Adulteration of food products has become an order of the day putting lives at risk. How do you look at it?
Food adulteration is a serious health hazard in India, especially in sub-urban areas, where the actual activity takes place and from where the adulterated food is then transferred to the large cities to be sold in the shops. Although there are severe punishments and penalties – such as up to Rs 10 lakhs fine and life imprisonment for serious cases leading to death – there is a need to do more in order to check the rampant menace in the society. The food safety officers (FSOs) are now more active in raiding the premises of defaulter food business operators (FBOs). Now, with the availability of portable food adulterant testing kits, the FSOs can perform tests and take decisions on the spot and book the erring FBOs then and there.
The consumers must also be more aware about the issue that may be going on under their noses. The government could play a proactive role in creating awareness among the people through TV, radio and the print media. The consumers on their part should purchase their food articles from reliable and reputed shops. They should check the pack labelling for FSSAI license number, BIS or AGMARK certification. They should identify and avoid the eateries and restaurants in their community that have a bad reputation for serving poor quality food. In case of doubt, they can test for common adulterants using reagents available at their disposal in their homes. Further help can be sought from food testing labs in case of serious problems.
What does the government do to check the reliability of a restaurant kitchen?
The government on its part inspects various establishments from time to time. They give particular attention to the cleanliness and hygienic conditions of both the kitchen and eating areas, at the time of the renewal of the FSSAI license of a restaurant. The FSSAI certification, hence, should be clearly displayed in the restaurant, and the food business operator must make sure that this is renewed from time to time. The kitchen area must be spotlessly clean. Proper storage area is important as food inspectors are very particular about these aspects. Water is a vital component of the kitchen, hence, safe potable water, tested and certified by a NABL accredited and FSSAI approved testing lab, should be available at all the time. Moreover, the food samples need to be sent for testing for microbiological contamination etc. once in every six months and all records and documents must be maintained and kept ready for regular audits.
Don’t you feel there is a need for more number of food testing labs to meet the demand of food processing sector that is growing at a fast pace?
There are currently 82 NABL accredited, FSSAI notified food testing labs and most of them belong to the private sector. The Govt. of India is involved with the regulations and has four referral labs in the country, which work in sync with other notified labs (Level 1 and Level 2 labs) to check for compliance and maintenance of standards & practices by other testing labs. There is a need for more number of labs to cater to the rapid expansion of the food processing sector and to cope with the increasing demands. The government could play a vital role in this direction by initiating more public-private-partnerships (PPPs).
What challenges does the government face in containing illegalities of food processing sector?
Much of the non-compliance from the side of the food business operators (FBOs) largely arise from a lack of awareness about the current rules & regulations and standards. Many are not even aware that they require a valid license from FSSAI in order to operate their food business. Therefore, there is an urgent need to increase the awareness among FBOs to get their samples tested at least once in six months. Issues pertaining to the food product approval system, particularly for dietary supplements, nutritional products etc. need to be addressed. With the ever-expanding food processing industry, the government also needs to keep pace and increase the manpower to cope with the increasing demand. The laws and associated penalties need to be implemented more stringently. Here also, more manpower is required. There is also a need for better infrastructure and greater co-ordination between the Central and State governments.
Could you share your operations and business model?
We have an online presence through the Food Safety Helpline, which is a dedicated portal for the food business fraternity so that they are well informed about all aspects of FSSAI compliance needs. It is for this reason that the entire Food Safety & Standards Act is placed on the website to facilitate stakeholders looking for regulatory information. To this end we also offer E-courses, conduct webinars, and operate blog posts that will serve to help the food business community to ensure safe food for the consumer. A mobile app that caters to self-inspection of food business premises is also available that can be downloaded from the portal on any Android mobile phone. This app provides useful information for the food business operators.
What positive changes can your actions bring in the area of food safety?
Lack of awareness is the gap which we want to bridge. According to estimates, there are more than 40 lakh FBOs in India who need licenses. We intend to target them all so that they can be included on the food safety platform. We could also realise some gains from our paid services like E-learning and onsite trainings on food hygiene. We are planning to scale up our consultation services based on regulatory requirements and on promotion of our analytical and testing services and inspection/audits.
Additionally, we intend to promote services like onsite trainings. We plan to use mobile labs for sampling food products in important cities in India which would promote food hygiene. We have recently introduced the facility of sample collection from the client locations through a dedicated vehicle where food samples could be conserved to a minimum -10 degrees Celsius. The service is in operation in Delhi-NCR and also covering a radius of ~250 km, up to Agra and Jaipur. We have plans to expand the number of these temperature-controlled vans in the near future.