Friday, November 13, 2015

Who will protect the consumer in India? Food fraudsters are having a free run!

There are thousands of food products manufactured and marketed in India and they are supposed to be conforming to the quality and safety standards prescribed by the relevant authorities set up by the government of India under the food safety act originating in 2006. However there is a lot of slip between the cup and the lips, meaning the concerned laws are just toothless paper tigers giving practically no protection to the citizen. Though our food standards are second to none when it comes to many of its legal provisions, it is the enforcement regime that is woefully inadequate, allowing the food fraudsters unhindered freedom to adulterate the food with no fear of retribution. Lack of adequate infrastructure, acute shortage of qualified and experienced personnel and a tortoise paced judiciary all combine to make the system practically redundant with no hope of redemption. Though some consumers, conscious about the dangers inherent in foods consumed in the country, desire to take proactive steps to bring the culprits to books, there is very little chance they will be able to do so because of the inherent weakness of the present system. Read further below to understand why the government cuts a sorry figure when it comes to enforcement of the food laws in this country.    

"Government agencies may be making tall claims of protecting consumer rights, particularly in case of food products, but the existing legal provisions expose how people are at the mercy of retailers and state agencies to get justice when they suspect a product to be unsafe or adulterated. According to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) Act, the consumer has to inform the retailer that he is buying the product for testing and he must take a receipt. Consumer activists and even officials said in all probability, retailers would refuse to sell products in such cases. Pointing out how such provisions are impractical to implement, Suresh Misra, professor of consumer affairs at Indian Institute of Public Administration, said, "The minute a consumer says why he is buying the product, no retailer will sell the item. This is despite the fact that the retailer won't be held responsible for any defect in the product."  He added that government agencies should be proactive and pick up samples regularly for testing rather than expecting consumers to do this. "You can imagine how government departments have not even used the legal provisions. 19 years since the Consumer Protection Act came into existence with provision for 'class action', such a complaint was filed for the first time only last week," Misra said. Even FSSAI officials admitted that provisions in the present act do not encourage consumers to pursue cases. The act says after getting a sample from the retailer, the purchaser has to take the product to the food analyst. "Then the consumer is again at the mercy of the food analyst. It's up to him to undertake the test promptly or cite some reason or the other to delay the test even after taking the requisite fees," a senior FSSAI official said. Subsequently, the food analyst shall forward the report to the "designated officer", who takes a final decision for prosecution. Sources said the proposed amendments to the Act may address such 'impractical' provisions. Meanwhile, the consumer affairs department in its proposed consumer protection law has tried to address some of the concerns by bringing failure of a retailer to provide receipt of any purchase under the provision of "unfair trade practice". Moreover, once consumers report complaints to the proposed Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA), the agency will carry out raids, seize items and conduct investigations. However, in case of food items that fall under FSSAI Act, the CCPA will forward its investigation report to the food regulator seeking action against the violator."

Imagine the frustration the citizens can have when, knowing well that they are being cheated day in and day out in the market place, they just become a part of the helpless community which can only watch the tamasha going on in the name of food safety! The public complaint system touted by the government for identifying culprits is a sham as illustrated by the above report. Interestingly the large supermarkets coming up in urban areas are supposed to ensure sale of clean, quality foods with assured safety but whether they are really dong it is a million dollar question. If these mega players are really sincere they should have a product return system under which any consumer can bring back the product if not satisfied and exchange the same for a good product. Alas, this is not happening in India though there are a few who accept returned products, if apparently they look like damaged but not based on quality complaint if the pack is opened at home! Probably there is no alternative to government expanding its vigilance net work several fold to instill some sense of fear among the fraudsters.Will this happen any time sooner? One can only hope that better sense will prevail!  


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