India has the second largest population in the world after China at 1.37 billion as per the latest UN estimate 2019. With such a huge population to feed, it is all the more important that the country has a strong agriculture base and an adequate supply of food. Though an agriculture economy, India imports a major portion of food items from international markets to meet its domestic consumption. It is important that India maintains a healthy level of food safety for all its imports, especially during Covid-19. Food safety refers to the practices, which prevent food from adulteration, contamination and food-borne illnesses.
As per the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the percentage of food adulterated has increased from 12.8% in 2011-12 to 28% in 2018-19. It is reported that one out of five food is adulterated. Based on the report by Food Sentry, in 2013, India was ranked as the top food violator with 11.1% from among the sample of 3,400 verified food safety instances taken from 117 countries. China followed with 9.9%, Mexico (7.5%), France (5.5%) and the US (5.4%). Further, as per tests conducted by FSSAI, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh account for 90% of the food fraud in India. The most violated food items are seafood, dairy products, meats, spices and grains.
Food safety standards have become an important issue for global trade. Food safety standards were set under the provision of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS). The number of specific trade issues brought to the WTO SPS committee increased from 2 in 1995 to 39 in 2020. Overall, 31% of the trade concerns raised related to food safety standards during 1995-2015.
Prior to 2005, majority of the trade issues raised at the WTO were from the developed countries. However, in recent years, trade concerns by the developing countries regarding food risks due to the presence of harmful bacteria, chemicals are also increasing. These concerns are increasing due to the ban of many Indian exported products. For example, the European Union had temporarily banned exports of Indian food products, including honey, alphonso mangoes, eggplant, due to the problem of antibiotics and fruit flies.
Resultantly, India has lost millions of dollars in export earnings. India needs to take steps to boost the safety of imports such as fish, milk and milk products. In 2016, India banned the import of milk and milk products from China due to quality concerns.
Challenges for India
One of the major challenges faced by India is to provide safe and healthy food to the growing population as well as meet the stringent food safety regulations of the developed countries. The regulation in India seems to lag behind other developed countries for three main reasons. One, in developed countries in the early 1990s, the reforms to consolidate regulatory agencies into a single agency for food safety were undertaken. The first food safety law in the US was set up in 1906, known as the US Food and Drug Act. However, in India, the first law on food regulation was the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954, and its related rules that came into effect in 1956.
In the next few years, India’s food regulatory model became complex with different food laws under multiple ministries. In 2006, the Government of India consolidated its food laws under a single authority, ie, FSSAI.
Second, the developed countries formed advances in food safety risks with a better understanding of risk assessment, risk management and risk communication. The food safety policy in developed countries focused on the need for a preventative approach, often called Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) to control risks. The HACCP formed the basis of regulation of chemical, microbiological and physical contamination of food.
The European Union and many other developed countries started implementing HACCP in 1990. In India, HACCP is mandatory for many export food products like poultry, seafood and eggs, but it is not mandatory for the domestic food industry. (See infographics)
Third, most developed countries have started adopting mandatory traceability for their products, ie, the European Union has mandatory traceability for all food products; New Zealand has mandatory traceability for cattle. At present, the food traceability techniques existing in India include alphanumeric codes on the product labels, barcodes, and hologram. However, India still needs to adopt a mandatory food traceability system to reduce food safety incidents.
Lack of Awareness, Investment
Due to its outdated laws, lack of infrastructure and awareness of the public for standards and quality, India finds it difficult to implement stringent food safety regulations. Investment in food safety infrastructure, ie, laboratories, slaughterhouses, quarantine facilities, is low. Besides, to ensure that safe food enters the country, the government should set up robust laboratory infrastructure to improve food testing facilities and manufacturing practices to maintain hygiene standards. There should be mandatory use of HACCP as a preventive approach to food safety.
India needs to revise its food safety standards by addressing supply chain issues such as better risk assessment for certain commodities, improved detection methods and the potential for new economically motivated adulteration. Government agencies should develop a rapid alert system on food-borne hazards and future problems.
(The author is Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, New Delhi)
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