Neglecting food safety

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST

WHEN the "mad cow disease" first hit the United Kingdom a few years ago, the British people bit into their beef burgers with more than a little nervousness. Today in India, there is the same suspicion every time one takes a sip of one's favourite carbonated beverage. Although the Union government has given a clean chit in the matter of safety to bottled water and soft drinks marketed by the cola giants Pepsi and Coca-Cola, the discovery of high levels of pesticide residues in samples still causes some disquiet among the public.

After recovering from the shock of the betrayal by these ostensibly trustworthy international brands, the public has naturally turned to the government for explanation. The absence of standards on the levels of pesticides that can be used in processed water is a visible part of the problem. Across the board, particularly in the burgeoning processed foods sector, there is no legislation to check on safety.

There are currently 14 pieces of legislation regulating the food industry, of which the majority are voluntary. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) sets most of the voluntary standards, and for the small fraction of mass consumption products that do have mandatory status, enforcement is weak. (This was pointed out by the Satwant Reddy Committee's report on pesticide residue in packaged drinking water, submitted in March 2003). Among the other mandatory food laws are the 1955 Fruit Products Order (FPO) and the 1954 Essential Commodities Act. These do not cover processed foods, leaving the entire burden of responsibility on the over-stretched 1955 Prevention of Food Adulteration Act (PFA).

Clearly, in 1955 the processed foods industry was almost non-existent in India. But in the changed situation, there is a need for more effective legislation. But no new legislation has been created to regulate this sector, and processed foods come under the generic banner of "other" foods in the PFA Act. Although the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare comes up with amendments on an almost daily basis, there are areas of frequent omission. The crisis over pesticide toxins in soft drinks and bottled water resulted from one such omission.

Chandra Bhushan of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), which carried out the much-publicised testing of the processed drinks, says that the nature of the PFA Act means that "contamination issues have not been addressed". So in cases where the groundwater that forms the source for the bottled water and soft drinks was found not to have been adulterated, but contaminated at source, there were no laws to protect the public's health. Officials at the Union Health Ministry have reacted to the current situation by bringing pesticide levels in bottled water under the purview of the PFA Act, although it is not yet clear when the Act will be amended.

At the international level, food standards are set by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), jointly sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation. Over 160 countries currently subscribe to the Codex guidelines, which cover most agricultural and processed foods. The CAC was created to protect consumer safety when international trade in food expanded. Standards vary from country to country, with the United States and the European Union countries setting amongst the most demanding safety standards. In the E.U., updated legislation regarding contaminants in food has been in place since February 1993. It is monitored stringently and enforced by the European Food Safety Authority, which was set up in 2002. Indian Health Ministry officials claim that within three to four years the international community will harmonise food standards under the Codex guidelines.

Given the universal nature of Codex, the standards set are very broad, and are expected to be adapted to each country by a system of risk analysis. In India, for example, there is a greater level of consumption of rice. Therefore the levels of contaminant allowable in rice for domestic use must be much lower, in order to reduce the cumulative effect of toxins in the human body. At present the Ministry of Health adheres to the Codex guidelines as closely as possible, giving them significant weightage. This causes a great deal of concern. "Codex is the minimum acceptable standard," says Chandra Bhushan. "It bears no relation to ground reality." As the relationship of Indian food standards with Codex seems to be strengthening, there seems little that can be done to change the situation except to ensure that in future reviews Codex sets the highest possible standards. Bhushan also worries that if firms like Pepsi and Coca-Cola are able to exploit food standards to the detriment of public health, then there must be grave concerns about the standards maintained by processed food manufacturers at the lower end of the market. While it is possible for organisations such as the CSE to test and make judgments on major brands, smaller food producers, who may be guilty of much greater breaches of safety, may escape scrutiny.

Officials at the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), however, seem reluctant to raise the bar as far as domestic food safety standards are concerned. With Indian processed food exports generally being of high quality, with lapses noted only every four or five years (this is usually in poultry, milk and honey products), a dramatic increase in Indian food standards would lead to a logistical nightmare, which the industry would find both costly and difficult to cope with. The logistics question is a significant one. Even existing legislation is not adequately enforced; so bringing in new laws would pose more problems. Add to this the disparate make-up of food manufacturers, ranging from small roadside vendors to national chains, and we are left with a real challenge. According to the Ministry of Health, the main problems are food hygiene and good agricultural practice, for which a comprehensive system of food safety education is required.

All parties agree that there are issues of governance that need to be resolved before standards are raised, and perhaps the most important relate to the enforcement of laws. It was precisely the enforcement problem that hurt certain chilli exporters recently when their product was denied entry into the E.U. countries following the discovery of the carcinogenic Sudan1 red dye. The PFA Act strictly prohibits the use of colouring matter in chilli products, and yet it does not prevent manufacturers from using them.

Processed foods are a nascent sector of India's food industry. It constitutes less than 10 per cent of domestic consumption, but the popularity of such convenience foods in the rest of the world will inevitably lead to their increased market infiltration in India. New legislation is necessary to monitor these products, and greater enforcement is essential for the existing laws to be effective.

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