India’s food safety apparatus needs sweeping reforms to ensure that its norms are on par with international standards, including an accreditation system that not only screens labs but also its personnel on a regular basis, according to the head of a key panel of India’s national food safety authority.
”It is time we wake up and work on a science-based approach and move forward rapidly,” Dr V Prakash, who chairs the scientific panel of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) on nutritional foods and dietary supplements, told The Indian Express.
“If we have periodical evaluation in aviation for pilots, why not for analysts who test our food?” asked the former director of the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI).
“If the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) sets guidelines, all airports and flights have to follow them — it should be the same for food analysis laboratories,” he added.
Dr Prakash’s call for an overhaul comes after the FSSAI sought the recall of Nestle’s Maggi Noodles in the country following lab tests that showed unsafe levels of lead in some samples.
On June 10, The Indian Express reported that some products from top brands such as Tata Starbucks, Kellogg’s and Venky’s figured on a list of around 500 rejected items that the FSSAI had handed over to state-level officials. Tata Starbucks on Monday said it was pulling out the ingredients on that list from its outlets.
Dr Prakash has also called for more scientists to be involved in the regulatory system, as is the case in other countries such as the US. ”The system should be run by scientists with bureaucratic support and not the other way round,” he said.
”The top regulatory body FSSAI does not have many scientists on its permanent staff. Where are the scientists in our food regulation system and what is the role of the few that are there? Ideally, scientists should be involved in monitoring at every stage, including sampling protocols, setting standards, and testing and simulation,” the senior scientist said.
Seeking an overhaul of state and central labs, Dr Prakash said reforms should cover testing standards, training of analysts, infrastructure, role of scientists in regulation, and the frequency of monitoring.
“India should not dilute the standards because many of our laboratories may not have advanced facilities for scientific analysis. We should be at par with international standards such as Codex,” said Dr Prakash, who headed the committee that standardised testing standards at the micro-level (parts per billion) for packaged water in 2008.
With no set standards in India for testing many types of food, including instant noodles and processed cheese items, Dr Prakash said: “Standards for different kind of pathogens, including chemicals, microbial toxins, heavy metals, residues of pesticides and herbicides and fungicides, need to be set, keeping in view the average daily intake of food. These standards have to be modified from time to time with the food chain in view. Non packaged foods and fresh foods… must be put on regular surveillance to bring hygiene in the food chain.”
Dr Prakash also called for state and central labs to be upgraded. “Analytical laboratories should not suffer because they are under states, and because the Centre has more money. The state labs are short of analytical personnel and ill-equipped to perform to capacity as compared to private labs which are approved by FSSAI with the condition that they need to be accredited by NABL (the national accreditation authority for labs),” he said.
Dr Prakash said there was also a pressing need for the NABL system to have a separate slot for food testing laboratories instead of them being clubbed under chemical laboratories.
”The testing for chemicals and for food is completely different. The matrices are different, the recoveries are different and extraction procedures are different. For instance, if you are testing for arsenic in soil and food, the analytical method could be same but the preparation of the sample for analysis can be completely different for soil and food,” he said.