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Not in safe hands

 

Food regulator must champion public health and not be industry cheerleader

In whose interest? The 2017 FSSAI-Nestle handshake was shameful, considering the company was still under the scanner

The way the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is cosying up to the very food industry it is supposed to regulate, it would appear it has forgotten that it is not a promotional agency but a legally mandated regulator. The FSSAI is supposed to establish food safety standards and enforce them as per law, acting as the custodian of public health, just like the Food and Drug Administration in the US. For the promotion of food industry and business, the Centre has a dedicated wing — Ministry of Food Processing Industries.

Food and drug regulation is divided between the FSSAI and the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI). In both, the influence of powerful industrial and business lobbies has been a matter of concern. In 2012, the parliamentary committee on health had exposed the dubious nature of drug regulation, and reminded the DCGI that its job was to protect consumer interest and public health and not promote the interests of the pharmaceutical industry. Now, the FSSAI is going the same way.

The FSSAI came into existence as a result of the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 and started functioning a couple of years later. The food industry influence on the regulator was seen at the very genesis of the authority when it packed all its scientific panels with representatives of the industry it sought to regulate. The panels were supposed to formulate standards for various things such as levels of pesticide residue, food labelling, genetically modified content in food, food supplements, recall, fisheries products, etc. Appointing food industry executives on these panels was grossly unethical as well as illegal. The law clearly lays down that members of scientific committees should be ‘independent’ experts. These committees were cleaned up following uproar in media and rebuke from the Supreme Court.

Within a few years, the industry — perhaps nudged by the regulators — invented a way to subvert these panels once again. Instead of nominating people directly from Coke, Pepsi, Cargill, ITC, Nestle, etc., as was done in 2008, the FSSAI stuffed its panels with so-called experts from industry-floated and industry-backed, dubious think tanks, associations and so-called private research institutes.

When this industry-regulator arrangement was exposed recently in international and national press, the FSSAI has come out with draft guidelines on ‘working with the private sector’. These guidelines are nothing but poor justification of what has been going on in the authority in the past few years. It is now seeking to legitimise its cosy arrangement with the global and national food industry. The guidelines say that ‘any candidate currently working/employed or associated with private food businesses of their research centres cannot be considered for appointment’ in any scientific panel. The authority will have to sack half the members and chairmen of its panels if the proposal is implemented honestly. The guidelines also justify the participation of CEO and other senior officials of the authority on panels of some vague food safety centres established by industry associations, as long as ‘the work of such centres is fully aligned with the aims and objectives of FSSAI’. There is inherent conflict in this — the objective of private industry and food biggies is profit, while the FSSAI is supposed to protect public health and consumer interest. Where do the two sets of interests align? Why should the CEO of public-funded FSSAI rub shoulders with food companies who are answerable only to their shareholders?

Ironically, the present rot in food regulation follows a major food product recall by the FSSAI in 2015 — Nestle’s Maggi noodles — for mislabelling. This recall had jolted global food giants. Here was a promising market for highly processed food products and a food regulator which could bite. Food majors responded by unleashing high-pitch public relations and lobbying efforts through industry chambers, politicians, international associations and even World Bank. The goal was to make the FSSAI industry-friendly. Nestle floated a food safety research centre, Hindustan Lever got Confederation of Indian Industries to set up a centre for excellence in food safety, ITC gave the bait of training regulatory staff, and so on. In each of these activities, the FSSAI became an active partner and its top brass donned the cap of a champion of food industry, deviating from its legally mandated goal of protecting consumer health. The handshake of the FSSAI chief with Nestle in 2017 was a shameful act, given the fact that the company then was still under the scanner and was facing a class action suit. It continues to face trouble with other government agencies. In September 2019, two of its dubious research projects were ordered to be terminated by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) for flouting regulations relating to marketing of baby foods. The DCGI has been asked to examine if ethical approvals were taken for the two clinical trials sponsored by Nestle. But ignoring this, the FSSAI wants to work with the likes of Nestle, as is clear from the latest guidelines on ‘working with the private sector’.

Both the food and drug regulatory authorities should be above board if they have to win the confidence of consumers. Both must champion the cause of public health and consumer safety, and not become cheerleaders of the industry. Like the investigation by the parliamentary panel into the working of the DCGI, and recently into the working of another regulator — Medical Council of India — there should be one covering the functioning of the FSSAI. Knee-jerk reactions to occasional exposes into its working are not going to help. The authority needs an overhaul and a new system that ensures the highest levels of transparency. The blurring of lines between promotion and regulation is not in the interest of the public.

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