Food laws in India never keep in tune with developments in other parts of the world. This is a fact known to the food industry in the country for the last 6 decades and such inflexible and delay causing procedures are bottlenecks facing new product development by the R & D scientists and the industry's in-house programs. The Ministry of Health of GOI endowed with the power to regulate food industry safety enforcement portfolio, invariably is more concerned with medicinal and drug related policy issues, leaving very little time to focus on food related safety and standards area. The Central Committee for Food Standards, working under the Health Ministry, had the mandate to evolve food standards but every one involved with food industry development knows how difficult it has been to move this body to get any approval for new products and innovations.
It is rather sad that the Health Ministry has left to a few bureaucrats to deal with food industry and under the archaic system of committees and sub-committees in which "specialist experts" are supposed to be members, decisions are taken over a long period of time with least sensitivity to the urgency of the industry seeking approval for new products and their labeling. This situation is especially frustrating because the body has the guidelines from several countries, International Standards Organization and WHO-FAO Alimentarius Commission (CAC) for reference and modification if necessary under Indian conditions. With WTO regime controlling world trade and dispute settlement amongst member countries, is it not incumbent upon the government to be ready with data and information on any food product that is made in any part of the world for arriving at a quick conclusion on requests from the industry for approval?
Of course there are hundreds of ethnic products in the country that may not have parallel in other countries for getting any guidance but whose fault it is that the concerned agencies never bothered to generate standards of safety for these products so far? After all ethnic foods have been in the market for decades and thousands of restaurants catering to the traditional palates have been making them. These restaurants also come under the vigilance system of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1956 and it is a mystery as to why it has not occurred to the Health Ministry authorities that stringent safety related standards are necessary to regulate the catering industry which affects the lives of millions of people. Even now in stead of taking years to decide on any particular issue, why cannot the Ministry ask the petitioner seeking permission to provide full information based on practices in other countries and its own data base, that will expedite a decision?
The recent notification by FSSAI regarding use of synthetic sweeteners is provocation enough to raise the above issues. While GOI had allowed use of four synthetic sweeteners more than a decade ago, the latest clearance pertains to use of a particular combination of two food additives, as per the request filed by some beverage industry players having a heavy stake in the country's beverage market. Though delays in according permission to such very innocuous request are justified under the pretext that "thorough review is needed" in the interest of consumer safety, it is beyond comprehension as to why years roll by before any decision is taken. Why not adopt the entire WHO-FAO CAC standards for the country and modify from time to time in areas where special consideration is needed? Why cannot the GOI direct institutions like CFTRI, DFRL, AGMARK and other technical institutions to take up on priority to evolve some basic standards including safety parameters for all major Indian traditional foods within a reasonable period of 3-5 years?
Interestingly the list of approval for synthetic sweeteners does not include others like Stevia, a natural plant based sweetener which are being used widely in many other countries. Why India should consider using combinations of sweeteners already approved objectionable is not clear? As long as the limits are prescribed, safety cleared additives should be allowed for use in any combinations found technically desirable, unless there are contraindications regarding their safety. There are consumer activists who could raise objections for use of some of the synthetic sweeteners because of lack of consensus on the "absolute" safety of any one of them but existing data is considered adequate and as long as the limits of daily consumption are adhered to, it is unlikely that they would cause any serious health impairment. Also to be kept in mind is the dire need for millions of people who are sugar-compromised and obese, requiring non-metabolizable substitutes to lead a reasonable quality of life. As long as label declarations are made and such products are differentiated from main stream products, no one should have any objection against synthetic sweeteners approved by WHO-FAO CAC.