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Food for thought Rethinking – FSSAI critical, but need central control

29,April, 2016
Given the egg that the food regulator has on its face after the Maggi misadventure, it is obvious the system needs a complete overhaul. And that, according to a Business Standard report, is also what Ashish Bahuguna who heads the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has advocated. In a note on the issue, he suggested that all powers of enforcement be devolved to the state governments—in this scenario, the central body will have no enforcement machinery and its job will be mostly restricted to setting standards. Bahuguna has also recommended using a lot more private laboratories instead of just relying on government laboratories.

The FSSAI chief later distanced himself from the note, saying that while a complete overhaul of the food regulatory system is called for, the idea of the note was more to provoke people into thinking out of the box. That is a laudable objective and every attempt has to be made to fix the system which had become so oppressive that a central minister was compelled to come out in the open against it at the height of the Maggi controversy. It would, however, be a mistake to delegate too many powers from the centre to the states when it comes to this kind of regulation—indeed, in the Maggi case, the larger part of the problem arose from various state laboratories giving different test results. While the states certainly have to be involved in order to regulate more effectively, it is imperative that the FSSAI’s capabilities be enhanced. This can be done by, for instance, the FSSAI coming out with norms for different foods and various protocols for testing of foods and then using more private laboratories for doing the actual tests—a system of accreditation of laboratories with periodic checks on their quality is the way to go. Indeed, when the drugs regulator cracked down on various combination drugs some time ago, it was found that some of these had been approved of by various state drug regulators—in even the drug regulatory system, there is an overlap between central and state regulators. In the electricity sector, similarly, while the central electricity regulator has done very good quality work over the years, the state level regulators have, by and large, failed to deliver and are in many ways responsible for the mess the sector is in. In the regulatory system, at least, decentralisation of powers doesn’t seem to be a good idea.

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