“Converting global standards and harmonising them into Indian situation is a big challenge”

converting-global-standards-and-harmonising-them-into-indian-situation-is-a-big-challenge

Almost one had half year after taking overas Chairman of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), K.Chandramouli, an IAS officer of 1975 batch from Uttar Pradesh cadre, is firm in his saddle giving definite direction to the work of regulatory. In an hour long conversation with Milind Kokje, Editor of NuFFooDS Spectrum, he clarifies the working mechanism of regulatory to clear doubts if any, lists the FSSAI’s achievements uptil now, narrates the challenges it is facing and unfolds the plan for the future. Excerpts:



What are the achievements of the authority in the last two years?

When the FSSAI was constituted, it was absolutely bare, there was nothing. We had to start from scratch. Now many systems are in place. All the scientific panels and the scientific committees have been set up and have started working. In many states online registration process for Food Business Operator (FBOs) has started. Our regional offices have started functioning at Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Guwahati, Lucknow and Chandigarh. Recently one more regional office at Kochi has been opened and we are in the process of opening more offices.

We have issued detailed guidelines related to food import clearance process.There are various issues in import. One of them is the labels on imported food items, which are in different languages not known to us. As a result, consumers here cannot read those languages. So, the importer has to provide the information in local language. If the companies abroad are exporting their food to India they have to abide by the rules of the land like what we have been following.

How is the act to be implemented?

It is a Central Act but is to be enforced by the States. The State Governments did not have a unified body earlier. Most of the Prevention of Food Adulteration acts were implemented by the States’ health departments. But under the new act the whole new system was designed where a Food Safety Commissioner is head of the food safety for individual state and below him is designated officer and he has to work with food safety officers. At certain conditions, license is given by the central government but about 99% of the licenses are given by state government. State government gives licenses, and they are the ones who enforces it.

In the states like Maharashtra there existed a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but no other state had an FDA. So, Maharashtra didn’t have a problem and it continued as it was doing. But in most of the other states, in fact all other states, we had to create entire machinery for understanding and implementing the act.

What are challenges before the FSSAI?

Our first biggest challenge is the large number of small, unorganized food item sellers on roads or small time eateries etc.Setting standards for them is not big challenge. It is an easy task as the standards will not be very high level science based. These are general standards related to hygiene, cleanliness etc. The idea here is not to drive away these businesses or stop people from eating this food, but to bring in cleanliness, hygiene and make the food sellers to work in hygienic conditions. This is easier part but also more difficult for implementation, where the entire population starts accepting them. The best way to implement this part is to make consumer aware and demanding. When the consumers start demanding cleanliness and hygiene the food sellers have to improve. So our next big challenge is to make people accept the standards and make them aware about them to demand those from the food sellers. For this we will have to reach to the consumers through media.

For implementation of such a vast act across the nation a lot of infrastructure is needed. What steps are being taken for that?

As I mentioned earlier, though this is a central act and we are setting up standards, it is to be enforced by the states. Registration or licensing of 95-98% of the FBOs, in both organised and unorganized sector, will have to be done by states. So, all the State Governments have to be prepared. We have a Central Advisory Committee (CAC) of which all states are members. It will be following up the enforcement by states. System and infrastructure is there. We need to link it up. And we have to take the state governments also on the board, as you can’t have regional office everywhere. So we need to work in co-ordination with the state governments.

 

  Codex standards
  We are now looking at science based or vertical standards, where India starts accepting, evolving, implementing standards which are accepted all over the world like Codex standards. In this area the major challenge is to convert all the standards and harmonise them into Indian situation. Harmonising international standards to suit the domestic standards is a big job; rather I would say the biggest job. The FSSAI has to do it. And we have gone far ahead in this. The authority has set up 67 working groups and they have been given various tasks. About 48 working groups have already submitted their reports.

 

  Setting-up labs
  One major initiative regarding infrastructure is that we are going to set up labs. Standards do not have any meaning if we don’t have equipped labs for testing. So, we will be setting one lab each for 20 districts, for 640 districts we will set up 32 labs. Plus we will use the existing labs. In addition we don’t have any problem in using any lab as long as it has NABL Accreditation given by National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) of Quality Council of India. Now we have very sophisticated labs with digital instruments.And in food analysis, 90-95 % tests are microbiological and chemical testing. It is not very difficult. Many of our existing scientific institutions can also be utilised. The labs which we are going to set up are minimum type oflabs. We will utilize these labs for referral purpose. You cannot have many high end labs. Planning commission has cleared the proposal and now the health ministry has to clear it. It is all in the process. They will be set up in the next five years.

Industry feels that FSSAI should convert all the product licenses under PFA until March 2012 directly in to FSSAI licenses. What are your views on this?

All the licenses given under the old acts earlier will be automatically converted under FSSA without any problem. Industry has to come and get it done. Earlier last date was February 5, 2013 and now we have extended it till February 4, 2014. We don’t intend to extend it further.

Can there be a process where instead of product approval we can have ingredient approval and once it is acquired will product approval be required?

What is product? Product can be broadly defined as ingredient plus additive. Ingredients are all basic cereals etc. which are common to any product. What makes one  product different from other is the additive. The product approval is for ensuring that products, which are processed, which are newly manufactured, for which there is no history, no standards, must pass through certain mechanism. It is an administrative screening procedure. When we came to know that industry has some problems with product approval we kept talking to the industry, we kept changing procedures. We are regularly in touch with the industry and we try to make it as easy as possible for product approval.

  Promises…
 
I participated in your Round Table Discussion at Nutra India Summit. What ever I promised there to the industry all those things are being put in practice. We put in three baskets, products with Codex standards will not be referred to the committee. Then the second category is of the products which are known to be safe and have some kind of evidence of safety,even though they don’t have Codex standards. I said we will give them no objection certificate till they are standardised. That is also happening. Codex standards are not there for all the items, they are for international food items. Many of the international food items are not applicable to India. Thus, many of the food items we eat do not find mention in the Codex. But, they are also safe. So, Codex standards will be incorporated for product approval where the standards are evolved and where they are applicable in India. But products which are not part of Codex but have lab reports showing evidence of safety fall into this category. That takes care of the major chunk of the products. So, what remains is only the new products which have no history and set standards and only they will be referred to the committee. We are also making the product approval procedure online.

Once all the systems are in place, how much time on an average a case would take for approval?

It is very difficult to give general time frame. Time taken to clear each application will depend upon every individual application. But we will try to clear the application as soon as possible.

What are your general expectationsfrom the industry?

I keep on meeting the industry peopleon regular basis, at various platforms like FICCI, ASSOCHEM, and CII. I came to your Nutra India Summit also. We are ready to work with anybody, who have concerns related to the act. Industry interaction isonly one part of my activity. I should not and do not look like spending 90% of time talking to only industry. At the end of the day it is the consumer that is important. Standards are not stand alone. We are making standards for consumers’ safety.

Dietary Supplement is a new categoryin nutraceuticals industry. How do you see that segment is progressing?

As a chairman of the authority, I don’t want to understand nutraceuticals, dietary supplements, health supplements,functional foods etc. in the sense in which it is written in section 22 of the act as it is confusing. Nobody has been able to convince me or tell me as to what is the difference between dietary supplement and health food. Someone says novel food. For me, I don’t see broadly any difference in dietary supplement and health supplement. I categorised foods in two groups – proprietary and non-proprietary food. Proprietary food is that where standards are not there and non-proprietary foods are those where standards are there. Attempt of the authority would be to see that the basket containing proprietary foods keeps on reducing, to see that the standards are evolved and all these food items keep on moving to other category.

Nobody has been able to solve this issue satisfactorily where food ceases to be a drug. In nutraceuticals the problem sometimes arise as the line dividing food and drug is very thin. If you have 4% vitamin it is food, if you have 6% vitamin then it is different. So, for me the challenges lies in how to define a product, whether it is for dietary purpose or for therapeutic purpose. That has to bedone in each case separately. You cannot have broad definition. That is where I expect the experts to give us some kind of guidance. This is a continuous and ongoing process.

 

 

 

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