India is yet to lay down “science-based standards” to test instant noodles, and its state and central labs are ill-equipped to test a variety of common food items, including fruits and vegetables, milk, and carbonated beverages. This is the conclusion of Dr Satya Prakash, former director of the Central Food Laboratory in Kolkata, who has conveyed his concerns in a series of letters to top government officials, including one on June 12 — a week after the recall of Maggi Noodles over safety concerns — to Health Minister J P Nadda and the Prime Minister’s Office.
“The business of instant noodles is around Rs 1,700 crore and (these) are consumed basically by the children. Hence there is an urgent need to prescribe standards for noodles,” Dr Satya Prakash wrote on June 12.
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Dr Satya Prakash has also pointed out that the test parameters for instant noodles sent by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to state labs last week does not cover MSG, the flavour enhancer, microbiological examinations and pesticide residue tests.
Dr Prakash, who has also held additional charge of the Central Food Laboratory in Ghaziabad, retired in 2009. In a letter to government officials in 2011, he wrote that no standards for processed cheese products had been laid out.
When contacted, Dr Prakash responded in an email: “I stand by what I had written to authorities for improving the working of existing food laboratories… so that the country may get state-of-the-art laboratories duly accredited by NABL (National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories).”
His letters speak volumes of the disconnect between regulations and reality in food safety. In a 2012 letter to then health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, he points out that the six referral laboratories under the ministry, which are the “backbone of the food safety and standards programme”, are not equipped to test different food categories.
This is what he wrote in 2012:
Fruits and vegetables: No central or state food lab is NABL-accredited “for analysing/monitoring pesticide residues in fruits and vegetable products… as per the validated method prescribed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.” He includes a list of 36 state food labs that confirmed in RTI replies that they were not testing for pesticides in fruits and vegetables.
Carbonated beverages: They were not being analysed by any central or state labs, due to a lack of “imported sophisticated instruments as required” after guidelines on tests were issued in 2008 which mandated testing at a minute level of 0.001 parts per million. The CFL in Mysore is the only centre in the country that can conduct these tests.
Milk and milk products: No labs tests are conducted for “pesticide residues, heavy metals, microbial contamination, mycotoxins, veterinary drugs and melamine… essential parameters to declare the milk safe”.
Letters in 2012 and 2013 highlighted the “working conditions” in the five central food laboratories under the health ministry. He wrote that the Ghaziabad lab was without a microbiologist since 1987, a regular director since 2007, and with no chief technical officer since 1989.
The extension lab of Kolkata in Raxaul in Bihar “is being looked after by the staff of laboratory assistant level since April 2009. Laboratory assistants are not authorised/competent to analyse the samples as per rules and their duty is to assist the analyst/chemist in analysis.” CFL Mumbai, for which Dr Prakash writes infrastructure was procured in 2008 at around Rs 17 crore, “is not functional till date.” For Sonouli extension centre of CFL Ghaziabad, the staff appointed “is posted in FSSAI”.
Dr Prakash, who also headed the Delhi state food lab for a few years, wrote in 2013 to the then health secretary that no state lab was NABL-accredited for testing pesticides.”Pure gases required for pesticide residues analysis are not available even in Kolkata; it has to be procured from Mumbai only. Thus, any one imagines the condition of State Laboratories situated in small cities/towns.” About Raxaul and Sonauli, Dr Prakash wrote, “No chemical or glass dealers are available. All the supplies are to be procured from outside to run the laboratory.” He also highlighted poor power supply in the interiors: “If electricity is available, the voltage will be so low that you cannot run the sophisticated equipment.” Service centres of suppliers of foreign sophisticated equipment are situated only in the metros, he added.
The World Bank, which sanctioned a project on Food and Drug Capacity Building from 2003-08 and granted loans of around Rs 350 crore for upgrading Indian labs, noted in its project report, “The majority of state laboratories are able to perform only basic analysis and cannot perform comprehensive testing, including analysing samples for microbiological contaminants.” In letters to health ministers in the last four years, Dr Prakash wrote that in most state and central laboratories, “highly sophisticated equipment” supplied under the World Bank project were “not opened or utilised at all… The equipments which are opened are not functional due to various difficulties…”
According to another former director of a CFL, “While the project mandated that we hire technical staff before purchasing equipment, a lot of equipment was brought in but there was no one who could use them. In our laboratory , we could not even open most of the equipment received. After five years, warranties expired.”