Public health

Recipe for disaster

Print edition : July 10, 2015

At a roadside stall in Ahmedabad. Food safety standards are poorly implemented and enforced in India. Photo: Vijay Soneji

Health Officers collecting samples of Maggi noodles in Bikaner, Rajasthan. Photo: PTI

The Maggi controversy brings into sharp focus a disaster that is waiting to happen in India which has a toothless monitoring mechanism for food products, an advertisement policy that depends on self-regulation by corporates, and a government that is more concerned about the growth rate than people’s health.

A RANGE of responses emerged across social media in the last week of May when Maggi, the popular brand of instant noodles, was confirmed to contain impermissible limits of the poisonous metal lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG). A large number of people, born in the 1980s, felt betrayed by their favourite brand of noodles, which they had been cooking in two minutes ever since it appeared in the Indian market in 1983. They swore that they would never ever touch Maggi again and some even posted photographs of their monthly stock of the noodles dumped in waste bins. A few, who probably cannot cook to save their lives and perhaps the most affected, remained reticent. They suggested that most of the food products in the market, if tested, would be found to have contaminants.

Both groups, vocal about the issue, seemed to love Maggi. Indeed, Maggi products, one of the few popular pre-liberalisation food items, have acquired a cult status in India. It is the popularity of the product that is responsible for such emotional responses. One group represented anger and the other, cynicism. Both the anger and cynicism reflect a lack of trust in packaged food items. This is quite contrary to the claims that corporate giants like Nestle and Venky’s make about their products. These companies claimed that their products were safe and healthy and had passed the most stringent of quality tests unlike unpackaged products available in the market. The Maggi controversy has laid to rest this false claim by exposing Nestle’s duplicity on issues of food safety.

Despite the fact that easy access and relatively low prices have allowed processed food to enter a substantial number of households in India, distrust of corporate-produced, fancily packaged food items has seen a sharp increase in recent times. A strong civil society initiative towards consumer awareness, independent research that has led to the finding of contaminants in several such food products over the last decade, and unconvincing explanations provided by packaged food producers have caused strong suspicions about the safety of processed food among the public.

Corporate claims about the safety of their products first received a jolt when the soft drinks Pepsi and Coke were found to be contaminated with high levels of pesticides in 2003. The New Delhi-based environmental organisation Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) did a series of tests which found high levels of lindane, DDT, malathion and chlorpyrifos, all poisonous pesticides, in these two popular soft drinks. The findings created a scare then, following which both Coke and Pepsi recalled a considerable quantity of the soft drinks.

Since then, agencies like the CSE in India have been randomly testing various products in the market and have been finding a variety of contaminants in them. For instance, the CSE has found poisonous contaminants in energy drinks, vegetable oils, cosmetics, etc. It has also found an excess of antibiotics and carcinogenic chemicals in frozen meat products. Other independent laboratories have found detergents in dairy products. The list goes on.

In all these instances, where there has been an organised public outcry, companies have denied responsibility by saying that the presence of contaminants could have been because of larger environmental factors. For example, Pepsi and Coke said that the pesticides in their soft drinks could have come from groundwater pollution, alluding to the larger environmental degradation.

Similarly, Nestle India Ltd said that it never claimed that its instant noodles were free of MSG. “We have specifically mentioned in our packets that we do not add any MSG,” Sameer Barde of Nestle told Frontline, essentially arguing that the MSG found in the instant noodles could have come from the ingredients they outsourced.

Regarding lead contamination, Nestle told the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI): “The Product contained two parts, i.e., the Noodle and the Tastemaker. The samples had been tested for each of the two components separately whereas it should have been tested as a combined end product, i.e. the form in which it is finally consumed.” Essentially, Nestle India argued that the test for lead could only be done on the cooked product. That most of these companies have tried to skirt the real issue of contaminants by relying on unnecessary technicalities is disturbing to say the least, an observation which the FSSAI also made while hearing Nestle India in the Maggi case.

Clearly, what corporate giants like Nestle advertise is blatantly different from what they produce. A cursory look at the Nestle India website would tell you that it advertises the health aspects and nutritious values of its products the most. Yet, when it comes to taking responsibility, it deflects attention by making random technical arguments.

Does corporate accountability in the food industry exist at all in India? The solutions to problems that may lead to health care issues in the long run are unfortunately based on the principle of self-regulation by food producers.

India had a variety of laws and orders that controlled different food items. However, the multiplicity of authorities and the conflicting provisions in different pieces of legislation led to ineffective monitoring. Hence, the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre passed a universal piece of legislation, the Food Safety and Standards (FSS) Act, in 2006. At the helm of this Act is the FSSAI, the primary food regulator in India. The FSSAI, which became operational only in 2011 after the rules and regulations of the Act were written, is meant to prescribe scientific standards for food products, coordinate with the States to enforce these standards, institute world-class laboratories, and approve products. But over the last few years, the agency has suffered from inadequate funds and insufficient infrastructure, among many other problems. (Story on FSSAI on page 121.)

In such a scenario, the FSS Act, which requires corporates to be conscientious in the matter of food safety, has proved to be a failure. The FSSAI is meant to conduct random tests of approved products by coordinating with State drug and food administration departments. This monitoring mechanism was originally conceptualised as a deterrent against erring companies. However, the lack of infrastructure because of the apathy shown by successive governments towards the issue of food safety has rendered the monitoring mechanism highly ineffective. The ineffectiveness of the FSSAI can be seen in the figures of its annual report for the financial year 2014. The FSSAI examined 64,593 samples in the year 2012 and found 8,247 samples to be “non-conforming”. It launched 6,845 prosecutions and secured only 764 convictions. In 2015, it examined only 49,290 products because some States were uncooperative and 8,469 samples were found to be “non-conforming”. But the convictions went up to 2,701. According to its annual report, penalties from the non-conforming companies amounted to a paltry Rs.7 crore. Without an effective monitoring mechanism, the FSSAI has turned into an approval agency for corporates. The idea behind the FSS Act was that food producers should furnish their own laboratory reports for the product which is sought to be approved. Thousands of applications come to the FSSAI for approval. The free-market policy compels the FSSAI to approve the products without instituting enough checks.

The Indian government does not have a regulatory body to curb misleading advertisements. The only monitoring body for advertisements is also a self-regulatory corporate body called the Advertising Standards Council of India, a trust which relies on the corporates to follow the principle of “advertising with a conscience”.

Conformity to prescribed health and safety standards of food products is dependent on corporate conscience, which has led to a collapse of regulatory institutions. Experts feel that a profit-driven food industry can hardly be relied on if food safety is to be a priority. The government has shown immense interest in expanding the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) market in India by offering unwarranted incentives to multinational companies. However, it has not shown any interest in strengthening food safety regulation mechanisms. An annual budget of Rs.56 crore for the FSSAI to monitor an industry whose current worth is $13.56 billion says it all. According to data provided by the Department of Industrial Policies and Promotion (DIPP), the food processing industry in India has received around $6,215.46 million in foreign investments during the period April 2000-January 2015. The Indian food and grocery market is the world’s sixth largest, with retail contributing 70 per cent of the sales. It is projected to grow at a rate of 104 per cent, touching $482 billion by 2020.

Given the size of the industry, the monitoring systems are totally inadequate. “India desperately needs to strengthen its monitoring mechanisms. The main concerns of food safety can only be resolved if our monitoring mechanisms address immediately three pertinent concerns: contamination, labelling, and advertisements. The norms and checks have to be on a par with international best practices. They have to be strictly followed by implementing agencies.

Countries of the European Union have shown us what best practices can be. The companies there follow regulations strictly. However, in India, the defaulters bail themselves out by citing environmental factors. It is their responsibility to see to it that the product is safe,” said Amit Khurana, project manager of food safety and toxins at CSE. According to Nestle India’s own admission, it has spent a mere Rs.19 crore on quality tests, against a whopping Rs.445 crore on advertising. It is the same with most food processing companies in India. Therefore, experts say that India needs an effective product recall programme and a severe penalty structure. Considering that India is one of the biggest markets for multinational companies, such strict codes of regulation can be implemented easily. For instance, Nestle, with retail sales worth $623 million across its noodles, table sauces and other products (according to Euromonitor International) in India, is highly dependent on the Indian market. Experts say it will not be difficult for the government to establish laboratories, formulate regulations such as detailed and simplified nutritional labelling, and establish a strong code against misleading advertisements, especially ones targeted at children.

The Delhi High Court noted in March 2015 that the food processing industry targeted children as their first buyers and said it was a matter of great concern. It ordered the FSSAI to immediately create guidelines to restrict the sale of junk food in and around schools. One of the measures suggested by the FSSAI in the court was to restrict the availability of “High Fat, Sugar and Salt (HFSS) foods” like wafers, burgers and aerated drinks in schools and in an area within 50 metres of schools.

The Maggi controversy has not just shaken the myth that packaged food is safe but exposed the duplicitous propaganda by multinational companies that their products pass the most stringent quality tests. Successive governments have turned a blind eye towards food safety while trying to push the growth rate. The National Democratic Alliance government ordered probes and asked the FSSAI to coordinate with the States in a better way but refrained from speaking about more pertinent, long-term issues regarding food safety.

The silence over food safety panders to the wishes of the food processing industry, which contributes a significant chunk to the gross domestic product (GDP) of the country. Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, in the 2014 Budget, reduced the excise duty on specific food processing and packaging industries from 10 per cent to 6 per cent. In this year’s Budget, he reduced the corporate tax from 30 per cent to 25 per cent over a period of four years for the food manufacturing and processing sector. Yet, industry experts felt that the reduction was insignificant and the government should have done more. With a government that is more concerned about the industry than the health of the people, food safety is definitely an area of conflict of interest.

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