On Monday, the Food and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) announced that it is working on fortification standards for packaged food products such as cereals and biscuits. Fortification means bolstering the nutritional content of a food product by increasing essential micronutrients such as minerals and vitamins. The FSSAI has also issued draft guidelines for five fortified products — rice, wheat, salt, flour, milk and edible oil. For a country long beset by the lack of food safety standards, the new guidelines are a significant first step. However, the food safety authority has not been very surefooted about fortified foods. On the one hand, it is contemplating operationalising the guidelines for rice, wheat, salt, milk and edible oil, even before issuing a final notification. On the other hand, the agency has not specified a deadline for setting standards for packaged foods.
Such vacillation is unfortunate given that there is a growing body of opinion certifying the salience of fortified foods to combat malnutrition. In fact, the first documented evidence of food fortification was in the early 1900s in the US when vitamin B3 was added to coarsely ground corn — the staple of the poor in the country — to help combat the rise of pellagra, a disease caused by the deficiency of this vitamin. In Britain, after the First World War, the government ordered vitamins A and D to be added to margarine because butter had become a scarce commodity in the country. In India, food fortification began in the early 1960s when iodine was added to salt to combat goiter. But while the UK and the US and many other countries have stringent standards on food fortification, India has been slow to get its act together.
The FSSAI’s indecisiveness is especially troubling in view of the government’s recent emphasis on fortified food. In fact on October 16, the Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare Anupriya Patel announced that fortified food would be a key element in the government’s fight against malnutrition. Programmes such as the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, Integrated Child Development Scheme and the Public Distribution System would be mandated to buy and distribute fortified food, she had said. In a country where the unorganised sector plays a significant role in production, processing and packaging of food products, stringent standards are an elementary first step. It is unfortunate that the FSSAI has not been pro-active on the matter.