Food safety

Tale of neglect

Print edition : July 10, 2015

A stockist removes Maggi noodle packets in Udhagamandalam in Tamil Nadu. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

Food Safety Officer Danaraju (left) inspects Maggi noodle packets at a shop on Anna Salai in Puducherry on June 4. Photo: S.S. KUMAR

The Maggi controversy, while shining the spotlight on food safety, has also exposed government apathy towards strengthening monitoring agencies, which remain hobbled by a lack of infrastructural facilities and insufficient funds.

V.K. PANDEY has suddenly turned into a hero in Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh, where he works as a food safety officer. On one of his routine checks, around 15 months ago, he and his team picked up a few samples of the Maggi brand of instant noodles from a local retailer for tests. A few days later, the regional government laboratory at Gorakhpur, where these samples were sent to, found that monosodium glutamate (MSG), commonly known as ajinomoto, was present in higher than permitted levels. At this juncture, the U.P. Food Safety and Drug Administration Department sent a notice to Nestle India Ltd, which produces the noodles, to file an appeal against the results, as is the practice. Nestle challenged the results in July 2014, following which the same samples were sent to the Central Food Laboratory, Kolkata. After almost a year, on April 7, the central laboratory found not just the presence of MSG but also lead in high quantities in the samples.

The Maggi samples had 17.2 parts per million (ppm) of lead, almost seven times higher than the permitted level. The maximum lead allowed in packaged food products is 2.5 ppm, according to the standards prescribed by the regulatory authority, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). The tests served as a grim reminder to consumers across the country that Maggi was unsafe for consumption. It also put Nestle in the dock for failing to ensure product safety. Pandey’s consistent efforts put his name in the State’s list of illustrious officers, and Uttar Pradesh, hardly in the news for honest functionaries, held its head high in temporary glory.

The results had cascading effects across the country as many other States, such as Delhi, Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir and Uttarakhand, found Maggi noodles contaminated with high amounts of lead and MSG, leading to its ban in several parts of the country.

Many other such ultra-processed food products produced by companies like Kellogg’s, Venky’s, Starbucks and Hindustan Unilever were put under the scanner by the Union Health Ministry because of the public outcry that followed the Maggi controversy. Both the Union Ministry of Food and Consumer Affairs and the Health Ministry were quick to ordere various probes into the safety of selected food products.

It took an honest officer’s efforts to bring the issue of food safety into the limelight. But few questioned the role of the government in ensuring that the systems to ensure food safety are in place or if institutions built to safeguard food safety in India are empowered to do their job. While the government is known for its efforts to encourage the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) market, of which ultra-processed food products are an integral part, its lack of efforts to strengthen accountability mechanisms has rarely been questioned.

The two most important institutions to ensure food safety and encourage consumer awareness are the FSSAI under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), a self-regulated corporate body for responsible advertising.

Challenges before FSSAI

As economic liberalisation in the early 1990s paved the way for an ever-expanding FMCG market, the need to have proper accountability mechanisms for corporates was felt and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government enacted in 2006 the Food Safety and Standards (FSS) Act, an all-encompassing piece of legislation, to ensure food safety in the country. Previous laws to monitor food products, such as the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954, the Fruit Products Order, 1955, the Meat Food Products Order, 1973, and the Milk and Milk Products Order, 1992, were nullified by the new legislation. This was natural as the growing FMCG industry had created such a variety of food products in the retail market that it was impossible for the government to pass individual orders for each food product.

The presence of multiple Acts and orders had led to the problem of multiple controls over various commodities, often with conflicting provisions. The 2006 Act prescribed universal norms for food safety and standards for the all types of food products. However, unlike the control principle followed by the previous legislation, the 2006 Act followed the principle of self-regulation and required food producers to voluntarily comply with the standards. The Act was seen as a progressive one as most developed countries follow the same principle.

However, the efficacy of the Act was dependent on a strong monitoring body, for which the FSSAI was established. A cursory look at the functioning of the FSSAI indicates that the goal of having an effective monitoring mechanism, as delineated by the 2006 Act, is far from achieved.

The FSSAI started functioning only in 2011 because it took five years for the government to frame the rules and regulations of the 2006 Act. Ever since, the FSSAI has been functioning without any respectable support from the Union government.

The annual report available on the FSSAI website for the financial year ending 2014 quotes a paltry sum of Rs.56.93 crore as its annual budget. The original budget approved by the Health Ministry was Rs.85 crore, which was revised later.

Out of this budget, most of the monies were “utilised towards salary, professional services, office expenses, travelling expenses, rent rates and taxes, IEC, motor vehicle and maintenance act, etc., ....”, according to the annual report. A sum of Rs.9.8 crore was spent on salaries of FSSAI personnel. The report also says that a sum of Rs.17.88 crore was left unspent during the financial year.

The annual report is self-critical in saying that the implementation of the FSS Act has been a challenge for the FSSAI because of a lack of infrastructural facilities such as a network of accredited laboratories across the country. According to unofficial estimates, the FSSAI owns four laboratories and has accredited 82 private laboratories, of which only a few test food products.

The figures also give a damning picture of the way the FSSAI functions. “The self-regulatory principle of the FSS Act mandates that the FSSAI approves products on the basis of laboratory reports furnished by the producer, which means the company that sells it. The role of the FSSAI, apart from prescribing standards, is to coordinate with the departments of drug and food administration in all States to implement an effective and regular food monitoring system. The States, with the guidance of the FSSAI, are the primary enforcers of the FSS Act. This system, as was originally thought, will act as a deterrent for food companies if they compromise on the safety of products,” a senior official at the FSSAI, who chose to remain anonymous, told Frontline.

Owing to the lack of infrastructure, the FSSAI has turned into an approval agency instead of being a monitoring agency. All retail food products in the market are sold with an “FSSAI approved” stamp on it. This mandatory feature in the packaging of products has ironically benefited the food producer more than the consumer.

The problems that plague the monitoring agencies of India, coupled with government apathy, have led to a culture of silence on the issue of food safety. In occasional events like the recent Maggi controversy, where consumers demand accountability, both the FSSAI and the State food and drug administration are quick to blame each other.

For instance, FSSAI CEO Y.S. Malik told reporters categorically that the FSSAI was only a coordinating body and that States were the primary enforcement agencies, making the issue of food safety sound like a problem of multiple authorities —exactly what the FSS Act sought to nullify. Clearly, the effective coordination principle, as originally conceptualised by the FSS Act, has been rendered superfluous because of government apathy.

The government’s unwillingness to empower monitoring agencies with adequate budgets to implement the FSS Act indicates that food safety is not on its priority list. This indifference is shocking especially because the Indian food and grocery market is the sixth largest in the world, with retail contributing 70 per cent of the sales, according to the India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF), a trust established by the Department of Commerce under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. The IBEF has projected the market will grow to $482 billion by 2020.

Misleading ads

The other pertinent issue relating to food safety in India is misleading advertising of food products. Most ultra-processed food products like instant noodles and soups are targeted at children in advertisements, making the issue all the more important. In a context where monitoring mechanisms are less than adequate, misleading advertisements endorsed by celebrities are definitely a matter of concern.

For instance, Maggi Atta noodles were sold by actress Madhuri Dixit as healthy food for children. The advertisement claimed that the noodles were fibre-rich and contained the nutritious value of three rotis while failing to mention the fact that instant noodles contain added artificial flavours, flavour enhancers that contain MSG, and more salt than a person needs. Unfortunately, there is no government body to monitor advertising in India.

The only body that oversees advertisements is the ASCI, a self-regulatory organisation created by a few corporates in 1985 to avoid any form of government censorship. The ASCI was founded after a few corporate bodies, following the norm in the developed capitalist world, took voluntary pledges for responsible advertising. To be under its radar, an organisation has to be a member. The council has no punitive powers. It acts upon consumers’ complaints and hardly takes any suo motu cognisance of misleading advertisements.

The ASCI, however, defends itself. “Our organisation was founded on the belief that advertising has to have a conscience. We have laid out detailed guidelines and codes. In the last few years, we have seen the number of complaints growing drastically. We have made it very easy for the consumer to lodge a complaint. We are very active on social media. We have launched a mobile application and a national advertising monitoring service recently. We, too, are much more vigilant than before. I must add that 90 per cent of the advertisers have complied with our decision if we have found an advertisement problematic. In cases where they don’t comply, we register a complaint with the Department of Consumer Affairs,” Shweta Purandare, secretary-general of the ASCI, told Frontline.

The initiatives taken by the ASCI are surely worthy of praise, but in the larger food safety scenario of India, an organisation like the ASCI can only make a cosmetic difference as it does not have any punitive powers and is solely dependent on corporate conscience, which may sound oxymoronic to many who know the profit-driven industry. Consider this. Nestle India, by its own account, spent a whopping Rs.445 crore on “advertising and sales promotion” in 2014, while the expenditure on “quality testing” was only Rs.19 crore, less than 5 per cent of its advertising budget.

The trend has been similar over the last five years. Its annual advertising expenses have been in the Rs.300-450 crore range, while its spending on laboratory testing has been only Rs.12-20 crore.

The Modi government gloated over its handling of the Maggi controversy by ordering quick probes. It also bragged that the government, in a first, took the Maggi case to the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) using Section 12(1)(d) of the Consumer Protection Act, which empowers the government to file a complaint as a representative of the people. However, while doing so, it skirted the more important structural issues and hid its own apathy towards India’s food safety.

The Maggi case gave the government an ideal opportunity to empower the monitoring mechanisms related to food safety but it chose to, as always, deflect people’s attention from the actual problem, ultimately putting the unsuspecting consumer at greater risk.