Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Road blocks to innovation in food technology-Is government a culprit?

Any innovation undertaken by scientific community must have the interests of the citizens upper most in their mind. But in to day's industrialized world, innovations are more often taken up by the industry for furthering the profits of the manufacturers. In the case of foods many innovations in earlier years were undertaken by public funded agencies making available the knowledge to one and all without caring for returns on R & D investments made. If consumers are facing to day a situation where he hardly knows what industry is doing to siphon off money from his purse in the name of good foods because transparency and trust are totally lacking vis-a-vis organized food industry. Look at the multi million dollar battle going on in the US, funded by lobbyists and apologists, to preempt any mandatory provision for declaring GMO food ingredients on the label as being demanded by hundreds of consumer activists organizations. Government policies are intended to protect the consumer from unsafe foods first and then safeguard them against frauds and cheating. Unfortunately government itself seems to be putting hurdles and road blocks in the way of innovations through rigid and archaic standards which should have been dynamic keeping in view the ever expanding knowledge base in food science. Here is a critique on such a situation as reported recently. 

"Years ago, the FDA established Standards of Identity for many products so that consumers were protected from mislabeled food product. But consumers today are more educated about food ingredients, and are demanding ingredients in food products like Just Mayo that are Non-GMO verified, all natural, organic, gluten-free, from cage-free eggs, and less saturated fats to name a few. To me, the FDA's Standards-of-Identity are nothing more than a barrier to new food innovation that is no longer needed. It reminds me of President Reagan walking to the Berlin wall, and asking Russian President Gorbachev to "Tear this wall down." I believe the FDA needs to tear down the barriers to entry in the food business – and become an enabler of new products and not a prevention to new product development. But, is this a hypocritical position since Unilever sells a product called " Can't Believe It's Not Butter?" 

How about Indian situation? There is hardly any meaningful genuine innovation in food products development in India as public funded R & D agencies are more obsessed with "ivory tower" research with no concern for the common man. The FSSAI in the present avatar or PFA in the earlier avatar could not be considered to be  equipped adequately to deal with innovations because of inflexible rules and food identity standards. It is a catch 22 situation where new products cannot be marketed unless there are standards of identity available in the statute books. Of course there is this proprietary food route one can use to get "approval" from the technically "innocent" "babudom" for products deviating from existing standards but such foods will have to be differently named. For example an ice cream must contain minimum limits of sugar and milk fat, both of which are implicated in some life style disorders. If an entrepreneur wants to make an ice cream more healthy by reducing sugar and fat, that product cannot be called ice cream! There are many such examples that can be cited to illustrate this point. Probably it is time for liberating the industry from such shackles with minimum restraints but strict oversight.


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