Sunday, June 21, 2015

Double speak-Our national trait?

Listen to the public utterance, splashed in the print media recently, of a person who seems to imagine he is the " numero uno" expert on food industry in the country. This is after wasting more than 16 years as head of the premier food research agency doing precious little to improve the food industry landscape in the country! It is a pity that Food safety authority (FSSAI) chose him to be the "head" of its panel on nutritious foods and dietary supplements with doubtful credentials to shoulder the responsibility. No wonder FSSAI is in a sorry mess with such people as advisers! No one disputes the fact that FSSAI is not equipped with the wherewithal to perform the duties cast on it because of incompetence, bureaucratic mindset and archival infrastructure for sampling and testing. But their problems will be further complicated if discredited and ill equipped people are chosen to undertake technical tasks which are beyond them. One can go on and go on as to what ails our food safety system but it can be set right not by platform speeches and media statements. Sincere political leaders with vision and an inspired group of scientists will have to join hands to overhaul the system. Has this country the necessary will power and determination to do it? Read further below. .     

"India's food safety apparatus needs sweeping reforms to ensure that its norms are on par with international standards, including an accreditation system that not only screens labs but also its personnel on a regular basis, according to the head of a key panel of India's national food safety authority. "It is time we wake up and work on a science-based approach and move forward rapidly," Dr V Prakash, who chairs the scientific panel of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) on nutritional foods and dietary supplements, told The Indian Express. "If we have periodical evaluation in aviation for pilots, why not for analysts who test our food?" asked the former director of the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI). "If the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) sets guidelines, all airports and flights have to follow them — it should be the same for food analysis laboratories," he added. Dr Prakash's call for an overhaul comes after the FSSAI sought the recall of Nestle's Maggi Noodles in the country following lab tests that showed unsafe levels of lead in some samples. On June 10, The Indian Express reported that some products from top brands such as Tata Starbucks, Kellogg's and Venky's figured on a list of around 500 rejected items that the FSSAI had handed over to state-level officials. Tata Starbucks on Monday said it was pulling out the ingredients on that list from its outlets. Dr Prakash has also called for more scientists to be involved in the regulatory system, as is the case in other countries such as the US. "The system should be run by scientists with bureaucratic support and not the other way round," he said. "The top regulatory body FSSAI does not have many scientists on its permanent staff. Where are the scientists in our food regulation system and what is the role of the few that are there? Ideally, scientists should be involved in monitoring at every stage, including sampling protocols, setting standards, and testing and simulation," the senior scientist said. Seeking an overhaul of state and central labs, Dr Prakash said reforms should cover testing standards, training of analysts, infrastructure, role of scientists in regulation, and the frequency of monitoring. "India should not dilute the standards because many of our laboratories may not have advanced facilities for scientific analysis. We should be at par with international standards such as Codex," said Dr Prakash, who headed the committee that standardised testing standards at the micro-level (parts per billion) for packaged water in 2008".

FSSAI cannot function properly if it has authority only on paper and at least a minimum sampling and testing infrastructure will have to under its control. There is nothing wrong in the concept of a central authority like FDA that exists in the US. But in India FSSAI can only pass orders and cannot sit on judgment regarding the views and data provided by the state agencies. The four Central Laboratories in Mysore, Kolkatta, Ghaziabad and Pune are just referral laboratories "touching" only court referred samples. Another irritant is the legal system that is totally ineffective with years of delays and corruption being the normal norms.Exercising power without responsibility is dangerous. Take the present case involving noodles. Based on flimsy testing data in undependable laboratories, FSSAI did a great damage to its own credibility by banning the product as a knee jerk reaction which resulted in destroying more than Rs 340 crore worth of the product besides practically destroying the brand reputation of the company. Is not FSSAI culpable for collateral damages if the manufacturers sue the government for reparation? Ordinary citizen in this country will have to bear this burden for the folly of a few thoughtless persons in the government. Another pertinent question is why should India waste enormous time and resources for setting up quality standards and safety parameters in stead of adopting those evolved by WHO-FAO Alimentarius Commission? Products like traditional foods for which international standards are not available need to be studied for evolving country specific standards. It took more than 6 years for the GOI to implement the food safety regulations after initiating it in 2006 and to hear now that this has to be "overhauled" is nothing but a huge joke!  


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