Pawan Agarwal – Additional Secretary and Chief Executive Officer, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)
Focusing on the whole food process safety
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has the huge responsibility of ensuring that the food available in the country is safe. It works in an ecosystem involving all the stakeholders, from businesses to scientists and consumers, from Central to State level, focusing on a shift of paradigm towards self-compliance and on the whole food process, instead of only the simple end product.
How do you ensure food safety at FSSAI and what are the specifics of the organisation and its ecosystem in India?
We have the responsibility to ensure that the food available for 1.3 billion people of our country is safe and wholesome. The responsibility is gigantic as it is about each meal, four times a day. But we do not carry out this responsibility by ourselves. We are very lean as far as the FSSAI’s own staff is concerned, merely 380 people altogether, including about 100 support staff. Most of our staff working on standards compliance is with the state governments under the food safety commissioners. There we have about 3,200 food safety officers. These numbers are far smaller than similar bodies in other countries, like in the US, where there are about 16,000 inspectorate staffs with the food inspection services.
So in terms of manpower, we are likely to expand these numbers. We will also have to do things differently. Leveraging technology, ensuring better protocols for inspections, more efficient way of doing things, relying more on self-compliance by businesses: these are ways by which we will ensure that we deliver similar value to public as bigger organisations in other countries.
We work also in an ecosystem, with food businesses, small ones and big multinational companies, and other stakeholders, other ministries of the Central Government and the States governments. We work with consumer organisations and scientific communities. Unless everyone who is connected with the food sector works in unison, we won’t be able to provide safe food. Building bridges with other stakeholders is part of the work.
What are the main steps of the food safety process?
First, standards have to be robust and must care of the safety aspect of the food. Standards can be horizontal whereby they apply across categories. There are issues like microbiological standards, residues of heavy metal, antibiotics, pesticides, etc. Then, there are vertical food standards which apply to individual food categories, for example for food supplements or for alcoholic beverages. We work through scientific panels and committees that have representations from scientists from across the country, both public and private.
Once the standards are set, they are to be complied with by the food businesses themselves. Food businesses will get their products tested for national standards twice a year and keep the report from the lab that has tested their products with themselves, to be made available to the inspecting staff from the state food safety commissioners. Compliance with the standards is the responsibility of the food businesses themselves, and not of anybody else. Periodically the food safety commissioners and their staff can conduct inspections and also take up enforcement actions in terms of taking samples and sending them for testing and launching persecutions if required. Our objective is not to close food businesses but to ensure that they provide safe food. So, our focus is to issue improvement notices to them.
What are the main challenges faced by the FSSAI?
The main obstacle is the mindset. The new law under which we operate was based on best practices on legislation of food safety around the world. It brings a paradigm shift in the way food safety is ensured in this country, and a shift in the earlier paradigm where the focus is on enforcement and persecution of food businesses if they do not comply. Here, the focus is on selfcompliance and on a greater degree of food safety. Earlier, the focus was on adulteration and now it is on food safety. They may sound similar but there is a difference between the two. We have to ensure that the end-to-end process is safe so that not only adulterants but other things that ultimately make food unsafe, do not enter the supply chain, right from procurement, transportation, storage, processing, manufacturing to distribution and retail.
So, the approach to food safety is end-to-end rather than the end product itself. The businesses are still working with old mindsets. Our enforcement machinery is also working with the old mindset of testing the final product and not necessarily inspecting food businesses to ensure that they guide them so that the practices they follow are safe. So the mindset change is a very important part of the whole change process. We are engaged in this process of public education in this space.
The other big challenge is that India still has a large unorganised sector in the food segment, representing 75 pc of the total. This brings in another set of challenges. The challenge is for instance to educate street food vendors about hygiene and food practices. We have made a small beginning in that direction by working with the ‘Skill India’ programme and the Ministry of Skill Development, and by conducting short training programmes, assessed and certified by both the Skill Development Ministry and the FSSAI. We must continuously work with them. There will be hygiene cards which will be displayed on their premises. There will also be a system whereby when a customer finds that the vendor is not following hygiene practices properly, one can reach out to food safety commissioners and officers.
There are about three million food businesses registered with FSSAI. Most of the big and medium scale businesses are under the ambit of FSSAI but a large number of food businesses in the unorganised sector, whether in the retailing space or catering space, are not registered with us. We are examining the necessity of that registration.
What about e-commerce regulations?
Essentially, there is no difference between e-commerce and real world food businesses. If an e-commerce is engaged in storage and transportation of food, or in maintaining warehouses, then it has to maintain good hygiene practices for storage of food products, and similarly for transportation as well.
Another requirement by the food law is that every food business must buy from a registered food business operator. Considering the model of the e-commerce businesses in the food sector in the country, we are coming out with a guidance note of do’s and don’ts, which will soon be released.
How can you speed up the products approval process?
With several new vertical standards coming in, the scope of product approval will reduce tremendously. Simultaneously, we have redefined proprietary food, which is an ingredient-based approach to food safety. If the ingredients used in proprietary food are safe then the final product is safe, subject to the condition that they meet horizontal standards on pesticide residues and on microbiological factors, and also that they use additives as per the requirements for the ingredients that are used in food products. With the new definition of the proprietary food, a lot of products that required product-by-product approval do not need it anymore. There have been a lot of efforts in easing food approval process under the new food law. This will bring innovation in the food sector, and ensure simultaneously that the food available in the country is safe.