Established under the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is establishing food safety regulations in India. The FSSAI lays down science-based standards for articles of food and regulates their manufacture, storage, distribution, sale, and import to ensure the availability of safe and healthy food for consumption.
Recently we got a chance to interact with Pawan Agarwal the chief executive officer of FSSAI. He made us aware of some of the new projects, systems, standards, and regulations and their implementation.
National Food Laboratory at Ghaziabad
Inaugurated by Harsh Vardhan, union minister of Health and Family Welfare, the FSSAI opened the National Food Laboratory at Ghaziabad in the New Delhi NCR on 23 August 2019. Speaking about the new laboratory, Agarwal said, “It is one of the two premier referral laboratories under the direct administrative control of FSSAI. The national lab is a result of a Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) – the first-of-its-kind in the food laboratory sector. The other referral laboratory, which is in Kolkata, has also been upgraded.”
“The laboratory is equipped with very sophisticated and advanced technology for food testing. It is one of the best food labs in the country. The lab also includes training centers by Merck and Thermo Fisher. In this complex, we are going to have high-quality testing facilities and training facilities,” he added.
New regulations and their implementation
The FSSAI issued many new rules in recent years. Since some of these regulations are struggling with concerns raised by industry, their implementation may take time. Agarwal stated that developing an entire ecosystem takes a while, and there is always a time lag of 6 months to 1.5 years in setting standards and their practical implementation.
Agarwal said, “It’s an ongoing process. New developments will take place from time to time and they will be reviewed and improved. The standards are coming into effect either from 1 January or from 1 July 2019. We normally give at least six months for a new standard to come into force so that businesses have enough breathing time to get into the standard’s regime. For example, if we notify a standard now, it will only come into effect from July 2020. In some cases, businesses request more time for transition, and we consider their requests in such cases.
Industry reaction to the proposed labeling regulations
FSSAI came up with new labeling regulations that have created considerable agitation in the food and beverage industry. “These regulations bring very comprehensive changes in labeling. However, one of the most contentious issues in labeling rules is front and back labeling, which gives, based on the thresholds, color-coded labels for salt, sugar, and saturated fat.”
The industry has expressed its concern about the thresholds set by FSSAI and requested it to recalibrate these levels based on Indian consumption patterns. Of the discussions held with the industry and sharing FSSAI’s action plan, Agarwal said, “We are on the same page to decide minimum thresholds beyond which the food is declared or labeled as ‘unhealthy.’ The work includes conducting a survey on food products in the country, assessing the quantity of salt, sugar, and fat in them to judge the current reality and then taking steps towards reducing them.”
Cluster approach for small food business operators
Reaching out to small food business operators (FBO) in the country is very difficult as most of them are not aware of best hygiene practices. Many have minimal knowledge that food becomes unsafe without excellent hygiene practice. FSSAI adopts a cluster approach for small FBOs rather than tackling individual venders.
Agarwal explained that FSSAI offers training, in case it comes across issues like availability of potable water, and lack of electricity, power supply, and waste disposal systems. It works with municipal authorities to make all these things happen.
Clean food hubs
“FSSAI has also taken other initiatives like clean food hubs, and the authority is aiming for clean and fresh fruit and vegetable markets. In all these initiatives, there is a matrix on which we measure whether they are doing all things correctly. Our inspection model includes pre-audits to find out the current situation, interventions to improve the situation, and a post-audit which is preceded by the training of the vendor as well as infrastructural improvement of that area in case required. After the post-audit, if we find them good, we declare it a clean food hub.”
In October 2016, FSSAI operationalized the Food Safety and Standards (Fortification of Foods) Regulations, for fortifying staples such as wheat flour and rice (with iron, Vitamin B12 and folic acid), milk and edible oil (with Vitamins A and D) and double-fortified salt (with iodine and iron) to reduce the high burden of micronutrient malnutrition in India. Agarwal shared, “We are following a comprehensive fortifications strategy to promote it in the open market. So far, we have got a success rate in fortified edible oil and milk in the open market.”
FSSAI has issued a notice to dairy major Amul for ‘disparaging’ the fortified milk segment. Speaking on this, Aggarwal said, “Amul has taken an impractical view on milk fortification. Currently, 37% of packaged milk is fortified. Amul has started saying, that why do we mix vitamins in milk that are synthetic or artificial? Amul says it believes in natural fortification. I do not know what this natural fortification is.”
Food surveillance drives
“FSSAI’s food surveillance happens at two levels, including inspections of food premises to see if they have systems in place and issue them notices if they have challenges and areas of improvement, and testing samples taken from food premises to find out the concerned areas. FSSAI is active in both inspections as well as taking surveillance drives,” he said.
Safe and healthy food
Agarwal reiterated that the primary focus of FSSAI is to ensure that the industry produces safe and healthy food. He added, “As far as safety is concerned, there is zero compromise, as no industry wants to produce unsafe food. Otherwise, their food will not be sold. We know it is in their interest to produce safe food. We trust them, but we verify from time to time.”
“As far as healthy food is concerned, it is more focused on consumers’ choice; therefore, there is a lot more focus on consumer empowerment for creating a demand for healthy food. Once consumers demand healthy food, businesses will start producing it,” he continued. In conclusion, the food authority expects the industry to continue to offer safe, healthier, and innovative options to our citizens!