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Capacity building should be shared responsibility of all stakeholders
Tuesday, 29 August, 2017, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
George Cheriyan and Simi T B
Introduction
Access to sufficient and safe food is a basic human need and a vital requirement for building a strong nation and for realising zero poverty and zero hunger. It is even more imperative in the context of changing food habits, growing number of food outlets and the globalisation of our food supply. Globally, billions of people are at risk of food-borne diseases and millions fall ill every year. Many also die as a result of consuming unsafe food.

In India, till date, food safety has always remained a big anxiety equally for both consumers and the regulators. Recent food safety scandals in the country underscore the vulnerabilities of existing systems and shows how poorly they are regulated. According to various reports, more than one-fourth of the food produced in India is adulterated and substandard. This can create a negative impact on the daily lives of farmers, food producers, traders, consumers, and ultimately all citizens. So to guarantee the basic human right, the country requires robust capability - a capability to perform suitable functions effectively, efficiently and sustainably and thereby provide safe and quality food for domestic consumption and export. This is particularly vital in an era of technological advances, complex export market requirements, and increasing awareness and expectations of consumers.

Share Responsibilities
Stringent food laws and setting up of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has paved the way for an efficient regulatory system in the country. But what is crucial is a more focussed approach on capacity building involving all stakeholders both at the national and state levels. It should be a shared responsibility among different types of stakeholders – including governments (Central and states), the food industry (MNCs to local street vendors), consumers (urban and rural), civil society organisations, academic and scientific institutions, etc. While these stakeholders each have diverse responsibilities and accountabilities, the multidimensional nature of food safety and quality make their roles highly interconnected and interdependent. Active collaboration among the stakeholders involved in the food chain is therefore indispensable to ensure the effectiveness.

Assess, Prioritise and Implement
Besides, to ensure that capacity building activities are demand-driven and tailored to needs and circumstances, the country needs to recognise and prioritise the pertinent issues affecting the implementation of law. Given the current state of supervision and control in the food chain, as well as overburdening and lack of responsible dedicated staffs/authorities, the food safety system in the country needs to be reorganised. This includes adaptation of the methods of control, amendments and implementation of the legislations, and upgrading and redefining the role of laboratories.

At present, the capacity of the government food safety laboratory, to provide reliable results is not satisfactory. Most of the laboratory equipments are outdated or inoperative and has been years since many of the labs were upgraded last. Despite recruitments, there are not enough technical officers and lab technicians, and their management and training have never been adequate or timely. Most of the existing facilities are understaffed. Hence there is not just a need for enough technicians and food inspectors in the future but also need for educated, trained and capable technicians and inspectors.

Enforcement is also a crucial issue and it largely depends on the state governments. Most of the groundwork needs to be carried out by the food safety machinery in states, particularly in dealing with food adulteration, misbranding, sub-standard products and violation of food safety rules. But almost all states have severe shortage of technical team and infrastructure. This, coupled with the lack of effective coordination between the FSSAI and states’ food and drug administrations, and other departments like consumer affairs, has worsened the challenge of food safety.

So any food safety reform at the national level will be incomplete and insufficient unless it strengthens state and local roles and builds true partnership across all levels of government. The states should realise the need for greater partnership and integration with the national food safety programme. Lack of trust and acceptance between the government departments at various levels should be done away with. Many factors have contributed to this situation, such as the fact that state and local food regulatory programmes are highly variable in quality, expertise, and resources. Often, new regulations and orders from the Centre are unfunded directives which are ignored by local officials as they lack resources to carry out directives.  Even when some local governments might have the will to enforce regulations and standards, they often lack the means. Further, corruption within the government poses a significant challenge. Local officials often collude with local companies and thwart the attempts by higher-level authorities to enforce safety regulations.

Thus a change in shift from national to state and local levels is the need of the hour in order to make sure adequate coordination within the framework of the ‘from farm to plate’ control system. Optimising the budget and improving the transparency would ensure the continuous responsibility for food safety and to respond to future requirements in an efficient and prompt manner. Efforts should be made to at least strengthen one food testing lab in each state initially and ensure that such food testing labs attain NABL accreditation and bring them at par with best of the laboratories in the country.

Disseminate
Now that the government has rolled out a major scheme for strengthening of food testing infrastructure in the country at an estimated cost of Rs 482 crore, more focus could be laid on dissemination of information. Though ignorance of law is not an excuse and it is presumed everyone knows the law and should comply with it but the fact remains that most people are not aware of a lot of requirements that the law mandates upon them.

Communication with the public and the food industry is an increasingly important factor. It would be a challenge to bring together all the stakeholders including public and private sector producers, processors and retailers, regulatory agencies, consumer advocates, and technical service providers for effective collaboration on food safety. But creating such a platform for open and truthful dialogue can uncover and address constraints to improved food safety.

Government authorities also need to inform the public and the food industry about trends in food and food-borne diseases. Besides it is an educational function of the government to give consumers advice regarding how to avoid food poisoning. Moreover training for food safety officers, laboratory personnel, and the food industries is also necessary to ensure that existing inspection programmes are sufficient to tackle emerging hazards and to integrate new technologies to reduce hazards.

More importantly, there are inadequate reliable literatures on risk assessment, hazard analysis in relation to food safety. So, the research in these fields should be promoted at all levels, so that evidence-based decision-making can be performed.

Other than education, research and training, laboratory harmonisation is also vital to build the capacity of the nation in the area of food safety. Age-old methods and procedures generate inaccurate results that later call for retesting thereby bringing in delay and increase in costs. Also confusion and complexity of testing methods aid in never ending disputes between the parties. Hence there is a need for unambiguous and common testing methods to ensure quality and safety.  

Conclusion
The capacity building challenges are enormous, but so too are the opportunities and benefits associated with it once they are overcome. Building future capability, however, will not just be about improving education and training, or upgrading laboratories. A change would be required on how food safety is viewed. It means building a fully integrated common food safety culture that puts the consumer straight at the centre of food safety decision making. To create such a culture of food safety and hygiene amongst the future generations few initiatives could be taken right from school level. Encouraging schools to set up basic food testing facility in schools for testing common adulterants in food and spread education among school students on food safety and hygiene is a right move. The greater we could progress in developing a strong food safety culture across the sector, the more relevant and future focussed will be our efforts to improve capability and capacity.

(Cheriyan is director, Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS) International, and a member of Central Advisory Committee (CAC) of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), and Simi is assistant policy analyst, CUTS International, Jaipur. They can be contacted at gc@cuts.org.)
 
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