The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India’s (FSSAI) contribution of ensuring fortified foods across the country is unparalleled. We spoke of FSSAI CEO Arun Singhal on how the authority is coping with the new challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and what next for food fortification in India.
FSSAI is contributing to the scaling-up of fortification of staples such as edible oil, rice, salt, etc. with essential Vitamins and minerals. What are some important steps taken by FSSAI to promote and raise awareness on consumption of fortified staples?
In the beginning of 2016, FSSAI had come out with regulations on fortification for staples like wheat flour, maida, rice, double fortified salt, milk and oil. Ever since then, FSSAI has been a strong force in all fortification-led activities. In order to assist the states and UTs, FSSAI has set up a dedicated unit called the Food Fortification Resource Centre, which provides for all end-to-end technical and advocacy support to both States/UTs as well as the open market.
FSSAI also organises several workshops, meetings and consultations with various stakeholders; presents views through various print media articles, featured interviews as well as radio spots, television commercials and videos in public interest time to time for consumers to understand the benefits of fortification. The states and UTs are also creating awareness towards fortification through their own funds and with support of FSSAI through its Food Fortification Resource Centre (FFRC).
POSHAN Abhiyaan has identified fortification as a key intervention area and FSSAI/FFRC supports the programme through various activities aligned towards the promotion of food fortification across India. FSSAI has also contributed towards various capacity building trainings and developed IEC material specifically for POSHAN Maah. Further, one of the key messages in the Eat Right India movement is consumption of fortified foods. All these actions together have contributed towards promotion of fortification of foods across the country.
How has FSSAI leveraged public-private partnerships for the promotion of food fortification?
FSSAI firmly believes in working together with various stakeholders including ministries, consumer organisations, associations, development organisations as well as industry to leverage and promote food fortification. TATA Trust supports the Food Fortification Resource Centre which is housed in FSSAI to act as a facilitator for both States/UTs as well as the open market. Further, FSSAI has started a network of professionals in the areas of nutrition, food safety and chefs called NetProFaN. Through these networks, FSSAI has been promoting fortification to the masses.
During the COVID pandemic, FSSAI has held various meetings with millers, retailers, e-platforms and associations with development partners for continued advocacy for food fortification.
FSSAI has recently said that it is planning to make fortification of edible oil and milk mandatory in coming months. How does FSSAI plan to ensure that there is smooth implementation across the country?
Milk and oil fortification has gained considerable traction in the open market which led to the proposal for mandatory fortification of both the commodities in the near future. The dosages for fortification have been issued; quality assurance parameters and laboratories for testing of these commodities have been identified. There are arrangements for capacity building of the FBOs who are engaged in the process of fortification. A dedicated resource centre is available to extend end-end technical support. With all these provisions in place, we believe that smooth implementation across the country can be seen in the coming months.
The pandemic could potentially have a catastrophic secondary impact on the health and nutritional status of women and children. Experts suggest it can upend the gains we have made so far. How is FSSAI working with other departments/ministries to protect the health of women and children and avoid any adverse impact on their nutritional status?
FSSAI has taken a series of efforts to ensure uninterrupted food services/supply by facilitating food businesses, as well as addressing various food safety concerns. The Food Authority has ensured that National Food Laboratories at NCR and Kolkata remain functional for uninterrupted import of food, e-Inspections for ensuring food safety during the lockdown period and extensive use of digital technology. Various compliance requirements such as renewals of license/registration and returns have been deferred in view of the constraints faced by FBOs. In order to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 spread in the food supply chain due to a higher risk involved in human to human transmission for food handlers, workers, suppliers and distributors across the value chain, FSSAI released a detailed guidance note titled “Food Hygiene and Safety Guidelines for Food Businesses during Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Pandemic”. All these efforts have aimed to ensure that there is no scarcity of safe & healthy food during the current times and the impact on nutritional status of our population is minimized.
Through Eat Right India, FSSAI is also promoting safe and wholesome food. Under this umbrella, Eat Right India promotes a variety of whole grains ranging from wheat and rice, which are commonly consumed to millets and other indigenous grains for better nutrition, keeping the diversity of the population in mind. Eat Right India is also focused on promotion of large-scale fortification of wheat flour and rice with iron, folic acid and Vitamin B 12 to address widespread iron-deficiency anemia in the country. These staple foods such as rice and wheat flour appear to be good vehicles to deliver nutrients to large sections of the population. FSSAI has been working with the Ministry of Women and Child Development to promote fortified staples in the ICDS programme and the Ministry of Human Resource Development to promote fortified foods in the mid-day meal scheme. Even under PDS, fortified rice is being provided in 15 districts, which would be later expanded.
FSSAI has recently announced the Eat Right Challenge for cities and districts and has also announced the launch of Eat Right Challenge for the Smart Cities. In this new normal amidst current pandemic, food safety and nutrition play a key role and FSSAI believes that these challenges at the cities and districts level would encourage the state machinery to focus on various essential aspects. Further, FSSAI has already issued various guidelines during COVID like Food Safety and Hygiene guidelines for safe preparation and handling of food at FBOs level; guidelines for reopening of school canteen/mess and an eBook on Eat Right during COVID for consumers.
FSSAI operates at the intersection of the demand and supply side, and works with the ministry, manufacturers, consumers, etc. to streamline food safety and standards in the country. What have been some of the key milestones this year?
FSSAI is working towards various regulatory reforms for enhancing efficiency with ‘Ease of doing Business’ including simplification in the processing of applications for licensing and registration and making it more user friendly for FBOs. IT-enabled resources are being deployed for improvement in existing portals of licensing & registration, portal of food imports and network of laboratories along with better e-Governance for delivery of various e-services including e-applications and e-inspections. FSSAI is also increasing the scope of market surveillance to identify hot-spot areas of adulteration and conduct national-level surveys for milk, milk products, vegetable oils and other high risk commodities.
This year, our key focus has remained on finalising various important regulations as well as plan for their effective implementation as we move forward. The revised Food Safety and Standards (Licensing & Registration) Regulations would ensure perpetuity of the licenses subject to submission of the annual return and declaration respectively, replacing the earlier process of granting the licenses for a definite period. Another core work on new Regulations to facilitate import clearances will ensure pre-packaged food items to be easily moved out of ports provisionally, pending test reports. Many more labelling defects can be rectified at the ports, and earlier delays in sampling would be significantly brought down.
Food Safety and Standards (Safe Food and healthy diets for School Children) Regulations, 2019 will ensure nourishing and wholesome food to the school children by not allowing any food item that is high in fat, salt and sugar, to be sold and advertised within school premises as well as in an area within 50 metres radius of the school gates. Each school will have a certified Health and Wellness Coordinator and will be supervised regularly by the state and municipal authorities.
Another important regulation to boost fortification of food will now cover standards for fortification of species identified milk like cow, buffalo, camel, goat, sheep etc; for all kinds of multigrain atta and categories of processed foods covering fortified cereal products, fortified bakery wares and fortified juices – with various specified micronutrients, except in products that are high in fat, salt and sugar.
Further, FSSAI has approved 30 rapid food testing kits/devices to ensure “faster, better, cheaper” real-time testing of food even at the field level. With this, samples will not be required to be sent to the laboratories every time for testing.
More recently, FSSAI has announced the nation-wide expansion and migration to the new food safety compliance online system (FoSCoS) from existing licensing and registration portal. It will provide one-point stop for all engagement of an FBO with the department for any regulatory compliance transaction. This single regulatory platform will enable pan-India integrated response system to any food fraud and ensure an advanced risk based, data driven regulatory approach. For the start, the FoSCoS will be offering licensing, registration, inspection and annual return modules.
What is your message to the manufacturing industry and other healthcare partners, etc? How can they supplement the FSSAI’s efforts to work towards a “healthy India”?
FSSAI, in the lockdown period, has ensured that it is available, in action and operational. It innovated to attend to challenges and dedicated itself to its motto “Inspiring Trust, Assuring Safe and Nutritious Food”. The Food Authority is consistently making efforts to ensure uninterrupted food services/supply as well as regularly nudging food businesses to ensure provision of safe, healthy and sustainable food choices. As we progress forward, I expect the food industry to continue adopting necessary protocols for food safety, hygiene and sanitation practices at their premises while manufacturing food. Today, there is a need for businesses to come together and scale-up the capacity building programs and initiatives with inclusion of their suppliers, distributors and retailers. I also motivate them to work with the Food Authority on enabling large scale fortification by fortifying their products as well as trans fat reduction in the food products and promote more awareness about these across formats (including retail outlets) so that the information reaches to the consumers.
I sincerely expect food businesses to augment and support government’s efforts in these tough times – starting with its workforce and their families, to the people near their areas of operation, to areas which are difficult within the government reach, as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts and/or voluntary support activities.
I also congratulate various networks of professionals in the field of food safety and nutrition, consumer organisations and other industry associations for their endless support and dedication in spearheading the agenda of Eating Right in every possible manner. A lot can be achieved at the ground level with their support and every small effort will certainly help in mobilising masses and help us achieve our agenda of empowering the consumers towards the right eating practices.