At the height of the Maggi Noodles furore last week, when labs across the country were sending their test results to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the central regulatory agency made it a point to praise Delhi’s “perfect reports”.
For officials in the national capital’s government food safety department, however, it was not exactly a matter of pride — to conduct these tests, they had to seek the help of a private lab for the first time. Reason: their only lab did not have the technology, expertise or even accreditation to do the job in time.
The Delhi tests did lead to a government ban on the Nestle product, but it also exposed how the state of around 18 million people, and home to one of India’s bigger markets in processed foods, was woefully ill-equipped to manage a food safety crisis.
”The Delhi state food laboratory is a level-one laboratory out of three levels recognised by the FSSAI. It can perform tests to trace the presence of chemicals, but not of microbial toxins, heavy metals or pesticide residue, all considered critical for food safety tests. So, for the first time, we approached a private lab and got the tests done under the supervision of a food safety analyst from our department,” a senior Delhi official told The Indian Express.
Now, consider these:
1. Delhi’s food safety lab was set up 37 years ago. It received accreditation from the National Accreditation Board of Laboratories (NABL) to conduct chemical tests in 2012 — the accreditation lapsed in 2014.
2. The lab does not have a food safety analyst, and is instead headed by a deputy analyst.
3. Of the ten posts for chemists, only three have been filled; there is no microbiologist; of six posts for technical assistants, only two have been filled.
4. In 2014, 1,489 samples were tested, but they did not include any processed, ready-to-eat product simply because the lab is not equipped to test them. It’s not just the lab, the plight of Delhi’s food safety department itself is hardly any better.
5. 12 food officers are needed to tackle the districts, Delhi has only six.
6. 32 food safety officers are needed to act as licensing authorities, Delhi has only 12 — at least one food safety officer is employed on VIP duty every day, with another on “stand by”.
7. The department is headed by a food commissioner. But the post of a special commissioner, the second in command, is vacant. Out of two posts for deputy commissioners, one is vacant.
8. In the last four years, the department sent a list of 2,000 vacancies at various levels to the Delhi State Subordinate Services Board (DSSSB), which conducts recruitments for the government. None of the posts have been filled.
Without NABL accreditation, the designated central referral lab for Delhi is Mysore’s Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), which also receives samples from Bihar, Goa, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Dadar and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu and Puducherry.
“Generally, samples are collected only on the basis of complaints, because we have a limited number of surveillance staff. First, we try to identify the genuine complaints. Then, for every product, four samples are collected — one sample is tested in our own lab, the other three are stored. After the results come in — within 20 days or one month — we notify the companies involved,” an official said.
If these companies raise objections to the tests, the second sample is sent to the referral lab in Mysore — the process takes another month, the official added.
In fact, Delhi’s non-accredited government lab is able to function only because of a “temporary sanction” allowed by the FSSAI.
According to Section 43 of the FSS Act of 2006, food safety tests can only be performed in NABL-accredited labs. But, as an official note dated July 5, 2011, sent by then FSSI director S S Ghonkrokta, stated: “However, from the interaction with the state governments it is clear that the process is likely to take some time…”
It was then decided that these labs, even if not accredited, “will continue to perform their functions”.
When contacted, Delhi’s Health Minister Satyendra Jain said that the government would upgrade the food safety department’s laboratory.
“We will make the laboratory at par with international standards after identifying the problems. Even on the Maggi issue, we made sure we got the best results. My officers have confirmed that the FSSAI mentioned our reports. There will be no compromise on testing of food,” Jain told The Indian Express.
However, this year’s budget of Rs 22 crore is woefully inadequate to get the equipment and manpower needed, said a food safety official.
After the Maggi row, the food safety department is preparing its first upgradation plan for the lab — costing around Rs 6 crore — to include tests for toxins, metals, and pesticides. Besides, the lab also needs standard kits for pesticide-testing and pure gases for pesticide residue analysis.
”The budget is minimal. But then, the reason that upgradation has not been done for so many years is not just lack of budgetary allocation.
We have not managed to fill the sanctioned posts for laboratory staff. The purchase of equipment would be futile without specialists to handle them,” the official said.
Driven to the wall, Delhi has now joined hands with FSSAI to implement a pilot project that will have five mobile labs conduct spot tests at retail and wholesale outlets, officials said.
The equipment and technical staff to perform the tests will be sourced from the private sector. “We do not have trained staff or manpower. So, food safety officers who are the licensing authorities will accompany these vans, while the staff and equipment will be provided by private players,” an official said.