Along with large parts of the country, the Northeast too has fallen blindly to the lure of packaged foods and hopefully the Maggi fiasco will come as a wake-up call. Backed by high-voltage advertising and adorning the shelves of glitzy malls where the young, smart and happening crowd hangs out, packaged foods seem to do no wrong. The Central and state governments have very little idea what such processed and packaged foods are doing to the health of people. In fact, the Food Safety and Standards Act (FSA) has been amended — so that ‘novel foods’ for which standards have not been specified ‘but is not unsafe’, were permitted if introduced for the first time in the country, provided the producers applied for product approvals. The procedure for applying was simplified in October last year so as to facilitate ‘ease of business’. Under this simplified procedure, the producer company is no longer required to submit notarised affidavits but ‘self-declaration forms’. The novel foods include a range of genetically modified and irradiated foods, organic foods, special dietary foods, health supplements and the like — most of which are now under scanner. But even as the Central government eased the norms for marketing such packaged foods in India, it has neglected to simultaneously tighten up the food regulatory structure. The infrastructure of the Central food regulator, mely the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is rudimentary at best, with its staff deployed in only a few cities. Food inspection function is primarily with the states, but many states do not even have an accredited food testing laboratory.
With a chastened Health Ministry now reportedly seeking approval from the Union cabinet for a total overhaul of the food regulatory structure, the focus will be on giving the FSA more teeth and plugging its loopholes as well as equipping the Central and state regulators with more manpower, technology and accredited labs. It is a fact that once income levels rise, most households aspire to consume more processed and variegated food that tickle the palate. There is also the convenience factor, with a pressed-for-time generation preferring food that can be cooked without hassles. But such needs have combined with shocking ignorance about food values, threatening the very health of consumers. There is a price to pay when consumers reach for their wallets believing the claims on the front of food packets rather than examining the data hidden in the tables and lists on the back. There are also allegations that the information on packet labels is idequate. A disturbing report by the food quality monitoring organisation ‘Food Sentry’ quoting FSSAI data has shown that 13 per cent of around 2.4 lakh food product samples collected since 2011 have failed to meet prescribed standards. This puts India right on top of the list of countries in terms of unsafe food, followed by Chi where 9.9 per cent of the samples failed lab tests. Among the states, the situation was found most alarming in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, with the Maggi crisis exploding in the latter. After a food inspector in Barabanki in UP picked up random samples of Maggi from an organised retailer, lab tests showed high levels of lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG). However, Maggi passed the test in Goa, prompting the food industry to blame the lack of uniform testing procedures. It has been pointed out that the FSSAI prescribes only broad parameters for food tests, but not a uniform tiol protocol specifying how tests should be conducted.
For long, the FSSAI had focused on testing food items of ‘mass consumption’ like milk, milk products, edible oils and water because of its skeletal staff strength. But after the ban on Nestle’s Maggi, the FSSAI is now rightly casting its net wider. It is proposing to fix limits of heavy metals like lead, tin, arsenic and cadmium in a range of food products including salt, fruits, juices, vegetables, pulses, fish and meat products. It has also appointed an expert group to recommend maximum permissible limits and labelling requirements of sugar, salt and fat in food products. These harmful components are mostly present in preservatives used in processed foods, believed to cause obesity, hypertension, diabetes and other lifestyle disorders. Recently the Delhi High Court also directed the FSSAI to come out with specific directions on junk food for school children, after an NGO filed a writ petition on the ill-effects of such food. There is a further move by the Central food regulator to hold retailers responsible if they are found selling items not been approved by it. This is intended to check the unhealthy trend of retailers selling upproved foodstuffs for higher profit margins, then pleading ignorance whenever challenged by food inspectors. The FSSAI has now published a list of around 500 products that failed to get approvals, many of which were found to contain high levels of heavy metals and iron fillings, apart from caramel, caffeine, sugar and salt. It is high time for consumers to be aware of proper and balanced diet, and the risks of pumping dangerous components into their bodies due to the fatal lure of processed and packaged foods.