Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Food standards bill to be revamped?-Will it make any difference?

The Food safety and standards act under which FSSAI works to over see the food quality and safety in the country is going to be overhauled is a good news. But in what form it will emerge from the government closets remains to be seen. According to spokesman of the present government, the Act will be "amended" to be in conformity to various judgments pronounced by the judiciary in the country and also professes to take into consideration representations received from from various stakeholders regarding the difficulties faced by them. One of the severest criticisms of the Act is that it is administered by a ministry which has nothing to do with foods and therefore lacks the wherewithal to understand and administer the same. Though it is supposed to be "managed" by the FSSAI, the umbilical chord with the ministry is so strong that it has very little independence in practice. Besides FSSAI has practically no technical and technological expertise and independent policing force to enforce the rules and regulations strictly and amicably. Now that government is taking up the "amendments" for incorporation of new provisions or withdrawing some of the existing ones, one hopes the Act in its final form will be more conducive to operate as far as honest manufacturers and food handlers are concerned while being ruthless in dealing with fraudsters and food criminals who jeopardize the health of unsuspecting citizens. Here is a gist of the report that talks about the recasting of the Act mentioned above.  

'The government on Tuesday withdrew from the Rajya Sabha a bill related to food safety and standards which it wants to amend further taking into account recent court judgments. The Food Safety and Standards (Amendment) Bill, 2014 was withdrawn by Minister of State for Health Shripad Yasso Naik. The previous UPA government had proposed amendments to the Act to expand the composition of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and dispense with certain conditions in public interest while making regulations on food. The bill was introduced in Rajya Sabha on February 19, this year. However, the move to withdraw the bill was objected by P Rajeeve (CPI-M), who said it was under consideration of a Standing Committee. "On the basis of this statement, the House has no legislative competence," Rajeeve said, referring to papers apparently provided to him by the government. PJ Kurien, who was in the Chair, said the objection is "pertinent" and if the bill is with the Committee, the House cannot withdraw it. Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi then told the House that a report had been received from the Committee. Following Naqvi's intervention, Kurien said that it is very clear that a report had come from the Committee and it is on record with the Minister also having said so. The motion was then adopted and the Food Safety and Standards (Amendment) Bill 2014 withdrawn. An official statement released last month said the bill needs to be further amended after taking into account judgements of the Supreme Court, Lucknow Bench of Allahabad High Court, and representations received by the government and other recent developments".  

India is known for its legal acumen in drafting and enacting laws and regulations which can compare well with any international regulatory documents but what is lacking is the focused application and effective implementation of the same country wide. Specifically referring to foods, being a state subject there is very little the federal government can do except "advising" the states from legal, technical and implementation perspectives. This is the reason why many state governments are lethargic in enforcing the laws relating to food safety. The allure of funds from Delhi can work only up to a limit and the resolve to improve consumer welfare and industry's working environment must come from the states. If necessary central government must consider amending the constitution to evolve a powerful regulatory authority, answerable to only the Parliament, with world class implementing infrastructure. By just tinkering with a sloppy food safety law at it exists now is not going to be of much use to the citizen!  


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