The reported move by the new US Government to impose a $ 500 annual fee on food processors and growers is based on the perception that FDA and USDA, the two regulatory arms of the government are handicapped by resource crunch and consequent restraints on mobilizing the required infrastructure to safeguard the food supply chain. Food safety concerns became serious after a spate of cases involving salmonella contamination of foods like tomato, jalapeno, peanuts, etc during the last 2-3 years affecting thousands of consumers across that nation. Though the processing industry and the farming community have not taken to this new imposition kindly, eventually they will see the relevance of such a move in the interests of all. Unfortunately in India, GOI is more concerned with imposing taxes and duties on the industry which flow into the general coffers for budget support for various programs including loan waivers, subsidized grain supply and export subsidization. There has never been any serious attempt in the past to assess the need of the processing industry in terms of quality control, safety assurance and technology development.
ICAR is the prime agency that gets financial inputs from GOI for farm related development works but it is largely involved in increasing agricultural production with no portfolio as far as safety of the crops produced is concerned. To add to this confusion, there are no earmarked agencies of GOI vested with the responsibility of overseeing crop safety before leaving the farms and safety and quality issues are left to the buyers to resolve. Only when there are alarm signals from the farm sector when confronted with large scale infestation or drought or floods, GOI wakes up to address the consequences. It is left to the extension workers belonging to the state and central governments to help the growers with their problems and they are also more tuned to farm production increase rather than quality or safety of the crops raised. It is time this anomaly is addressed and an overseeing organization is evolved to monitor the farm practices and ensure the safety of the crops before leaving the farms for the market.
As for the processed foods, agencies like FPO, AGMARK, ISI, MFPO, FSSTA, MMPO, etc have scattered authority to monitor food quality and safety. Though these are administered by GOI, the execution of monitoring responsibility is left to the states and local civic bodies which never take them seriously. The quality of personnel manning these activities is abysmally low and it is too much to expect that they will have the necessary expetise, wisdom and perspectives to tackle safety related issues. If consumer has to place confidence on any safety assurance system, it must be a unitary body with well defined hierarchical command structure that can work cohesively and with determination. It is time FSSTA is given the necessary infrastructure to do this job effectively on its own, in stead of depending on the mostly non-functional state machinery. Most important pre-requisite for a sound implementation mechanism is availability of well equipped food laboratories in all districts of the country manned by qualified and trained food chemists. Why not bring all the existing analysis labs under the FSSTA, modernize their facilities, re-train the personnel and recruit new personnel with experience. A training school for the food chemists is a must similar to what DFRL, Mysore has but with much larger intake capacity and in association with the user industry.
Food industry in India is starved of appropriate technologies affordable to self-employed entrepreneurs, micro enterprises and small scale sector processing units. Existing players in the government funded R & D system have miserably failed the industry and has caused more harm than good during the last one and half decade by their blind pursuit of useless patents and income generation by any means. Probably GOI can do amends to its past negligence of technology development by forcing these R & D organizations to focus on industry relevant R & D projects through closer linkage with the users. Pure science research and academic programs are better left to the Universities. Probably large scale spring cleaning is called for with ruthless elimination of non-performers and inducting leaders with vision and far-sight.
Dedicated funds are critical to reorganize the food safety regime on above lines and proposals have been made from time to time to involve the industry as well as large farmers who will be willing to bear some financial burden on a credible system. Unfortunately GOI chose to ignore such eminently sound suggestions and the cursed consumers of this country are at the receiving end, forced to feed on foods that are sub-standard, adulterated, contaminated and unpredictable in quality. An yearly cess like what US Government is considering on large farms and organized sector of food processing can raise sufficient resources to support above proposals. One may call it a "technology cess" and even Rs 1000 per year from the stake holders will generate large sums which should be earmarked for spending only on the programs beneficial to the consumers. There must be a transparent system for technology development and delivery to the users, either free or at nominal cost by the public funded technology development agencies. A cry in the wilderness? Let us hope not!