Fear of lurking dangers from improperly processed foods is increasingly being felt by consumers who used to believe that processed foods are absolutely safe. This is accentuated by the spate of food poisoning episodes reported in different parts of the world during the last few years. Dangers to foods can come from microbial sources or chemical contaminants during harvesting, storage, processing and marketing. It is true that national governments and international agencies like WHO, FAO etc have necessary safety surveillance protocols and infrastructure to help the consumers in accessing foods that are considered healthy, safe and nutritious. Still the agro-food industry comprising fresh produce dealers and processing sector faces many problems, some unanticipated and others avoidable with better vigilance.
A consumer in any western country can always go back to the retail store, mostly in the organized sector with a complaint about the quality of food purchased and without asking any question replacement is readily given which increases the consumer confidence on the equity of the marketing system and the food industry in general. There are occasions when a consumer is not sure whether a product bought from a store is safe or not and it would be helpful if the consumer can get a competent opinion from knowledgeable people about such product before returning the same. Of course there are thousands of useful web based sources from where an intelligent and educated person can access sufficient information about food and come to a conclusion regarding quality of food purchased from the market. But there are a vast number of consumers who depend on the government agencies to guide them regarding quality and safety of foods they consume every day. The moot question is how many countries have such an agency which can advise their citizens on these issues?
A recent report that some countries have started to take steps to address this issue is really welcome. A integrated web site has been set up in the US, organized by government agencies like FDA, USDA and others and those looking for authentic answers to their food safety queries can readily tap this source, being billed as a one-stop-shop. This must be a great relief to the American consumers who are pulled between the necessity to buy processed foods and serious concern about their safety and reliability. Computer and Internet literacy is very high in that country with practically all house holds having this facility. The beauty of this system is that the views offered on this web site is the official version of the government as all those involved in food safety management are stake holders in this public venture.
Can we think of a situation similar to this in India? Though computer literacy and spread of broad band are limited, still an official web site blessed by GOI, offering useful information on different aspects of food, will be useful to at least some consumers and consumer activists having the wherewithal to access information through Internet source. Probably it may be too early to think of launching any major project of this nature for the time being because too many government agencies are involved in monitoring and enforcing food standards and safety measures in the country. Each agency is too keen to protect its turf where it enjoys unlimited power and any task integrating the activities of these multiple agencies will be a "nightmare" of unimaginable magnitude. Nonetheless a beginning can be made to start at least a "technical" web site under the aegis of a technical institution like CFTRI at Mysore with necessary mandate and funding from the central government. The existing Food Science and Technology Information Service (FoSTIS) in CFTRI premises set up in late eighties with funding from DST is a defunct set up with no use to any one looking for real technical information in food area. Myopic vision on the part of those "running" this program and starving it of necessary technical and other inputs during the last 15 years have ensured its irrelevance for the bonafide users, consumers and the industry.