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Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), an autonomous body under the health ministry, is the sole authority to ensure food safety. Admitting that adulteration is a serious problem, FSSAI’s CEO Pawan Kumar Agarwal tells Jeevan Prakash Sharma that misinformation is a bigger challenge. Excerpts from the interview:
With reports of large-scale adulteration of food, especially dairy products such as ghee and milk, do you agree that adulteration has reached an alarming proportion?
There is definitely a serious issue of food adulteration, but the perception is worse than the ground realities. This perception is based on unsubstantiated, sometimes misinformed, news about adulteration being circulated on print, electronic and social media. There is also genuine news, and even if only a small proportion of food is getting adulterated, addressing it is a top priority—but it is important to understand the extent of adulteration and its health impact so there is no unnecessary panic. We have heard that some people have stopped taking certain food products out of fear of adulteration. Such fears are often unfounded. For instance, we conducted an all-India survey of milk recently. Of the 6,432 samples collected, only 0.18 per cent was found to be adulterated.
Raids by the Special Task Force and food safety department of Madhya Pradesh unearthed more than half-a-dozen dairies in villages, with a total daily production capacity of 2.5 lakh to 3 lakh litres of milk. This is just one of the several cases where the culprits were caught.
We do get such news once in a while. At a recent meeting of stakeholders, there was a unanimous view that our survey depicts the real situation. However, sporadic incidents of adulteration cannot be ruled out. Information should be discreetly collected and raids conducted. This is usually restricted to a few areas that have been identified. We have asked the state governments to be extra vigilant in those areas.
Besides adulteration, what are the other concerns regarding food safety?
FSSAI is also committed to addressing the matter of food being unsafe due to contaminants coming from primary production or across the value chain. We also have to ensure that food business operators follow the quality parameters we have set. Labelling defects, sometimes deliberate, are another area of concern.
Doesn’t your data—26.4 per cent of food samples collected across the country in 2018-19 failed to conform to the set standards—point to a bigger problem?
It doesn’t mean one-fourth of food available in the market is unsafe. When state food safety officers conduct enforcement exercises, they identify potential spots and take the samples from there. It is targeted sampling, not representative of the entire food of the country.
According to your own data, food safety officers could collect only 233 samples on an average daily. Isn’t it inadequate?
I agree it is very small. In many states, there are not enough food safety officers or lab facilities. To address the first problem, we have asked each food safety inspector to take at least six to eight samples every month. Many states are not doing it, but we are asking them to. For the second problem, I have asked the state food safety departments to go for a private lab notified by the FSSAI. Simultaneously, we are building the capacity of the state labs.
Many people say the food safety act has been diluted.
I think the focus of the current act is not to catch people doing the wrong thing, but to prevent people from doing it—preventive control. In order to ensure safety across the value chain, we have to educate food business operators. It is a paradigm shift from the earlier prevention of food adulteration act. With the prevailing act, we are looking at the whole gamut of food processing—transport, storage, retail, distribution—everything to ensure that a consumer gets safe food.
False news about processed food makes people consume less processed food so our processed food sector and exports suffer. They thrive on the trust of people, which gets eroded. It is important to trust the food available in the market. Don’t trust blindly, but educate yourself. There are tests for food adulteration that people can do on their own. We also need to strengthen our intelligence on food adulteration happening in certain pockets.
In states like Delhi, lack of coordination between the food safety department and the police is quite apparent in several cases. Does that bother you?
Much better coordination is needed to ensure that food adulteration or unsafe food cases can reach a logical conclusion. In many states, these systems work together, but in others it is a bit of a challenge.
Despite the ban on sale of loose edible oil and spice powders, some states have allowed it and in others it is blatantly ignored. Why?
It is a big challenge. Some states have allowed the sale of loose edible oil in the interest of the livelihood of the common man. We have been persuading them that such permission is not correct. Spices are another area. Packaging methods are available at a nominal cost, so this should not happen. Of late, the concern about plastic waste has raised the question of which one is better: loose sale or packaged sale? Sometimes you are caught between these trade-offs among environment, food safety and livelihood issues.
Often, difference in results of two laboratories helps the culprits get away. Why is the proficiency of labs so poor in our country?
The reason for varying results can be either deliberate, involving the integrity of the person doing the testing, or it could be a non-deliberate error. If it is deliberate, then it is outright criminal and these people must be taken to task. In many cases, the same sample gives different results if the correct equipment is not used or its calibration is not right. Sometimes the methodology is different, leading to different results. We are trying to minimise them as much as possible by improving the quality of testing in both state labs and referral labs. Sometimes people who conduct food tests are scientists and often they make the plea that they have done it through their own way and they are right.
A shorter, edited version of this appeared in print