Together, we can ensure that food’s safe
Global watchdogs and sustained activism serve to keep producers, manufacturers and regulators on their toes
If we take a look at the history of food safety regulations in India, barring the past five years, the establishment and relevant infrastructure were more focused on prevention and detection of adulteration. As a result, the industry and testing infrastructure were well equipped to prevent adulteration. Testing facilities are now gradually upgrading to help food regulators implement and food producers comply with the Food Safety and Standards Act.
Like any new regulation, the implementation of this Act too is currently in its initial stages. Sovereign regulations have always been finetuned on the basis of learning over a period of time across the world. The size and dynamic nature of the food market in India has further impeded the implementation of new regulations. Markets that have evolved in terms of regulating food safety, have done so through seamless collaboration between industry and regulators.
A world view
Food safety incidents that occur across the world are unconnected to the state of development of a nation, be it the salmonella outbreak in peanuts reported in the US in 2009, or the e-coli outbreak in sprout beans reported in Germany in 2011. The outbreaks are due either to issues in the supply chain — such as poor agricultural practices or processing — or due to food frauds.
The unintentional safety issues arising from the overuse of pesticides and antibiotics can be controlled by providing training and knowledge to farmers; however, the major concern is money-driven adulteration or food fraud, for example, the gutter-oil scandal in Taiwan in 2014. We also still remember the 2008 incident when China was struck by the ‘melamine in milk’ scandal that led authorities across the world to develop policies that would ensure that similar instances do not reoccur.
Today, global markets are driving some of the most evolved food regulations. They have been effectively implemented in markets where the government has empanelled international third party organisations to carry out inspections on their behalf. Corrective measures for food safety issues can be two-pronged — ensuring that the current damage is minimised and securing the future. Regulations can help secure the future. The implementation of food safety regulations is driven by improvisation, and examples from developed and developing markets stand testimony to this claim.
The existing damage can be minimised through product recalls. In India, recalls are limited to the automotive sector where traceability is highly evolved. To replicate a similar recall structure for food products, a key factor is for raw materials to be traceable. Traceability decentralises responsibility for the safety of a food product from the manufacturer to every participant of the value chain, from the one who farms the raw material to the one who packs the final product.
The nature of the Indian market, however, is highly complex, and although materials are sourced locally, driving traceability through the value chain is a long-drawn process. An effective way to improve traceability is to spread the infrastructure network of inspection deep into complex geographies. At some locations the government already has laboratories; the government can mandate private players to test and inspect in the remaining areas.
Every new regulation or Act goes through the journey of acceptability and adoption. Food safety regulations in India are currently in this process. This can be attributed to rising awareness among stakeholders, including consumers.
Both, food manufacturers as well as regulators have come together on many occasions to ensure the safety of the consumer. In India, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) got external agencies to carry out inspections on its behalf for the first time in 2012. This enabled the FSSAI cover more ground and, in the process, led to faster adoption of new-age testing techniques owing to the global footprint of these laboratories. Such initiatives help improve the broader food safety landscape and ensure that turnaround time for such instances to be detected are shorter. Traceability along with the right mix of lab infrastructure can help the nation react more efficiently to the issues of food safety.
Is the framework robust?
The process of upgradation of laboratories has been steady; in any case, it should not be done in a hurry. A measured approach to expansion of the food testing lab network will ensure that the existing labs do not go unmanned and deteriorate due to under-utilisation. The system is pro-active, and these efforts can be further accelerated if key s
Bread and butter issues in food safetytakeholders across the value chain partner each other the objective of improving the landscape.
Issues on the safety of food will continue cropping up for a considerable period of time. They will cover a mix of policy intervention, development of infrastructure, public-private partnerships, adequate skill development, learning from experience and an intent to improve the state of food safety.
The transfer of information across the globe has led to awareness among consumers, food businesses, as well as regulators. However, at some point, we all need to take a step back and realise that while gathering information is easier and less tedious than implementing it, the task at hand is humungous and can only be achieved through collaborative accountability. Maybe, a decade from now we will be at a much more evolved state of food safety, but it is for the industry and the regulators to relentlessly work towards making our food safe. With consumers increasingly becoming more aware and activism lying at the brink of any issue of human interest, it is now more critical than ever for policy to be stronger.