Friday, August 22, 2008


Food safety management is an onerous task every country is concerned with, to prevent risks to life through food borne contamination and epidemics. With millions of foods raw, cooked, preserved and processed flooding the market place, the logistics of evolving safety standards and their enforcement can be a nightmarish experience. The system of management revolves around experienced technical personnel, well versed with all branches of food science, chemists familiar with analytical techniques and managers with administrative insight. While in capitalistic countries many functions of safety and quality monitoring are left to private players, there are many countries which take up these activities under the government aegis. In democratic societies the functioning of safety managers is highly transparent with all citizens having a right to challenge those actions considered not consumer friendly. Separation of judiciary and the executive arms in most of the democracies make it possible to avoid high handed executive actions not in the interests of the consumer. This is not possible in autocratic societies ruled by dictators and monopolistic parties, though the enforcement regime is much more effective in many cases where consumer interest is sacrificed by the industry.
In India the food standards and safety management at the macro level is mostly vested with the ministry of health at the federal level and logistics of enforcement are decentralized so that local state machinery can keep vigilance on a day to day basis. While a fair amount of democratic procedures are enshrined in the system, prosecutions and punishments for violation are far and few with extended legal wrangles and delays at the judiciary level. At the ground level, the system is heavily loaded against the consumer with rampant corruption and Wheeling and dealings often  taking place between the offenders and the prosecuting officials. It is a common knowledge that the power to prosecute is invariably a weapon to favor resourceful large industry and big traders to the detriment of small scale and micro enterprises. It may be too much to expect that any thing can be done to arrest this trend unless an equitable and transparent dispute settlement mechanism is created enjoying the confidence of government, industry and the consumer.
In contrast Communist China, a highly authoritarian country with no democratic pretensions, can afford strict and severe punishments for violations that will be deterrent for other perpetrators of similar crimes. While awarding punishments, one has to be absolutely sure that the guilt of the accused is proved beyond a shade of doubt. Probably for the Chines, sacrificing one innocent person is acceptable for the general good of the society. On the contrary in India the cardinal principle of justice is to give the benefit of doubt to the accused so that an innocent person is never punished. This is responsible for low levels of prosecutions and still lower levels of convictions in spite of the fact that wide spread adulteration, especially by traders and unorganized food industry is rampant.
This topic of food safety was discussed here in the light of recent developments in China where there were upheavals amongst the food quality management fraternity that were startling. During the last two years Chines government have convicted a number of high ranking officials of its Food & Drug Administration to long prison terms after finding them guilty of corruption. Last July the government executed Mr Zheng Xianoyu, head of another regulatory agency for failing to supervise the food and drug market and accusing him of taking bribes for granting special favors to some. On August 2 this year another high official Mr Wu Jianping, head of food production supervision at the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine committed suicide, after he was questioned as a part of corruption investigation. It is very difficult to make a judgment regarding the fairness or otherwise of these cases in the absence of lack of transparency in the system. Whether actions like these make the consumers safer from unsafe foods is also a matter of conjecture.
In contrast, the recent reports of salmonella contamination of Tomato/Jalapeno Peppers and E.Coli infection in ground beef in USA were widely circulated all over the world. The inept handling by FDA of USA, one of the most reputed organizations in the field was also widely criticized. FDA was even held responsible for raising false alarm in the case of tomatoes and causing losses, more than $100 million to the industry. The above two extremities speak for the dangers inherent in managing such systems, efficiently and without hurting the consumer or the industry.
It is interesting to hazard a guess whether there would have been such a frenzy amongst the bureaucrats to wangle the Chairmanship of the Food Standards and Safety Authority, if Chinese example was followed in India also!

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