A MONTH after suffering a judicial setback in the Supreme Court, India’s food regulator received a shot in the arm after the Bombay High Court, dismissing a challenge to several provisions of the Food Safety and Standards (FSS) Act, observed that those who endangered human life with unsafe food should be dealt with “iron hands”.
The SC, last month, had junked an advisory, issued by the food regulator in 2013, which had mandated that manufacturers must take approvals for products already existing in the market.
Recently, three petitions filed by city-based food merchants, traders and hoteliers had called various provisions of the Centre’s food Act “arbitrary” and sought that these be set aside. Their Right to Equality was being violated, they had contended. On Wednesday, Justices S C Dharmadhikari and G S Kulkarni upheld the food Act’s validity in a 109-page judgment.
Justice Kulkarni said, “We cannot lose sight of the evil which is sought to be remedied by this enactment. The mischief which is sought to be remedied is nothing but a sheer creation by us, humans, who have the tendency to indulge and deal in food products which would not be safe for human consumption and/or likely cause a grave impact on human health. Every person, even the person dealing in such unsafe food, is likely to be the victim.”
The legislation, in the court’s view, pertains to food safety and serves a “pivotal role” in securing the citizens a minimum degree of purity in food, and hence, secures public health.
“It is aimed at preventing fraud on the consumers. Those who are guilty of endangering human life by indulging and dealing in unsafe food are required to be dealt with iron hands,” the court observed.
The three petitioners, namely, Association of Traders, Mumbai Mewa Masala Merchants and Indian Hotel and Restaurant Association (Ahar), had moved the HC in 2012, challenging provisions, rules and regulations of the food Act.
The first two petitioners, the court felt, had a common ground — “extensive powers” given to the food authority that violated the petitioners’ rights to operate freely. Their main grievance revolved around the licensing provision of the Act. The food Act’s Section 31 mandates a person to carry out food business only with a license, for which, the person needs to apply to a “designated officer”.
The petitioners claimed that such power given to the designated officer, a sub-divisional officer, was “arbitrary”. They reasoned that merely being a revenue officer meant that the officer was bereft of knowledge about the food business or food industries. The officer could only be entrusted with the work of revenue collection under the provisions of the Revenue law, they claimed.
Another aspect was in relation to the food safety officer. The petitioners claimed that the law provided that if a complainant failed to prove a case against the officer, he had to pay Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh as fine.
Another contention was that a penalty of about Rs 5 lakh could be imposed on business operators for selling food which did not meet quality standards, they added.
Therefore, a penalty could be imposed on the basis of a report prepared by the food safety officer, without giving a showcause notice to the shop owner concerned, they said.
Ahar claimed that each and every provision of the Act was ambiguous, blurring its applicability to hotels and restaurants. The law imposed huge penalties, prosecution and imprisonment and would operate overall on the whims and fancies of the officers appointed under the Act, it said.
The arguments did not hold water with the court. Before dismissing the petitions, the court observed, “The FSS Act has been enacted for the benefit and welfare of the citizens and has direct nexus to the Right to Life as enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution.”