Interview: Sunita Narain, CSE

‘Food safety should become a priority’

Print edition : July 10, 2015

Sunita Narain. Photo: Kamal Narang

Interview with Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment.

THE controversy over Maggi instant noodles has once again highlighted the issues plaguing food safety in India. Not only does the issue raise critical questions about safe food production by multinational companies such as Nestle but it also foregrounds the institutional fault lines when it comes to ensuring food safety.

Frontline spoke to Sunita Narain, who heads the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the organisation instrumental in initiating one of the earliest debates around food safety in the wake of the Pepsi pesticide controversy of 2003. Excerpts:

The Maggi controversy throws up questions similar to those raised by the Pepsi pesticide debate triggered by the CSE’s findings in 2003. What are your observations regarding Maggi noodles containing lead and monosodium glutamate at more than permissible limits?

There is a fundamental difference here. In the case of soft drinks, the CSE itself had tested the samples in its pollution monitoring laboratory. In the case of Maggi, we have not done the tests ourselves and hence would not like to comment on the quantum of whatever was found. However, we do applaud the food authorities of the Indian government for taking a tough stance. We believe the issue of junk food concerns public health and is something that can’t be taken lightly.

How do you think the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has been functioning over the years? What are the main problems it faces in ensuring food safety? Are Indian safety norms enough to deal with the problems?

The central food authority needs to be much more aggressive in ensuring food safety. It needs to cover a lot of ground in setting standards and regulations that are in line with global best practices while taking into consideration the Indian scenario. It should develop systems to enable effective enforcement and monitoring at the State level, such as systematic monitoring programmes that involve periodic testing of all kinds of foods across all States.

We do not have required labelling norms on nutrition and claims on packaged food. We are yet to have a systematic “food recall” procedure in the country.

The advertising boom in India has led to corporates spending crores in publicity. For instance, Maggi atta noodles was advertised as a health food. What regulatory mechanisms are there to prevent such false advertising? Is the Advertising Standards Council of India doing a good job or not?

Currently, there is no government body to regulate food advertisements in the country. Self-regulation of food advertisements is known to be less effective across the world and so has been the case with voluntary pledges signed by big food industry players.

In India, we still see advertisements and disguised promotional campaigns designed and targeted at schoolchildren. There has been no effective control on celebrity endorsements and broadcasting of such advertisements.

The traditional links between food and nutrients are either fast disappearing or are being appropriated by the fast food industry. Junk food is also easily accessible to a vast majority of people in India because of its affordability. How can this be controlled? What could the government do about this?

Yes, unfortunately, the ultra-processed food is available and accessible almost all across the country owing to longer shelf life, pricing strategy and packaging. Governments should ensure that domestic policies and subsidies relating to food and agriculture and international trade agreements promote production and availability of good food which is local, traditional, diverse and balanced.

What more can be done to hold fast food producers accountable? Many food products in the market contain contaminants.

Most important would be to have systems in place that ensure availability of safe food at all times. The need of the hour is to have robust and transparent systems for product approval, monitoring of food, public disclosure of results, safety alerts and food recalls if required. Greater deterrence through legal and financial liability of those involved in production and promotion will also help. It should be ensured that the responsibility of safety of the end product lies with those who bring it to the market.

The CSE has been conducting tests on processed food and cosmetic products for a long time now. Could you tell us about the CSE’s findings?

We have been testing food and other products for over a decade now and have found the unwarranted presence of a host of agricultural chemicals, veterinary drugs and heavy metals in the samples. Our lab tests have found residues of pesticides in bottled water and soft drinks; antibiotics in honey and chicken; excessive caffeine in energy drinks; and high amounts of salt, sugar and trans fats in ultra-processed junk foods. We have also found a high proportion of trans fats in commonly available oils and fats.

While testing products other than food, we have come upon heavy metals in cosmetics, phthalates in toys and lead in paints.

How far do you think consumer awareness programmes can play a role in reining in the food industry?

Considering we are a society that has limited awareness about food, it is important to have continuing consumer awareness and public health communication that draw linkages between food, its promotion and health. In a scenario where there are inadequate food regulations and ineffective implementation, an aware consumer base can act as a powerful watchdog and force the industry to be much more responsible.

Given the difference in the quality of packaged food in developed and developing nations, do you feel multinational companies take countries such as India for granted when it comes to food safety regulations?

Big multinational food companies are known to adhere to stringent standards in developed countries. They are well aware of the best practices in technology and quality control required to provide a safe product. In case of safety concerns, these companies are known to act swiftly, mostly on their own, to recall food products from the market, accept the problem and apologise in some cases.

In countries like India, where food regulations are either non-existent or not stringent enough and implementation is lax, we may find such companies following different standards.

The market is also flooded with health foods and organic food products produced by the same giant multinational companies that sell junk food. Many people think we have lost our food market to big corporates. Your comments.

Yes, there needs to be a greater check on such foods and their claims. The food industry is reformulating its products for greater access to a consumer who is perhaps half aware. Positioning and promotion of such a food takes the problem to the next level. The threat posed collectively by modern industrial food production systems and the advertising industry is huge.

The government needs to act and the consumer needs to be made aware before it is too late. We need to learn from other countries that have been able to find ways to address this issue. We need not complete the whole cycle to learn. We should be ready to learn from their examples. With growing incomes and rapid transition in food habits in India, this is going to be a huge challenge. Thankfully, we have our own collective wisdom on traditional food and its benefits.

What are your recommendations to strengthen food safety mechanisms in India?

Food safety should become a priority. Standards should be set/updated in line with international best practices, and procedures should be scientific and transparent. A nationwide periodic monitoring plan should be developed for all kinds of products, and all results should be made public though an online database. Laboratory infrastructure and capacity building should be ensured to support such monitoring. We need appropriate procedures and systems for product approval, safety alerts and product recall. Food advertisements and claims should be regulated.

Consumers should be made much more aware. Liability and punishments should become a deterrent. Above all effective enforcement of the law of the land is the need of the hour.