It is true that there are hundreds of products in the market with doubtful safety and quality credentials because of lack of oversight by the government agencies vested with the responsibility of safeguarding consumer health. Food industry is a cocktail of manufacturers ranging from home scale processors with limited capabilities to mega companies having deep pockets and to fit a common law for all of them may be difficult. But still a rudimentary protocol is necessary to control the industry for preventing marketing of food products which do not conform to safety standards of the land. This is where product identities are drawn for many items which are consumed regularly by the citizens. But logistically it many not be feasible to identify all the products for laying such standards. What about new products which are developed by entrepreneurs which do not fit into any of the existing standards? In India there was a system where new products appropriately called proprietary products needed to be registered with the authorities providing all the details about them and if there is no adverse response from the concerned authorities they can be marketed. But with the setting up of FSSAI (an Authority with very little credibility) the rules of the game have been changed and new products approval will not be automatic any more.
According to industry observers such a step can really sound death knell for innovations knowing the leaden footed nature of the FSSAI. Any action requiring approval from government agencies in India is a time consuming effort and no wonder there are hundreds of projects in India worth about 7 lack crore investment during the last 44 years which have been delayed for a few years to a few decades. Such a sorry situation may not be fatal to the government though it is the citizen who suffers! The story is different when it comes to private investors who spend their own resources to develop new products but wait for long time to get clearance for selling them in the market! Besides the widespread prevalence of corruption can favor some players while honest entrepreneurs are stuck in the approval "logjam". If there were time bound decision making regime, such a situation would not arise and this can be expected to provide a level playing field to every one, small as well as big.
The standards and safety bench marks now prevalent in the country do not cover even 50% of the products consumed by Indian consumers and if the new rule is implemented industry will have to discontinue manufacture of thousands of products currently marketed by it. For example most products of ethnic nature do not have quality standards embedded in the statute books and how can the traditional food sector market these products without getting approval from the Authority? Sadly the FSSAI has neither the technical competence nor the administrative muscle to carry out these activities and there exists the possibility of serious disruption to the food manufacturing activities in the country if the new proposal is implemented strictly. With coordination between the state food standards departments which are supposed to implement central policies, and the FSSAI at Delhi practically non-existent it is going to be the industry and the consumer who will be bearing the consequences of such adventure on the part of FSSAI.
Interestingly the writ if FSSAI runs only with organized industry which markets prepackaged foods while those selling food without a label or address are at liberty to peddle any thing whether unsafe or sub standard! Just because the organized food industry declares every thing on the label including their address, they are easy targets for punitive action while faceless peddlers of food get way with murder! Even to day there are thousands of retail traders who sell food products loose to the consumers with no burden of proof regarding the safety of the wares they sell. What protection the consumer is provided by FSSAI? Nothing! If India is competing with China for the "honor" (or dishonor?) of being the capital of food fraudsters and adulterators it is because of the operation of these traders with no real fear of the authorities. Of course those consumers who build long association with their retailers near their sojourn are not usually cheated because of the loyalty factor but casual buyers can be a convenient target for food fraud activities. Advent of multinational retailers and big Indian retail players may alleviate the situation to some extent as most of them sell only packed products. What is disturbing however is a new trend where even these large players are offering many foods in "loose" condition under the guise of reduced prices!
Recent policy promulgation by FSSAI to compel all food manufacturers to register with the agency and get a license for dealing with food may be intended to trace the origin of food frauds. It is doubtful if this will really work because many microenterprises do not operate from the same address and have the ability to change their address frequently unlike larger players. There appears to be a misconception that licensing will take care of all the ills of the country whether in food sector or other areas of commercial activities. Before enacting any new regulations, government must justify the same and in the case of licensing itself there exists a system of local licensing of all manufacturers and dealers of food with local authorities which is adequate enough to exercise vigilance if it is made to work efficiently. if these local bodies can transfer their data to FSSAI that can create a national data base for monitoring the activity of food industry as well as traders. Where is the need for a centralized licensing system?
Looking from another angle the FSSAI evolved standards do not permit creation and marketing of healthy products as these are based on old concepts and understandings of nutrition science. During the last few years the yardstick for good health has changed dramatically with sugar, fat and salt becoming pariahs as far as health pundits are concerned, obviously because of their proven role in fostering many health disorders like Diabetes, CVD, Blood Pressure, Kidney ailments etc. Obviously it is unfair on the part of authorities to insist on minimum amounts of these ingredients in any food product. Take a product like ice cream which is mandated to contain a minimum amount of fat and sugar and industry developing healthier products containing less fat or sugar is bound o be penalized for violating the existing standards! There are many such products which have no business to be there in the market if nutrition becomes the corner stone of any standards frame work. One has to appreciate the dilemma of the food standards and safety agencies in balancing the needs of the nutrition science and that of the food technology before evolving safety related policies and standards.
Why not think differently and simplify the food safety regime dramatically without compromising on essential things? Why not evolve a guideline that will draw two set of lists, one negative and the other positive, for the industry to follow while manufacturing food products in the country. Negative list must contain all those additives, processes, practices and conditions industry must avoid while the positive list includes desirable additives, safety aspects, nutritive ingredients addition, etc for bettering the quality of the products in general. There can be a general standard which defines any food and what they should not contain or if present the maximum limits. The onus of quality must be left to the industry and each product must confirm to the data presented in the labels. If FSSAI is truly a functional organization they must centralize the data on labels of all manufactured products with the address of the manufacturers for correcting misdeeds if any, on a continuous basis. This has to be a 24x7 activity for which adequate infrastructure must be created. Such commitment only can earn the confidence of the consumer in the long run.