Thursday, July 2, 2015

Will this new Kerala initiative work? Doubtful

Ignoring the "boasting" element in the statement of the food safety authority in Kerala, one has to give a fair trial to the proposal to set up mobile testing labs to detect unsafe and sub-quality foods in that state. But it is difficult to imagine how such a project will work in a country like India where food safety vigilance system is severely hampered by archival testing infrastructure, vague food laws and rules and a seriously under- staffed work force. Read the idea being floated by the authorities recently reported by the media and try to understand the mindset of the implementing agency in the state. 

"Concerned over increasing instances of food adulteration, Kerala is gearing up to set up a string of mobile testing laboratories at check posts, claimed to be a first such initiative in the country. The plan is to examine the quality of food articles, including milk, milk products, oil and water, in view of increasing concerns on the flood of adulterated food articles from neighbouring states. Tender procedures in this regard were almost complete and negotiations were on with a company to finalise the standards and conditions, a senior Food safety official said. In the initial phase, three mobile lab units would be set up in selected check posts in the state. State Food Safety Joint Commissioner K Anil Kumar said, "This is the first time that any state is setting up such mobile labs at check posts to test quality of edible goods." "By setting up mobile test labs, Kerala is actually showcasing a model for other states in the drive against adulterated articles. We are planning to open them at selected check posts in the state, but the exact locations are yet to be decided," he told. The state-owned Kerala Medical Services Corporation Ltd has been entrusted with the selection of the company to set up the mobile labs. "KMSCL has now zeroed in on a company and negotiations are going on," he said. He said the state was already carrying out regular checks and strict monitoring to ensure the quality and safety of food articles and the drive has been intensified after the Maggi noodles controversy. The government had also stepped up its vigil at check posts to prevent the arrival of vegetables and fruits, having high pesticide residue, from neighbouring states. "There is no comparison between mobile testing labs and our highly sophisticated dedicated food safety labs. Only preliminary examination of samples is possible there. But, we will get first round results faster at the mobile labs," Anil Kumar said. The samples, found to be having high degree of adulteration, would be sent to the nearby dedicated food safety labs for detailed examination. "Though the quality of food articles, oil, milk, milk products and water can be tested at these labs, the pesticide content in vegetables cannot be examined there as it is a time consuming analytical process," the official said. Such a facility would facilitate gradual decrease in flow of adulterated and sub-standard food products from other states, he added. Kerala recently informed Tamil Nadu that vegetables brought from that state were found to have pesticide residues three to five times more than the permissible limit. This was noticed during random visits to certain farmlands in nine districts in Tamil Nadu recently by a team of Food Safety officials from Kerala after the state launched a drive against sale of vegetables with high pesticide content. As part of initiatives to check them, it had been made mandatory for all vegetables traders to get license and registration for sale. The vehicles bringing vegetables from other states have also got to register themselves under the Food Safety and Quality Act."

What is intriguing about this scheme is that such mobile testing labs are to be set up only at "check posts" that dot the state boundaries with Tamilnadu and Karnataka. This assumes rather pompously that foods coming from other states are only unsafe as the native industry is repository of all virtues! This is sending a wrong message to Kerala manufacturers that they can produce food products of doubtful safety and quality! The "Commissioner", probably a well meaning babu, has no clue regarding the wherewithal required to set up a food testing lab that too in a four wheeler carrier. Can the results of tests in these labs have any legal validity? How can a simple and cheap mobile lab test foods for all the parameters laid down in the statute books? One of the major complaints regarding out of the state foods has been regarding presence of high levels of pesticides in them and can these mobile labs do a honest job in estimating these dangerous chemicals? Impossible unless one invests crores of rupees to design and build a mobile food testing lab. Honestly such labs, most of them becoming redundant within a few months of launching due scarcity of inputs in quality and quantity required to run such facilities, might be of little impact as far as Kerala citizens are concerned. This Blogger will be happy to be proved wrong eventually.  

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