Food adulteration is a serious issue in India with an average of one out of four food samples not conforming to standards. These standards are prescribed by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
FSSAI is the apex food regulator under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. It has an elaborate enforcement machinery in the states and UTs, along with a network of primary and referral food testing laboratories. As part of their regular inspections, food safety officers take samples that are sent to labs for testing.
Based on data for the period 2015-2020, the top five states with the highest percentage of non-conforming samples are Uttar Pradesh (49.9%), Mizoram (42.2%), Jharkhand (38.9%), Nagaland (36.8%) and Tamil Nadu (34.4%).
FSSAI claims to follow the principles of risk-based assessment. However, if we match this data against the number of food safety officers at the state level, this does not seem to be the case. The percentage of food safety officers (FSOs) available in the states are 19.6% in Uttar Pradesh, 0.74% in Mizoram, 6.5% in Jharkhand, 0.21% in Nagaland and 11.6% in Tamil Nadu. Risk assessment would dictate that more officers should be recruited in states with higher percentage of non-conforming samples.
Other anomalies are that Maharashtra has roughly similar number of FSOs as Karnataka, 265 and 230 respectively, though Maharashtra has double the percentage of non-conforming samples compared to Karnataka (22% and 12.5% respectively). Tripura has roughly double the number of FSOs compared to Assam, 64 and 35 respectively, though Tripura has only 4.2% non-conforming samples compared to 17.5% for Assam.
On the other hand, Gujarat and Sikkim have similar non-conformance percentages (7.8% and 8.1%) while the number of FSOs is highly disparate – 137 FSOs in Gujarat versus six in Sikkim.
Next, the number of samples collected per year in three large states – Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra – show a trend whereby the number of samples collected in 2019-2020 is lower than the number of samples collected in 2015-2016. All other states show an increase, though there are occasional dips in some years.
The dips may be accounted for by the fact that if the position of ‘food analyst’ is vacant at the state food testing lab, then FSOs don’t lift samples. This is a serious concern as regular monitoring and vigil are necessary. It cannot be left to the mercy of unfilled positions or the food analyst being on long leave.
The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India’s FSSAI audit, conducted in 2017, had some adverse observations. For example, “Neither FSSAI nor the state food authorities have documented policies and procedures for risk-based inspections and the FSSAI does not have any database on food business.” For another: “65 out of the 72 State food laboratories to which FSSAI and state food safety authorities sent food samples for testing do not possess National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) accreditation. Consequently, the quality of testing by these laboratories cannot be assured.”
There have also been issued about licences being based on incomplete documents in 50% of test check cases. There has also been the possibility of unsafe/declared unsafe food articles continuing to be manufactured and sold – thanks to the failure of the authorities to monitor and cancel licenses issued under the product approval system declared unlawful by the Supreme Court.
Given the fact that FSSAI does not have a database of food business operators and there are no documented procedures on risk-based inspections, the sampling done by FSOs can at best be described as ad hoc. Even the testing is suspect as the labs are not accredited. As per the CAG report, “Shortage of qualified manpower and functional food testing equipment in state food laboratories and referral laboratories resulted in deficient testing of food samples.”
Food safety risks can arise due to two basic causes – not following proper protocols or deliberate intention to deceive. A foreign object in a packet of food could arise maybe because the machine operator was careless. But to short-sell customers in quantity or quality is to commit food fraud. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation defines ‘food fraud‘ as “when customers are deceived about the quality and/or content of the food they are purchasing, and is often motivated by an undue advantage for those who are selling the food.”
Food fraud also includes counterfeit products that sell in unregulated small markets until there is a death and are exposed. The Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 does not even recognise food fraud. The two categories demand different levels and types of enforcement including more stringent punitive measures for food fraud.
As pointed out by the CAG, the FSSAI should immediately create a risk analysis, assessment and management framework that can form the basis of food inspections. More food safety officers should be appointed in states with higher percentage of food products that do not pass standards. Finally, food fraud should be recognised as a separate category with stronger punitive measures.
Amit Chakravarty is the chief of staff to the director general at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), a not-for-profit international agriculture research organisation headquartered in India and working with smallholder farmers across India and Africa.