Friday, August 14, 2015

"Made in India" food products not up to international mark? Why?

When Indian Prime Minister started his "Make in India" campaign last year with the honest intention to see more and more Indian made products in the international market, there were many who had reservations about the success of such an effort. It is true that manufacturing sector has great potential to expand employment opportunities, especially to those with low skill levels and thus contribute to socio-economic upliftment of the nation. Prime Minister even went to the extent of saying that the country would roll out "red carpet" welcoming foreign investors in stead of "red tape" of the bureaucrats which is a curse on the country. Alas not much has happened during the last 15 months of the government, though many are willing to give a chance for the reforms to come through in the coming months. Functioning of the Parliament, as being seen during the last one year is a big dampener to our hopes but it is time the government focuses more on administrative reforms not requiring the stamp of parliament so that most of the bottlenecks at the bureaucratic level can be sorted out. A recent report highlighting the sorry situation regarding export of processed foods, as highlighted by large scale rejections due to quality and safety factors at the buyers' end, offers a sad picture which must be addressed without much delay. 

Much before the controversy around Maggi raised an alarm over food safety standards in India, the voluminous rejection list of Indian food and cosmetic items in the US served as a precursor to the need for better regulations of food safety laws in India.India has always been one of the top three countries to face rejections in the monthly refusal list of food items by the Operational and Administrative System for Import Support (OASIS), of the US FDA(Food & Drug Administration). In June 2015, 170 Indian products, 185 in May and 143 in April, were rejected by the US FDA, marking the second highest number of refusals in all the three months. Ironically, India has one of the best food laws in place on paper, which requires even a roadside peanut vendor to get a licence from the government. However, the problems lie in the poor implementation of laws. In 2006, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) was established as an independent statutory authority for all food-related laws under Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. The Act repealed a plethora of previous central Acts including the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954, which was the principal law governing the food sector in India so long. The new laws were aimed to address the issue of food safety, apart from food adulteration. The FSSAI- broadly based on Codex Alementarius Commission, a benchmark for international food safety practices- became the central regulatory authority responsible for regulating manufacture, storage, distribution, sale and import of food. The commission dates back to 1963, when the Food and Agricultural organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) along with its 185 member states formed the standards. "The biggest problem with food law is that it was hurriedly copied from Codex but was not sufficient to address problems in the Indian food sector. Most importantly, at the ground level, the food inspectors have no competency and capacity for effective monitoring. The FSSAI has just made the inspector raj more pronounced," said a food consultant on the condition of anonymity.

It must be admitted that the country does not need to evolve standards for various products being manufactured here because of the existence of thousands of such standards evolved by international organizations. But when it comes to traditional food products, unique to the country, they have been severely neglected by the food scientists in India though there are half a dozen research organizations of some repute and at least two dozen universities across the country imparting training and research skills to aspiring food scientists. As for Food safety management agency we have seen how it became butt of a joke internationally through its unjustified ban on a brand of noodles which was fortunately overruled by the judiciary. If India is to make a dent in the export market in food sector, it cannot achieve this through export of bread, biscuits or chocolates. This has to come through trasditional foods, thousands in number, languishing locally across the country for want of scientific inputs to standardize them, modernize their making process and design appropriate machinery for commercial production. Can our PM inspire the food scientists through carrot or stick to shift their focus of research to traditional foods in stead of wasting their time on western foods? Unless this is done the "Make in India" slogan will remain a slogan only!


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