Friday, July 23, 2010


Increased sensitivity to safety aspects of processed foods is forcing the authorities in many country to make the regulatory controls more stringent, the intention being to preempt incidences of food related health episodes. Inspection of the manufacturing facilities is a powerful tool available to bring to books erring industries and ensure necessary precautionary measures are taken to prevent food contamination with pathogenic bacteria. While such rigid control measures are laudable, what effect it can have on the industry in general is not adequately considered.

Generally country laws require that most food sold to the public be made in licensed facilities open to government inspectors. But as more people become interested in buying local food in western countries due to some perceived advantages some countries make exemptions for amateur chefs and small processors who sell homemade goods at farmers markets and on small farms. These exemptions are without controversy as it is considered a compromise on the resolve to ensure food safety. The need to balance the desire for food safety with at least some modicum of control calls for a workable strategy that is equitable to all the take holders. It does not require too much intelligence to be aware of the burden stringent food safety regulations, designed for big commercial food handlers, can have on small-time players who just want to make a living by selling a few products in which they have some strength. But it is also true that without regulation, the public is at risk for food-borne illnesses.

The famous pickle bill in Wisconsin state in the US is an example of the compromise governments make in accommodating the humane aspect of regulatory controls. as per these laws, small vendors are permitted to sell high-acid canned foods, such as pickled fruits, salsas and sauerkraut, without a license and it is considered a calculated risk because acid foods are easily spoiled by bacteria. But the law is clear regarding low-acid canned goods, such as pickled eggs, which typically carry a higher risk of contamination. In tune with national regulations generally a license is granted for a food facility only if sound refrigeration and ventilation systems are installed which can cost tens of thousands of dollars,besides meeting with strict cleanliness standards and subjecting to regular inspections. Enforcement of HACCP and other high tech safety control measures being considered for mandatory enforcement for meat industry is predicted to shutter at least 50% of the slaughter house operations in the US because of high investment required for establishing necessary infrastructure.

In India same dilemma faced the regulators years ago when small fruit processors manufacturing hardly about 10-50 tons an year were required to take license and there was resistance from the industry, again because of cost considerations. But a compromise was struck wherein these cottage scale processors were required take license which gives the regulators at least the address of the manufacturers of products coming to the market though standards of inspection and prerequisites for license were diluted to accommodate the special needs of this sector. It is another matter that only fruit and vegetable processing industry is required to take a manufacturing license from the federal government while others come under the local municipality jurisdiction. Inspection and deterrent actions are conspicuous by their absence because of many reasons, some technical and others financial.

Big players invariably complain about the investment they have to make in establishing safety monitoring facilities and experienced technical personnel which will add to their overhead cost, eventually reflecting in the consumer price. Such a situation also gives small processors significant advantage in competing with their counterparts from the organized sector, though latter has the scale of economy benefit because of large production volume. There was a time in India when hundreds of products were "reserved" for manufacture by small industries only, another advantage enjoyed by them though this discrimination is not in vogue now. Probably policy wise this might have been a positive factor that could bring many small processors under the umbrella of a large firm with mighty mark muscle so that the lack of selling expertise with the former is neutralized for mutual benefit.


No comments: