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Wednesday , October 26 , 2011
 
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Indian eateries that do not maintain food safety standards may find the going tough before long. A central food safety law has finally been instituted. Among other things, it will look into food safety violations by restaurants and manufacturers and provide compensation to victims.

Though the Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA) was passed in 2006, it was not until August this year that the law was notified and its rules and regulations drafted and put into place. Until now, matters concerning food safety were dealt with under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954. However, experts say that the FSSA is much more comprehensive and tackles food safety issues head on. “The law tries to cover every possible aspect related to food safety and consumer rights protection. It is a progressive and well drafted law,” says Pervez Rustomkhan, a Mumbai-based advocate.

Indeed, the FSSA brings in its purview every sort of food — from genetically modified food to fortified food, mineral water, infant food, chewing gum, and so on. And even more significantly, it sets up a single reference point, the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), for all issues related to food safety and standards and harmonises them with international standards.

The FSSAI has been mandated to ensure the implementation of the food standards specified under the act. The body is to lay down the limits for food additives, set up the procedure for the accreditation of the bodies associated with food safety management, and regulate and monitor the manufacturing, processing, distribution, sale and import of food.

That’s not all. The Food Safety Authority will provide scientific and technical support to the central and state governments to help them frame policies or rules related to nutrition or food safety. The law also provides for a Food Safety Audit, where the FSSAI can ask an agency to examine the food safety measures adopted by manufacturers.

Headed by the commissioner of food safety, the FSSAI is to consist of 22 members of which one third is supposed to be women. “The rest are to be nominated from ministries such as agriculture, commerce, consumer affairs, food processing, health, legislative affairs and small-scale industries,” reveals Rajeev Talasikar, a Mumbai-based legal consultant.

One novel feature of the law is that it has a provision for the recall of food from the market. If consumers or consumer activists complain to the commissioner of food safety about a particular food item, and on analysis it is found to be substandard or contaminated, it may be recalled from the market. A manufacturer may also seek the withdrawal of a particular food product if he feels that he hasn’t complied with the rules and regulations specified by the FSSAI.

One of the most important features of the FSSA is that it lays down stringent punitive measures to check malpractices on the part of manufacturers and importers. Section 65 of the FSSA states: “If any person… manufactures or distributes or sells or imports any article of food causing injury to the consumer or his death, it shall be lawful for the Adjudicating Officer or… the court to direct him to pay compensation to the victim.” If a case of food contamination is proved under this act, the petitioner can get compensation ranging from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 10 lakh.

Moreover, the law stipulates that the Food and Drugs Authority and the police will have to complete the probe into an allegation of contamination within 90 days of the complaint being filed. And if a case of food poisoning is proven, the manufacturer or the eatery would have to compensate the victim within three months from the date of the verdict.

However, though the FSSA clearly has many positive features, experts say that the law has some drawbacks as well. Some point out, for example, that the monetary fines ought to have been made stiffer. “There should have been higher fines and also imprisonment for those who violate the FSSA. A compensation of Rs 1 lakh is grossly inadequate,” asserts Faizan Mustafa, vice-chancellor of National Law University, Orissa.

Others say that the law tends to ignore the reality in India. For example, if food samples are to be tested according to international standards, we need to have enough laboratories with the necessary infrastructure and facilities to carry out the tests, points out Mumbai-based consumer activist Jehangir Gai. “Most laboratories in India do not have accreditation, and only a few are fully equipped to cater to the domestic and export regulatory testing needs of the food industry. Boosting manpower and upgrading the laboratories is the need of the hour. Otherwise the immediate adoption of international food safety standards will prove futile,” he says.

Gai adds that the government should set up more food sampling centres. “As of now there are only four laboratories in India to test food samples.” Besides, says Gai, the act fails by not including animal fragments, rodent hair and extraneous matters in its definition of contaminants. “This is ridiculous. How can these not be included,” he asks.

Some definitions and terms in the law have been left unclear, points out Dolly A. Jani, manager of the chemical laboratory of the Ahmedabad-based Consumer Education and Research Centre. “The act mentions certain terms like ‘Food Safety Management System’ whose definition calls for the adoption of ‘Good manufacturing Practices’, ‘Good Hygienic Practices’ and ‘Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point’. However, it is not clear what these terms imply.”

Still, most experts and food industry insiders agree that on the whole, the FSSA is a step in the right direction. If the government does manage to implement the law in letter and spirit, perhaps India’s notoriously lax food safety standards will become a thing of the past. And terms like “Delhi Belly” pass into oblivion!

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