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Food safety and certification in India – Current scenario
Tuesday, 14 September, 2021, 12 : 00 PM [IST]
Karan Chechi
Food is a major factor contributing to the population’s health, nutritional condition, and productivity. As a result, the food we eat must be nutritious and safe. Food safety is a basic human need that must be met to achieve a world free of hunger and poverty on a global scale. Food safety standards are the rules and practices that food producers, processors, food supply outlets, and consumers must follow to ensure food safety in terms of hygiene and health.

A country must enact and enforce proper laws and regulations to build and operate a comprehensive food safety system. Food safety has become a serious problem around the world, specifically in India. Food safety issues can originate from two main sources, a failure to follow established protocols or an intentional attempt to deceive.

Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), is the main regulatory authority for food safety in India. It was established under the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006, which consolidated different acts and regulations that had previously dealt with food-related issues in various ministries and departments.

The main objective of FSSAI is to regulate the manufacture, sale, distribution, storage, and import of food products and ensure the availability of safe food for human consumption and lay down the science-based standards for food articles. FSSAI believes that food safety is a joint obligation shared by Government, producers, and consumers. Every individual has a responsibility to ensure that the food we eat is both safe and nutritious.

FSSAI and state food safety authorities oversee the enforcement of the FSS Act and ensure that all applicable legal requirements are met by food businesses at all levels of the supply chain of food. Section 31 of the FSS Act and the Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses) Regulations, 2011, provide the legal framework for food business licensing and registration. These documents contain information on procedural requirements and timescales.

According to FSSAI, food products can be categorized into standardized food products and non-standardised food products. Standardized food items are those for which standards have been established and for which product approval is not required before manufacture, sale, distribution, or import, such as fruit jam, sauces, biscuits, and carbonated water. To start a food business, a manufacturer or an importer of standardised goods needs an FSSAI license. However, the non-standardised food items do not have any standards because their safety parameters are unknown or have not been determined yet, such as milk or milk products, food for medical purposes, functional food.

Imported food must adhere to the FSS Act, Rules, and Regulations. If the food items are standardised, the importer merely requires an FSSAI authorisation to bring them into the country. For the sale and distribution of the food items, the importer must also follow FSSAI standards.  

Every food business organisation must get an FSSAI registration or license. Obtaining a license can bring legal benefits, develop goodwill, ensure food safety, raise customer awareness, and aid in business expansion for a food business. It also helps to regulate the manufacturing, storage, distribution, and sale of imported foods.

FSSAI Licenses can be divided into two categories: state FSSAI licenses and central FSSAI licenses, depending on the size of the firm, whether it is small or  large. In general, large-scale food businesses must acquire FSSAI registration from Central Government, whereas small to medium scale food businesses must obtain FSSAI registration from the state government. All food packages have a 14-digit registration number that contains information on the producer's permit.

FSSAI registration starts with the submission of Form A application for registration or Form B state application and central license to the food and safety department or by applying online through the FoSCoS portal. All the essential documentation must be submitted along with the application. The application will be accepted or rejected within seven days based on FSSAI standards. In case of application acceptance, the registration certificate will be granted to the applicant. However, there are certain penalties faced by food businesses in case of non-compliance with food standards, such as Rs 10 lakh for misleading advertisement or false description, Rs 2 lakh for food quality, Rs 5 lakh for sub-standard food.  

The Covid-19 situation has led to a rise in awareness of food safety among consumers. With the revival of the Covid-19 pandemic, the focus has shifted towards food, nutrition, health, immunity, and long-term sustainability. However, one major issue faced in India is food adulteration which is responsible for lowering or degrading the quality of food products. Food adulteration creates a major health risk. Any material that is used or might be used to make food dangerous, substandard, misbranded, or contains extraneous content is referred to as an adulterant.

Adulterated food is dangerous since it can be toxic and harm one's health, as well as deprive one of the important nutrients for normal growth and development. Another challenge faced by food safety authorities is foodborne disease. Foodborne sickness is becoming more common, putting millions of people's food security in jeopardy. According to WHO (World Health Organization), foodborne sickness affects 40% of children under the age of five, resulting in 125000 fatalities each year. Moreover, according to FSSAI, an average of one out of four samples does not comply to the safety standards. Uttar Pradesh had the highest percentage of non-conforming samples (49.99%), followed by Mizoram (42.20%).

Indian Government has been taking certain initiatives to encourage food safety. Food safety in India is linked to Indian Government Swachh Bharat initiative, which emphasises cleanliness and hygiene. These are important aspects that influence food safety. Additionally, FSSAI has been taking initiatives such as introducing rapid and advanced food testing kits. FSSAI has been pushing efforts to increase food testing capabilities. FSSAI has authorised 65 quick food testing kits/devices so far.

Moreover, FSSAI has provided technical and financial help to states and union territories to build appropriate infrastructure, testing equipment, and mobilizing personnel for special camps, inspections, and awareness efforts, among other things. Recently, a draft of the Food Safety and Standards (Vegan Food) Regulations 2021 was issued by India's Food Safety and Standards Authority. The regulation will define vegan food and implement safety norms and labelling rules to help consumers recognise vegan foods. Vegan food is defined as those foods or food ingredients that do not contain any animal-derived ingredients, additives, or processing aids, such as milk and milk products, fish, poultry, and meat, egg or egg products, honey or honeybee products, insect derived materials or ingredients that are clarified using animal-derived products.

The food regulator is also publishing new regulations to make import clearances easier and faster by broadening the coverage of quality assurance and testing of food imports across all entry points. Furthermore, FSSAI continued to alter the country's food ecosystem through its benchmarking and certification schemes, as well as cluster initiatives to improve the infrastructure and hygiene compliance standards of food businesses, as part of the 'Eat Right India' movement.

(The author is research director at TechSci. He can be reached at sales@techsciresearch.com)
 
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