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INTERVIEW

“Not revamp, extensive punitive measures needed”
Monday, 11 December, 2023, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Rouble Chhabra, lawyer & entrepreneur, has a degree in food policy studies and master's degree in farm to table concentration from Culinary Institute of America. She did her LLB from O P Jindal University and is actively involved and works in the food and agriculture policy sector. Chhabra talks with Ashwani Maindola on the legal framework of the food safety ecosystem in India. Excerpts:

How do you assess the need of skilled / learned manpower in the food industry as well as food authority?

Food safety is multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary. Determining the skillset of labour force in the food industry is as important as it is in any other industry. As food contamination has far reaching effects beyond direct public health consequences - it undermines food exports, tourism, livelihoods of food handlers and economic development, both in developed and developing countries.

The present legislation dealing with food safety in India (FSS Act) was passed in 2006 after repealing various Central Acts relating to food safety. By way of law, it affects anyone and everyone who trades in the business.

So long as humans live, the consumption, distribution and manufacturing of food shall prevail. Hence, it is safe to say that the food safety laws encompass the ecosystem of a food chain.

Food law shall be based on risk analysis in legal terms also known as the:

Precautionary principle: Where after risk an uncertainty persists, provisional risk management measures may be taken to ensure a high level of health protection, until more scientific information is available.

The need for regulation in the realm of food safety in the food industry is predominant. We unanimously observed, in the Covid case what a bat soup served in China did to the world. How atrocious is that now? Food safety is not just about how the food is cooked, stored, and served but also about what product are allowed. In the name of delicacy foie gras is served at every place but banned in India since July 2014 and for a reason.

As envisaged in the Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, 1950, the right to healthy and safe food is a basic vital need. Dealing in any food article that is considered dangerous to human life is a violation of Article 21[i] read with Article 47[ii] of the India Constitution.

How important in your opinion is the coordination among the food authority, industry and consumers?
The only way food authorities can communicate with consumers is via

-Issuance of government interventions on the product in question. Notices are issued by designated officer of the FSSAI body usually in 4 categories;

(Improvement, Warning, Prohibition and Stipulated time-frame to alter procedure).
  • Appeal to the commissioner of food safety officer.
  • Bi-Annually released circulars by the FSSAI body.
What is your analysis of upgradation of lab infrastructure, speed and quality of analysis?
The upgradation of infrastructure is highly imperative in maintaining and controlling generic food quality.

As seen in the case of M/s Bhattacharjee Mahasaya & Another v. State of Bengal, The food inspector purchased 750 gram of paneer from M/s Bhattacharjee’s shop for random inspection, the report issued by the Public Analyst was found to be adulterated, unfit for human consumption. Due prosecution was instituted against the shop owner under Section 16 (1) (a) (i) read with Section 7 of Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954. However, it was held by the Supreme Court that there was no “whisper in the complaint or evidence” as to whether the departure from prescribed standards or composition could be attributed only to inescapable natural causes. The report of the Public Analyst stated that the moisture content was 77.6% and that as per the prescribed standard, it shall not contain more than 70%. The intricacies such as fat content of the milk, and further investigation on the matter was also not delved into. The case was dismissed on the grounds of insufficient acclimating evidence.

This makes it plenty clear that the overall quality of analysis was questionable and not up to the mark. Labs are of great disservice if they are not up to international standards and fail to operate in the favour of the greater good.

How do you see FSSAI’s role to maintain food safety and facilitate industry (innovation) vis a vis new-age food products?
The food industry has gone far beyond in terms of reach and capability in terms of innovation and quality. The constant need to upgrade and improve has not just increased exports for India but also enables a sense of superiority in the global market. In order to support this zeal for continued excellence, the High Court of Bombay struck down the advisories which were issued from time to time by the FSSAI on product approval as seen in the landmark judgement case of Vital Nutraceuticals Pt. Ltd. vs. Union of India, 2014. This enabled an enhanced sense of freedom in terms of business to thrive and innovate without having to go through the tedious and time-consuming process of product approval. The fundamental issue stemmed from having to wait far too long for approvals from the FSSAI body. Imperative to note that pre-2013, product approval was only required if there was new ingredient or additive in the product to be launched in the Indian market. The aforementioned changed on May 11, 2013, as the advisory of FSSAI on product approval broadened the scope and width to cover all products ingredients or additives which are within the permissible limits, it meant every change in ingredient and quantity needed to be pre-notified and permitted by the FSSAI body. Vital Nutraceuticals challenged this on the grounds of the said rule being incompatible with any statutory force. It was rightly held by the Bombay High Court that the product approval process, which was issued through May 11, 2013, advisory has no force of law. The reasoning behind this rationale was enunciated explicitly by the court, as envisaged in Section 92 and 93 of the FSS Act which was not followed and that such advisories should have been issued only after appropriately placing them before Parliament and seeking approval for the same.

Indian states and Indian food safety ecosystem. What is your analysis?
The FSSAI laws are vast and entail practically everything, the issue is not in the legal framework but in the enforcement of them. Countries and regions like the United States of America and Europe have stricter laws pertaining to food regulation because there is an active governance into the stream of distribution. It is imperative that authorities take active control and charge in ensuring cost, quality, safety and compliance.

Does food safety law need an overhaul/revamp? What needs to be done and how?
Major food law reform usually occurs when all—scientists, the public, and food industry leadership—are galvanised by current events and are alert and willing enough to step up. Like I mentioned before, the enforcement of the revamp or an overhaul is not needed but extensive punitive measures in addition to active and stricter governance is what needs to be done.
 
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