Food Safety – Looking Beyond Maggi Conundrum

By Ramesh Raja
In Health
July 23, 2015

Maggii-banEven though food giant Nestle’s Maggi episode has brought the issue of food safety to the forefront, it could just be the tip of the iceberg. India has a huge diversity of food products as varied as the regions and it is a Herculean task to ferret out information on every individual selling food or track the ingredients of each and every localised product. There are also a number of contaminants that can enter foods at any stage of the manufacturing and cooking process if the food business operators do not adhere strictly to the regulations of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and take precautions from farm to fork.

If contaminants are found beyond the permissible limits in a food product, it has to be recalled just like Maggi. Most companies
do ensure that their foods are procured, stored, processed, prepared, packaged and distributed according to the guidelines laid out in the FSSAI regulations.

However, there are many in the food business that might circumvent regulations, some may do so out of ignorance but others do so despite regulations.

There are also multitudes of licensed and monitored processed and packaged foods that contain numerous ingredients, additives, flavours, colours, preservative and chemicals that go into foods of which the consumer is not even aware. It falls on the manufacturer as well as the food authority to ensure that food is safe for human consumption. While this might hold good for the monitored food products, what about the foods that remain out of the loop like street foods?

Is there stringent check on street food?
Not only the high-end restaurants, fast food joints, canteens, caterers, banquet halls and the bakeries but even the roadside food stalls need to obtain a licence/registration under FSS Act, 2006. The FSSAI regulations, 2011 were formulated by the Food
Safety and Standards Authority of India under the Ministry of Health and Family welfare to ensure that safe and hygienic food is supplied by all outlets. However, has anyone ever tested the fruit chaat that is sold on streets, sometimes even beside the open drains or the sugarcane and fresh fruit juice? Are these foods ‘completely safe’? Who will determine how much trans-fat is in the oils used to fry samosas and bhaturas? We can never know if the oil used is branded or sourced from petty neighbourhood unlicensed manufacturers. The oil is probably used again and again, if tested; the oil is likely to carry a huge percentage of trans-fat. Anybody eating these foods on a regular basis could likely suffer severe heart and cholesterol problems or  land up with Type II diabetes and even cancer.

Says Dr Saurabh Arora, founder, Food Safety Helpline, “Outlets need to have proper waste disposal system, clean water for preparing food and washing utensils to prevent food contamination. However, the street vendors dispose of waste into the nearby open drains (gutters) quite often. And it’s a secret from where they source water to cook.  FSSAI regulations talk about the maintenance of personal hygiene by those who prepare and serve food and the need to wear gloves, caps and aprons. But do you ever see any street food vendor serving food with gloves? No one even knows if they maintain personal hygiene or wash their hands before handling food. There is no one to see if they touch their hair, nose or scratch themselves before serving food or if their nails are cut. All these are potential sources of contamination which can find their way into food.”

What about the water?
According to FSS Act, 2006, food business operators are required to either submit a complete report or a report covering the essential parameters described, including physical, chemical and microbiological limits of water used. The water testing report must be obtained from a NABL accredited/FSSAI notified laboratory. This is a compulsory document to be submitted when applying for a license. “There are clear guidelines defined for the potable water and non-potable water which is used for processing and for other purposes respectively. FBOs need to strictly adhere to the guidelines on the testing and analysis of water as heavy metals and industrial pollutants are often found in it,” says Vijay Kumar Arora, chairman, Arbro Group that is involved in the business of food testing and analysis. What about the hundreds of street food operators (petty food businesses) which fall under the criteria of registration under the FSS Act, 2006? There is not even check on the source of water which they use for their manufacturing/ processing. Are they allowed to risk the health of consumers by using contaminated water that  could result in food borne diseases? Has anyone tested the water that goes into the ‘paani’ of the very popular paani puri or the nimboo paani and pudina drink served by hawkers every summer mixed with ice from an unknown source? Is it potable water
that is being used to wash food and the utensils or are they being washed in nallas that run just near the food stall? Though Food Safety & Standards Act, Rules & Regulations have defined guidelines for sanitary and hygienic conditions to be followed by petty food businesses, the food authorities have to strictly monitor the non-compliance by these street food vendors.compliance by these street food vendors.

Waiting for regulations
Nutraceuticals, health supplements, dietary supplements, novel foods, proprietary foods and herbal foods are defined as food under Section 22 of Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. They are called foods because they claim to make up the deficiencies that people might not be getting from their daily diet. FSSAI has categorised them as ‘non-standardized’ food products, so, before they are manufactured, imported, distributed or sold they need to have product approved from FSSAI. However, after product approval there are no checks to ensure manufacturer are using standardised raw materials, or that the label claims are authentic and in the proportions mentioned. Since these foods are unregulated, there is no way to know if the minerals, vitamins, micronutrients or metals added to these foods are within the limits recommended by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) or not. Is it possible that the consumer is paying for an inferior product which is not going to provide them the benefits as mentioned on the labels? According to the Indian law, all micronutrients  in fortified foods must be in keeping with the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) which has been prescribed by the ICMR.

Are infants getting the right foods?
Infant foods are those foods that replace mother’s milk or add to the toddler’s diet. Special attention has to be paid to their manufacturing process so that they meet the required safety standards. These foods include infant formula, infant milk food and different types of cereals. However, despite the sensitive nature of the food, it has been seen that infant foods are also contaminated. According to the FSSAI regulations, certain infant foods can be fortified with Vitamins such as A, B, D group and vitamin C and K but only within permissible limits. Accordingly minerals like Iron, Copper, Zinc, Magnesium, Potassium and Iodine can be added but manufacturers annot surpass the limit. Added vitamins and minerals in infant foods may not cross the permitted levels, but are we sure that they are not also below level? Having nutrients less than RDA will render them ineffective for the healthy growth of the infant. In the recent past, studies conducted on infant foods by agencies found that some brands had protein content that was below the requirement.

The food industry is huge and though the FSSAI has made regulations, the manufacturers and other food business operators need to be more accountable. FSSAI has also outlined ‘Liability for Compliance under section 27.
Accordingly the

Manufacturer is liable if the requirements for food safety under FSS Act, 2006 are not met

Wholesaler/distributor is liable only if foods are

>> Sold after expiry
>> Stored or supplied in violation of the safety instruction
>> Unsafe or misbranded
>> Manufacturer unidentifiable
>> Received with knowledge of being unsafe

Seller is liable for foods if there is

>> Sale after expiry
>> Handled or kept in unhygienic conditions
>> Misbranded
>> Manufacturer unidentifiable

Despite all the regulations FSSAI has to be vigilant to ensure that food business operators are not circumventing the law. The manufacturers need to be more transparent and accountable and the consumers need to be aware about food safety in order to be safe.

(With inputs from Auriga Research Ltd, a multi-disciplinary contract research and testing organisation that is involved in the
analysis of food products, water, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics etc.)