Days after the recall of Maggi Noodles from India highlighted glaring gaps in the food regulatory structure, the Health Ministry has sent a Rs 1,700-crore proposal to the Union Cabinet for a sweeping revamp.
According to sources, the proposal focuses on four main areas: strengthening the state inspection apparatus, bolstering the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India’s manpower, giving the FSSAI more powers and ensuring that the authority has access to state-of-the-art technology.
“We have sent a proposal to the Cabinet to increase FSSAI’s manpower, both technical and field staff, and make sure that it has at its disposal the latest technologies in its laboratories,” a senior official in the Health Ministry told The Indian Express.
“Currently, it (FSSAI) is a rudimentary set-up. In fact, 16 states do not even have a food testing laboratory. The actual increase in staff strength will have to be worked out once the proposal is passed because revamping the state food safety set-up is a very important part of the plan,” he added.
An investigation by The Indian Express this month had revealed a number of shortcomings in the country’s food safety apparatus — at the Centre and states — including lack of staff, technology and accreditation for most state labs.
Last week, Tata Starbucks said it was “suspending” some ingredients from its outlets after The Indian Express reported that products used by the company and a number of other top brands, such as Kellogg’s and Venky’s, figured on a list of around 500 rejected products prepared by the national food safety regulator.
The official, meanwhile, stressed that that revamp was not connected to the recent controversy surrounding the recall of Nestle’s popular instant noodles after lab tests showed unsafe levels of lead in some samples.
“The restructuring of FSSAI has been in the works for long. It has got nothing to do with the recall of Maggi Noodles or whatever has happened since then,” the official said.
Sources said that the FSSAI currently has its own staff deployed in only five cities across the country, leaving the checking of imported foods mostly to state authorities and, at times, even to Customs officials.
Sources said the proposal would pump Rs 1,700 crore into the food safety administration apparatus over the next few years.
“A very important part of the plan is to hire more experts. At present, scientific work is mostly outsourced to committees formed for the purpose. For example, FSSAI has formed an 11-member expert committee to look at salt, sugar and fat content of Indian foods and recommend acceptable levels,” sources in the ministry said.
FSSAI sources said that till the Maggi fiasco, it had centred its checks around “items of mass consumption” like milk, milk products, edible oils and water because of the skeletal staff strength at the central and state levels.
“Maggi was the authority’s first foray into packaged food — triggered not by its own tests but because many states had started to find fault with it,” sources said.
“Currently, 99% of the food inspection function is with the states, that is why it is important to revamp state authorities. But there is also a realisation that a central authority needs to have its own staff on the field to avoid what happened in the case of Maggi Noodles. The authority was literally caught napping. Leaving it all to states has also meant that rejected product approval application information that is routinely made public by the authority is not paid heed to by states,” said an official.