In mid-September, a few hundred children at a government school in a poorer part of Bangalore fell ill after eating contaminated food given to them through the mid-day meal scheme. Predictably all hell broke loose with every agency associated with the activity washing its hands off and blaming everyone else for the tainted batch of food items sent from a central kitchen.
This is not the first such incident. These things happen regularly across the country in such schemes as well as in eateries. Millions of passengers travelling in the government monopoly Indian Railways face food contamination regularly. Railways have now decided to allow packed food from private companies to be supplied to provide alternate options to harassed passengers. Thousands of flyers patronising the no-frills airlines have no such alternatives and are forced to pay more than three times the normal price for routine food items inside planes.
So what is the actual role of the country’s omnibus food safety regulator, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India under the Ministry of Health, in ensuring safe food across the country? After all that is the mandate of this regulatory authority. The regulator says “FSSAI has been created for laying down science-based standards for articles of food and to regulate their manufacture, storage, distribution, sale and import to ensure availability of safe and wholesome food for human consumption”.
Set up under the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006, the authority has been trying to get its act together. It is not an easy task. Part of the reason is the humungous nature of the mandate given to FSSAI after eliminating more than a dozen legislations that regulated a wide range of food products and essential ingredients of food.
In fact, in our national regulatory system, there is no institution that has an ambit as wide as FSSAI. Just take the case of regulators in sectors such as banking, insurance, telecom, investment, power to name a few. Almost all these sectors have to essentially regulate companies and related institutions in few hundreds in numbers at the most. It is much easier to regulate companies operating in these sectors because of their keenness to maintain their brand image in these ultra competitive business areas. Even with such limited players to oversee, still scams occur with regularity with people exploiting the grey areas in regulation. Chit funds is one such example.
Because of its wide ambit, FSSAI is constantly facing the ire of organised institution players in the food sector. It is rare to find an industry leader in the food sector happy with FSSAI. Also, currently FSSAI does not have the bandwidth to enforce its regulatory orders as it has to depend on under-staffed and under-trained food safety authorities in all the states. This is a sure fire recipe for disaster.
Regulation is a constantly improving science. It may be better for FSSAI to concentrate its energies for a few more years to bring some order to the organised sector, and focus on packaged food. With increasing prosperity, Indian consumers are turning more to such food items because of its assured quality, thanks to the stringent regulatory standards brought in over the last few decades. Peer pressure will then take over and those on the sidelines of the food business too will join the quality bandwagon in due course.