Updated: June 18, 2015 12:00:44 am
The chair of the scientific panel of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has cut directly to the heart of the matter by insisting that quality assurance should be organised on scientific rather than bureaucratic principles and that it can only be ensured by testing the quality of the skills of testing personnel. Without such “hyper-testing”, the potency of the safety regime cannot be assured. If even the skills of drivers of private vehicles are being tested at set intervals, to ensure that they do not pose a public threat, there is no excuse for failing to test the abilities of food assayers, who hold the health of millions in their hands. Besides, food testers have to be inducted in large numbers and their coverage area increased dramatically. The discovery of lead and MSG in unacceptable quantities in Maggi noodles was the story of an unsung few working against all odds. Now, the odds must be tilted in favour of the consumer by raising a cadre of testers who specialise in food.
The chemistry of food calls for multidimensional laboratory skills. Foods have a constantly evolving profile, beginning as growing organisms and ending in spoilage, if not consumed. Through its life cycle, food is exposed to various chemicals, including hormones, pesticides, preservatives and substances in ground water. For the assayer, food presents a higher technical challenge than relatively inert materials. Significantly, the chair of the FSSAI scientific panel has strongly opposed the dilution of Indian standards on the plea of a shortage of technically qualified manpower. Apart from the obvious benefits to domestic consumers, following global standards is essential for the interests of the export industry. The Codex Alimentarius, a collection of standards promoted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN in 1961 and supported by the WHO, is the document of reference for the international trade in food substances. Its standards are relied upon by the WTO to resolve disputes in the international food trade. To bring Indian standards below the benchmarks of the Codex could weaken the prospects of the export trade.
Perhaps the biggest challenge remains unaddressed. Despite the growth of branding since liberalisation, a significant part of the food trade remains in the unorganised sector. This is especially true of retailing, which is a popular source of income since no special skills are required, the margins are excellent and demand grows reliably. For ensuring domestic food safety, the challenge would be to ensure compliance across this huge industry segment without unleashing a new food inspector raj.
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