Monday, May 4, 2009


Food safety issues are attracting world wide attention after the recent spate of serious food infections, even in products never thought to be vulnerable, experienced in western countries. Who could have considered a product like tomato or Jalapeno Pepper or Peanut Butter to be susceptible to Salmonella infection since these pathogens were reported only in fish and meat products earlier? What has gone wrong with the safety regime, touted as most advanced in the world, in the case of tainted peanut butter consignments manufactured by one of the largest processors in USA? Is there a lesson to be learned from these episodes or every thing is swept under the carpet till the next incidence occur. The new President of USA is reported to be planning a thorough overhaul of the present Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set up to infuse more confidence amongst the already scared consumers who had to endure a series of food contamination episodes recently with no clue regarding their origin or seriousness. Recalling a suspected product is fraught with economic and psychological implications which cannot be ignored easily.

As government inspectors get overburdened by the task of guarding food supply, it was found expedient to entrust the job to an array of private auditors under a policy of public-private partnership, placing high faith in the honesty and reliability of these private players. The Peanut Corporation of America plant at Atlanta where peanut products like chopped nuts, paste and butter were manufactured for use in reputed branded products like granola bar, ice cream etc was inspected by private inspectors in March 2008, before the contaminated shipments were dispatched and certified the food facilities of this company as "superior"!. Ironically the food inspectors, paid for by the company, were not even aware that peanut products could ever be affected by Salmonella infection. It was later found that the facilities were housed in dilapidated structures ravaged by Salmonella which cross infected the products made there. The company was shipping the products merrily for 9 months without the safety agencies becoming wiser about the danger posed by the consignments distributed which eventually resulted in 9 deaths and 22500 stricken by the infection. Even score of USDA Inspectors who visited these facilities routinely in connection with supply of peanut butter to the school lunch program being "monitored" by the agency, did not "see" any thing wrong there!

In 2007 a Californian company certified by private agencies as safe had to recall 193 million pounds of beef after an undercover video exposed the malpractices in the processing plant where workers used fork lifts to force sick cows into the slaughter house. The major reason for increased deployment of private inspectors is the cost of inspection to be incurred by the manufacturer. While an FDA inspector will cost $ 8000, same job is done by a private inspector for no more than $ 1000. There are more than 300 private companies employing thousands of personnel finding gainful business in the area of safety inspection of food processing plants in USA. Besides there are hundreds of individual consultants offering the same service. American institute of Baking (AIB International) based in Manhattan, Kansas is reported to have inspected more than 10000 food plants in 80 countries during the year 2008. What is intriguing is how an organization with specialization in baking can have the expertise to certify other plants making products which are not coming under the baking sector and according to some analysts, many plants certified by AIB had quality related problems later, affecting their credibility.

The Indian situation is some what different as there is no worth while inspection system in place under the regulatory regime run by different ministries at Delhi. In some areas like fruit and vegetable processing and meat and fish processing the licensing authorities do have the responsibility to check the plants but in practice such inspection is more conspicuous by its irregular nature. Unfortunately the country is relying more on product analysis mode to book those who make products not meeting with the standards while ignoring the manufacturing environment from where the products emanate. To add to the worry is the perfunctory nature of analysis which does not bring out many safety deficiencies in the products, especially in the microbiological, nutritional and toxicity areas as most of the public health labs have neither the qualified chemists nor the sophisticated instrumentation facilities to make any in-depth analysis of majority of products in the market. There are private agencies offering certification under ISO, HACCP and other quality related systems but their credibility is at a low level because of the ease with which such certification can be obtained in India.

Food Standards and Safety Authority (FSSA), the predominantly bureaucratic organization at Delhi, vested with the "authority" to protect country's food supply, unfortunately has no clue regarding the dimension of the safety problems faced by the Indian consumer who depends more on God to save him rather than the FSSA and its collaborators at the state level. Remarkable immunity of the Indian consumer, absence of product liability system that would have put some fear into the minds of the perpetrators of food adulteration, low value attached to human lives in general and chaotic and unreliable data management system help the government to claim that the country is 'free' from epidemics like Salmonella or Norovirus infections which are being increasingly reported from many developed countries.


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