Monday, January 12, 2015

Food safety-Whose baby it is in Kerala?

There was a time when Prevention of food Adulteration Act of 1956 )PFA) was ruling the roost till Government of India suddenly decided to replace it with the new Food Safety and Standards Act in 2006 (FSSA)which took more than five years to bring to fruition. An "Authority" was set up for implementing the regulations though it had no real authority to do much when it comes to violations happening in different states in which the enforcement responsibility is vested. One of the very first things the Authority did was a typical bureaucratic firman that every food handler must register with it and get a license, reminiscent of our early years of independence when every human activity was sought to be regulated through the much hated "license raj"! There is very little improvements at the ground level as far as food adulteration incidences are concerned and it is "happy merry go around" for food criminals and fraudsters who seem to have a vice-like grip on the consumers of this country. Look at the situation in Kerala where two different departments are fighting for hegemony as to who has the power to "inspection" of foods suspected of adulteration! Read further about this sorry state of affairs vis-a-vis the well being of the citizen! 

"Even after the full-fledged Food Safety and Standards Act-2006 came into existence, there is no clarity as to which agency should conduct the inspection of the food sold in the State - the Food Safety Department or the Health Department. Reply to an RTI query submitted on October 16, 2014, shows that the authority to conduct food inspection is vested with the Food Safety Department, not the Health Department."The lack of clarity in the matter is the primary reason why the Food Safety and Standards Act could not be implemented successfully in Kerala," says sources in the Health Department."Call it a paradox. The Health Department, which has around 5,000 staff, carries out all the activities pertaining to food safety, but without any legal backing. Meanwhile, the Food Safety Department, which is legally responsible for such activities, is facing severe staff shortage. The issue could have been easily sorted out if the Health Department officials were given the power to conduct food safety inspections," they pointed out. The RTI report says that as per a  government circular (66562/RC(3)/2012 LSGD), the role of a Health Inspector is restricted to field inspection. The local bodies issues licence based on the inspection conducted by a Health Inspector.  "But, that is a circular, not a law,"  said the sources.The RTI report further points out that according to the Food Safety and Standards Act, a medical certificate from a registered medical practitioner is mandatory, not the health card issued by the Health Department. "So, where is the legal backing for the inspections being carried out by the Health Department? Effective checking would be possible only if both the departments go hand-in-hand. In every gramapanchayat, there is one health inspector, and two or more junior health inspectors. Sadly, the government has not been able to utilise their services, and has restricted them to the areas of immunisation, family planning and prevention of non-communicable disease, which do not require strict monitoring," said the sources.The Health Department has a tendency to follow the Madras Public Health Act-1939 and the Travancore Cochin Public Health Act-1955 quite often. However, reply to another RTI query moved in the Health Department on November 22, 2014, states that Chapter-XII (from Section-114 to 121) that deals with food control, and sections of Madras Public Health Act that gives the Health Department power to tackle food safety issues, had been annulled with the implementation of the Food Safety and Standards Act. Directorate of Health Services Director Dr P K Jameela said that the Health Department had the power to intervene everything that has something to do with the well-being of the people. "Both the departments have to go hand-in-hand to make the process successful. Besides, a Unified Public Health Act can settle this issue to a great extent," she added'.

It is still not clear why the portfolio of food quality and safety is entrusted to the Ministry of Health at the Center while there is a full-fledged Ministry of Food Industries and Ministry of Consumer Affairs, either of which could have done a better job. Besides any legal or punitive action again offenders can be taken only by state authorities with clearly spelt out responsibility and accountability. Why there should be any problem at all to integrate these vigilance and prosecuting responsibilities to an integrated central agency with judicial powers is not understandable. Why not set up specialized Food Crime Courts to punish the guilty with least loss of time and send a powerful signal to criminals that they can not escape the long arm of the law through delays and obfuscation? As long as the governments in states and at the Center are not serious about these things India will prod on like this only and citizens will have to repose more faith in God to save them from harmful foods in stead of the rulers they have elected to look after their welfare!  


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