Friday, March 2, 2012


If the "wish" of the Commerce Ministry of Government of India is translated into reality, India should be a major player in the World food trade because the country is considered a leading one in production of most agri-horticultural commodities and in cattle population. Unfortunately the above "wish" continues to be a dream only, with India a very minor exporter of some commodities while export of processed food is still very insignificant. Lack of imaginative support policies and neglect of agriculture and process industry during the last 5 decades has taken its toll and the food export remains more or less stagnant as a percentage of global trade. Whatever little progress has been achieved is because of the initiatives on the part of the food industry through their enterprising spirit and endeavor. Of course there are plethora of government bodies vested with the responsibility of "promoting" exports of food but except for a couple of them all others remain as white elephants with practically nothing to show of their unexciting existence! Here is a "grouse list" of the industry when it comes to import of foods which have become part of GOI policy under WTO regime and one wonders why there is such an inertia on the part of the government in streamlining and expediting the procedures for allowing such legal imports.  

"Delay in obtaining clearance for imported food items is a major problem for the importers, who have time and again tried to bring the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India's (FSSAI) attention to the issue. This was informed by Pankaj Shah, vice-president, the Bombay Custom House Agents' Association. "The total time taken for clearance of imported food items is anywhere between five to 10 days, as sample testing itself needs five days. We have repeatedly approached the Authority on the issue but in vain. However, one good thing happened is that procedure for clearance has been placed online, which reduced our effort in approaching the authority a number of times," said Shah. The situation is aggravating also because there is not enough infrastructure backup for storage of imported food items. Items which do not come in reefer vessels lie in open. One suggestion made by Shah to the Authority was that the samples to be tested should be sent to those labs which were in the port area itself. "As Nhava Sheva port, where the imported food items land, is very far from the city, bringing the samples from there to the laboratory itself takes a day or two. If the lab is in the vicinity itself at least a day would be saved," he said. Pankaj Jaiminy, assistant vice-president, food, health and beauty, TUV SUD South Asia, had another suggestion. He said clearance model akin to Japan could be adopted in India. "Imported food items are cleared in Japan in a day or two, however, Indian imports take minimum five days. The system for testing of imported food items needs to be evaluated for workload. The system adopted in Japan can be easily adopted by India for testing imported food items," Jaiminy said. Interestingly, Japan is able to deliver results for testing of imported food items within a day or two. This is because it has approved different labs in the exporting countries. On arrival of import it would ask for the lab report from the exporting country. Then, Japanese authorities simply do a random sample testing for food items instead of testing each and every product. If the result of the sample tested does not match with that in the report received, the matter is reported to the Export Inspection Council which in turn issues an alert warning or suspends the services of the approved lab for time being". 

It is true that one of the biggest constraints in importing food into the country is the inordinate delay in getting the consignment cleared by the Port Health Authorities who have very limited facilities of their own in analyzing the items for conforming to country's standards. Outside agencies whether in the government sector or private ones do not realize the consequences of even a few hours delay in testing and sending the results which will have to be borne by the importers. Often such delays cost dearly and honest importers are bound to suffer financial losses due to exorbitant handling and port service charges. There is sufficient scope to reform this procedures so that such delays are avoided as far as possible. Probably the FSSAI is weary of doing any thing in this area because of reported import of many food products into the country with suspect credentials by a few unscrupulous traders violating all existing norms. Still it is felt that a sincere exercise in reforming this area as demanded by import trade, is worth trying.  


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