Taking Food Safety Seriously
India needs to treat food-borne diseases with much more seriousness than it does at present.
The World Health Organization (WHO) in its first global estimates of preventable food-borne diseases has reported that 600 million people (one in 10) fall ill and 420,000 die every year from contaminated food. According to the report, “WHO Estimates of the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases,” the highest number of cases occurs in Africa and South-east Asia which includes India. Children under five bear the brunt, accounting for 40% of the population that falls ill and 30% (125,000) who die from food-borne diseases mostly due to diarrhoeal diseases. The report affirms and quantifies the magnitude of what is familiar knowledge. What is disturbing is that these deaths are preventable to a large extent and the illnesses which rob so many of their productivity and well-being can be avoided if all stakeholders are serious about taking preventive measures. The suffering and deaths target the poor and marginalised sections the most.
Nutritionists point to emerging economies—India included—constituting the “hotspots” of food safety concerns. As the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) says in its “2014–2015 Global Food Policy Report,” these economies witness a rapidly growing demand for foods but a weak food governance system. The report also notes that in the poorest countries food-borne diseases cannot be separated from other diseases that are waterborne, vector-borne or due to sheer poverty. IFPRI observes that the widely publicised findings about food inspections, even negative ones (in China), “may be more positive than the situation in India, where no reports on food safety inspection or results are publicly available.”
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), an independent statutory authority under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (which replaced the Prevention of Food Adulteration (PFA), Act 1954), has been in the limelight in the past few months thanks to the controversy over Maggi noodles. But the ongoing episode has been more confusing than enlightening. Different states have come out with different test results and there is confusion about the permissible levels of lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG) that the food can contain. Overall, food safety laws and regulations need much better streamlining, better qualified staff followed by stringent implementation.
Starting from agricultural practices (use of unsafe agrochemicals and contaminated groundwater), poor hygiene in storage and handling to food cooked and distributed in unhygienic surroundings and with unsafe water there are myriad factors that need regulation and monitoring. Studies show that the diarrhoeal deaths among Indian children below five are mostly due to food and water contamination. One study of mothers with children below five in Hyderabad titled “Perceptions of Women on Food Safety” by the National Institute of Nutrition found that while the mothers had good food safety awareness and practices, what was needed was “an enabling environment” with better access to potable water, sanitation and cooking fuel along with awareness of adulteration and ways of complaining to the relevant authorities. Where the risk factors for persistent diarrhoea such as hygiene were concerned, other studies have found that caregivers need to be given health education, but keeping in mind sociocultural and socio-economic factors that come into play. Another area that needs special attention is surveillance of food-borne diseases without which there cannot be a good monitoring system. This will entail in-depth training of inspection staff and the involvement of a number of government agencies. A recent research study in the journal Epidemiology Research International finds that food-borne diseases are not categorised separately in the Health Information of India, an annual statistical publication by the Central Bureau of Health Intelligence (GoI).
The WHO report says governments and industry must “improve inspections and control of the food chain from the fields and farmyards to the factory and plate.” It points out that instead of trying to penalise street vendors it is better to invest in their training and education. Considering the proportion of the urban population in India that depends on street food for its daily meals, this recommendation is of great significance. Once again, like the monitoring of food safety regulations, the ball comes back to the authorities’ court. Consumer awareness is an important factor but basic amenities, responsiveness of the authorities and well-thought-out policy decisions form the basis for better food safety. It is obvious that food safety is a complex issue that calls for a multipronged solution. Success on this front will be directly proportional to the commitment of all stakeholders to saving the lives of future generations and the productivity of millions.