labs is very important here too.
There are currently 68 NABL-accredited, FSSAI-notified food testing labs in India, as per the latest list as of July 16, 2014. These are distributed pan-India, across four geographical regions. In the northern region there are 21 food testing labs. In the southern and western regions there are 22 labs each. The eastern region is grossly under-represented, with only three testing labs, all of which are in Kolkata. There are no food testing labs in any of the other states in the eastern region, indicating a severe lack of infrastructure in this geographic region.
Food testing labs provide services that

  • Ensure that products are in compliance with Food Safety and Standards Act, Rules and Regulations for food and food products.
  • Protect the brand equity and consumer loyalty by delivering healthy and safe food.
  • Protect consumers from any contaminated, modified and unhealthy food.
  • Ensure correct storage, shipping, packing and distribution of commodities, food ingredients and food products.
  • The food testing labs provide services in all areas of food testing, including the following categories:
  • Food Adulterant Testing: This includes testing for all sorts of adulterants, including artificial colouring agents, bulk-forming agents, texture-altering agents, additives, preservatives etc.
  • Chemical Contaminant Testing: These include a variety of substances, including organic contaminants like fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and animal tissues; and inorganic contaminants like antimony, arsenic, asbestos, barium, and cadmium.
  • Microbial Testing: Foodborne illnesses are caused by pathogens, which include naturally occurring bacteria, viruses, parasites, and toxins (mycotoxins and seafood toxins). For bacteria, which are the only pathogens routinely tested for in food samples, the testing is done for specific types of bacteria, using a variety of methods, including bacterial culture, gene probes, manual assays, as well as automated assays.
  • Drug Residue Testing: Drugs, especially antibiotics are given to poultry and other animals for disease prevention and production of better quality meat. The residues of these drugs can still remain in the meat and enter the human food chain. Therefore, there is a need to test the levels of these drug residues to check whether the levels are within the safe recommended levels.

The FSS Act requires testing of food articles to be done once in every six months through own or NABL-accredited/FSSAI-notified lab.
FSSAI recognition
The FSSAI recognises three types of labs, namely, Level 1, Level 2, and Referral lab. The Level 1 lab is competent to carry out the complete analysis as per the FSS (Food Products Standards and Food Additives) Regulations, 2011. The Level 2 lab is competent to carry out the complete analysis as per the FSS (Food Products Standards and Food Additives) Regulations, 2011 and FSS (Contaminants, Toxins and Residues) Regulations, 2011. The Referral lab has competence to carry out the analysis as per the FSS (Food Products Standards and Food Additives) Regulations, 2011 and FSS (Contaminants, Toxins and Residues) Regulations, 2011. In addition the referral laboratory must have the competence on other parameters like R&D capabilities, training facilities and to perform other functions like analysis of samples, and investigation in collaboration with other labs, including those in the private sector. Currently, there are four referral labs in India along with other notified labs run by Government of India.
All laboratories have to follow scientific protocol for food testing and maintain high standards of accuracy, reliability and credibility in the operation of the laboratory and achieving and maintaining the required levels of accreditation and reliability together with high professional standards and discipline.
NABL Accreditation to ISO 17025 is a pre-requisite before the authorisation of food testing laboratory by FSSAI.
NABL Accreditation
The National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) is an autonomous body under the aegis of the department of science and technology, Government of India. NABL has been established with the objective to provide government, industry associations and industry in general with a scheme for third-party assessment of the quality and technical competence of testing and calibration laboratories. Government of India has authorised NABL as the accreditation body for Testing and Calibration Laboratories as per ISO 17025.
The major sectors in which NABL has granted accreditation are textiles, automobiles, power, telecom, petroleum, food, health and environment. More than 1,600 laboratories have NABL accreditation, out of which 20% are government labs. Currently, there are 87 NABL-accredited food testing labs authorised for chemical testing of food products and while there are 98 NABL- accredited laboratories for biological testing of food products in India. Importantly, since the number of food testing labs in the public sector is comparatively less, the labs in the private sector become all the more important.
Therefore, food testing labs play a role in the whole decision-making process by generating vital analytical data and safety data that is crucial for the FBOs and FSSAI. Food testing labs form an integral part of the food industry along with various government agencies such as NABL, FSSAI and others, which help to streamline the process with the eventual goal of delivering good quality, safe food to the consumers.

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