“With Codex harmonisation India will have global level playing field”

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Harmonisation with Codex standards is being discussed in the food industry and there is a demand from the industry for harmonisation of Codex standards as that reduces many obstacles. There is lot of expectation about harmonisation and the industry wants to know what the progress is, how much work has been done and how much time would it take to complete the work. In conversation with NuFFooDS Spectrum, Sanjay Dave, advisor to the FSSAI on Codex harmonisation, describes the entire process and how much work has been done. Dave was the Chairman of the Codex Alimentarius Commission from 2011 and his three-year term concluded in July 2014. He is the first Indian to be the Chairman of the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

What is the progress and current status of the harmonisation of Codex standards in the country and when is the work expected to be completed?

After I drafted the strategy, we started the work on the Codex harmonisation process in January 2013. After going through various process and procedures we are at different stages of the work of harmonisation now. As you may be aware the standards have been broadly divided in two categories – horizontal standards and vertical or commodity standards.

Work on pre-drafts of horizontal standards has been completed by all scientific panels. The work of standards of food additives, pesticide residues, veterinary drugs, heavy metals, microbiological contaminates, mycotoxins, naturally occurring toxins has been completed. The work of only one or two microbiological standards is still incomplete, but that also will be completed in short time. In most of these cases, the drafts have been reviewed and approved by the scientific committee. Only the food additives standard draft is yet to go to the scientific committee. In some cases, the last step of approval of the FSSAI authority has also been completed. What remains to be approved by the authority is pesticide residues and veterinary drug standards. Some of the draft standards which have been approved by the authority have also been sent to the next step of preparing draft notifications. Next meeting of the scientific committee is scheduled this month in which the food additives standards draft is expected to be cleared. The FSSAI authority meeting will be in January in which the draft standards for food additives, as well as veterinary drugs and pesticide residues are to be reviewed and approved. Then these will also be sent for notification.

In vertical standards the pre-drafts of the standards of milk & milk products, fish & fish products, fresh fruits & vegetables have been completed. Draft standards for fresh fruits & vegetables and draft standards for milk and milk products are yet to be sent to scientific committee. Draft standards for fish and fisheries products have also been approved by authority.

For bulk of the vertical standards the work is going on in three organisations – Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), Agmark and Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). The work in these orgnisations is also at different stages of completion. I think by February 2015, work on vertical standards should get completed and the drafts will be ready for submission to the Scientific Committee.
Overall, I feel we should be able to finally notify the horizontal standards by June 2015. In case of vertical standards, it will take more time. But, I think we will be able to complete that work by the end of 2015.

For traditional foods like Idli, Vada, Dosa, jalebi, kheer etc. no verticals standards are being created. It is impractical since there will be 50 varieties of Idli and 20 varieties of Halwa. So, for traditional foods only safety standards like biological contaminant, pesticide residues, food additives and colour etc. are required and traditional foods will have to comply with only horizontal standards.

Was the work delayed? Last year it was proposed that India will adopt the Codex standards by December 2014 with acceptance of the draft standards/texts by FSSAI and notification to WTO by July 2014.

Our initial target was to complete the work by around December 2014 to January 2015. But there are many procedures and processes to be followed. Several people were involved in the work as member of scientific panels and all the people were not always available. In many cases, more than one meeting was required to finalise some horizontal standards. In some cases 6-8 meetings of the panels had to be convened. It was all taking time because one has to take into account conditions in India while doing the harmoisation process.

What is the procedure that is needed to be followed?

When the work began, I proposed in my strategy that the knowledge available in the country should be utilised by involving everybody who can contribute to this work as a volunteer. We called this work in my strategy as nation building work.

After creating two categories of standards development work, we decided to look at the current standards in India, Codex standards and the standards of some other countries – a couple of developed countries and a couple of developing countries. Then to involve whosoever was interested in the work of developing standards we appealed to the people to join the work as volunteers. From my earlier experience, I was expecting that about 50 to 60 e-working groups would be needed for drafting the standards. I hoped that about 150 to 160 people will respond to our appeal to join the work. Actually, to our pleasant surprise, about 450 people responded. But on the basis of nominations we received, we laid down some criteria. Eventually it turned out that we would require 18 e-working groups for horizontal and 49 for vertical standards. In addition, I thought it would be a good idea to have groups for codes for practice as when we would have the standards, we would also need to tell the people what practices are to be adopted to achieve those standards. So 9 groups were formed for codes of practices.

The groups working on horizontal and vertical standards were requested to give their pre-drafts in three months – groups working on horizontal standards were given time up to July 2013 and those working on vertical standards were asked to submit their pre-drafts by August 2013. People took some extra time. But by early September 2013, pre-drafts for all horizontal standards were received. But the pre-drafts of vertical standards were received from e-working groups until November 2013.

Then we formed small review groups within our organisation to review the pre-drafts just to check if they were complete. The groups were asked not to make any changes in the pre-drafts, but just to check if something was missing in them; whether they were consistent with the strategy and then get those gaps filled from the respective working groups. That process took about 2-3 months.

Then the formal procedure laid down in the FSS Act 2006 began. Accordingly, these pre-drafts were first sent to scientific panels to review them. There are nine scientific panels as listed in the Act. Once they agree, it is the first stage of the standards development process. Then the draft is sent to scientific committee which comprises of chairpersons of all the scientific panels. The scientific committee checks the drafts on broader basis. It checks if it is consistent with the Act and all the standards. After the approval of the scientific committee the draft comes before the authority of the FSSAI for final approval. After the final approval, the draft notification is prepared, which is then approved by the Minister of Health and Family Welfare, then sent to law department for legal vetting, translation etc. Then the draft notification is published in the official Gazette. Comments are invited from the public. As per the WTO agreement, we are obliged to notify the WTO members and give them 60 days period to send their comments. Then whatever comments are received they have to be reviewed, if necessary by the scientific panel and the committee and then the final draft is prepared. That draft is then approved by the FSSAI authority, then again it goes to the minister, law department and then a final notification is issued. At that stage, it becomes law.

I have already given the details as to where we stand today in both vertical and horizontal standards in so as far as procedure is concerned. In case of vertical standards, the work done by the e-working groups in most of the cases was not complete and that has caused delay in completing the work. We found a way of expediting this. There are other organisations in the country like Agmark and BIS that are framing standards for food products. They have developed commodity standards for a variety of products. So we decided that wherever the FSSAI has its own scientific panels or internal working groups created by scientific panels or expert groups, there FSSAI will continue to complete the work. Wherever the FSSAI does not have these groups but BIS or Agmark are already doing this work under their own sectional committees then we will allow them to continue with that since they already have expert groups in their own organisations. This is how we divided the work among the three organisations and I conduct monthly review of progress for the remaining vertical standards. From among them also drafting work has been completed in case of some verticals and the drafts are before the scientific committees. In vertical standards also the more important area of work is completed.

You mentioned about the criteria for forming e-working groups. What criteria were laid down?

Since the number of small scale units are more than the middle level and large industries in India, we decided that each e-group should have more people from small scale sector than from large scale industries. We also decided that each group should have at least one or two members coming from the government institutes, acadmeica, universities or ICR, ICMR institutions. We also decided that chairperson of each group should be a government official. The groups were expected to interact through emails and phones. But, one physical meeting for each group was allowed for finalising the draft.

Why should India harmonise with Codex standards?

Codex comes from World Trade Organisation (WTO) and Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) agreement. It says countries have to facilitate trade and when you facilitate trade you also have to align your national standards with international standards. Since as per the SPS agreement, member countries are obliged to facilitate trade and not impose any measure that restricts international trade, it is better that countries align with Codex. SPS Agreement also says that the measures that importing country takes cannot be more restrictive for importers than what the country applies for its own producers. So, if a country applies a particular standard for domestic product, the same should be applied to imported product. The standard for imported food cannot be stricter than this. In case of dispute between two trading partners, Codex standards are taken as the reference standard in WTO.

Codex is taken only as guiding standard, as the situation in every country is different. While countries are encouraged to align with Codex, they still have option to deviate from the Codex. One need not just copy paste. But while deviating from Codex standard the condition is that the country must have scientific justification for deviation. Scientific justification comes from scientific risk assessment. So, one has to prove that the existing Codex standard does not meet the appropriate level of protection. The word appropriate brings clarity. Appropriate means, it cannot be stricter than just what is required for protection of health of consumers. No less no more.

Our food import is more than export. We are major producer of food products and we are also major consumer of food products due to our sheer size. While we do export to meet the international demand we also import lot of food products to meet our domestic demand. SPS agreement also says that measure that importing country takes cannot be more restrictive for importers than what the country applies for its own producers. So, if a country applies a particular standard for domestic product the same should be applied to imported product. The standard for imported food cannot be stricter than this.

FSS Act 2006 also has a section which says that we have to harmonise with international standards. So while there is international commitment being member of WTO and with that being signatory to SPS agreement, we also have responsibility under the Act.

What are the benefits of harmonisisng standards with Codex?

Once these standards are in place, then India will have a level playing field, we will be an international community in food business. The domestic producers will be obliged to comply with the new standards and imported food will also be governed by the same standards. The culture for safer food, culture for standardisation will come to stay. And once that develops, it will support the export industry. The Indian manufacturers will not have to produce something specifically for a particular market. Whatever they will produce for domestic consumers, they would be able to export also. The standards will improve the food safety culture, will improve conditions of food business operators, in terms of implementation it will help in the health safety of the people, will encourage exports and will also help imports.

Meeting the standards may require investment and recurrent costs. Barring a few large players, many food processing players in India, particularly from small scale sector, may find it difficult to invest on infrastructure. How do you feel Indian companies can overcome this hurdle?

India is exporting $38 billion worth of food products (2012-13). If Indian manufacturers can meet the standards for exports, why can’t they give similarly safe food to our consumers? Even if some infrastructural changes have to be made, it should be done at some point of time. Are we not entitled to safe food? We cannot continue to give this reason forever and then not bring about the change. We must understand that the spending power in India is improving. People are willing to pay for extra safe food. Food products are getting imported into India. Multinationals are investing here. So, if they will provide safer food to the people and if our small scale industry does not match up with them, who will buy their products? So, they have to change.

For controlling pesticide residues and veterinary residues to safe level no big investment is needed. Farmers have to be encouraged to implement good agriculture practices. Farmers need not spray pesticides which are not approved. If farmers implement good agriculture practices they will save money. The food processing company will procure raw material which is already safe. What investment is required at that end? All that the processing industry would be doing is only cleaning, cutting and processing. That anyway it is doing already. For buying meat or poultry products, which are free of antibiotics and veterinary residues, it is not necessary that animals should not be given antibiotics. All that is needed is when antibiotics are given to animals for therapeutic purposes, it is to ensure that they are slaughtered after the safe period. What investment is required for that? Regarding food additives, it is the industry’s demand because they want to come out with new products, they want new additives to be approved. What is the investment required for that? For maintaining microbiological standards some cold chamber facilities, or cold chain will be needed. But that will protect health of people. Otherwise people will fall sick and there will be expenditure on treatment and hospitalisation. It is better to invest in a cold chain than spending money on treatment. Thus, some investment is desirable for maintaining hygiene. So, better to change, better to adopt.

Labelling is one of the important issues and there has been some controversy also on that. What are your comments on that?

The labelling regulations which were from the PFA regime were reviewed sometime in 70s or 80s and they were brought in line with Codex. So, the labelling requirements are already largely aligned with Codex. However, we are reviewing certain provisions in that as we realised that the industry is facing difficulties. We received some representations from our industry and trading partners. So all these issues are being discussed. It may take one or two meetings of the concerned panel before labelling provisions can be revised. May be, by mid-January we should be able to finish the work in the panel. Then the scientific committee, then authority and the notification. We are conscious of the concerns and it is being addressed.

Methods of analysis is one more issue. We are taking it from Codex. There are Codex methods and AOAC methods of analysis and there are already existing methods in the country. But new methods will have to be developed in certain cases.

Codex is criticised on two points. Codex Alimentarius being an industry-sponsored forum it promotes corporate interests and the standards are framed by developed countries how they would help developing countries. What are your comments on this?

This is actually a great misconception. And I am saying this because I was the Chairman of the Codex Alimentarius Commission for three years. I can say for sure that these are not industry sponsored. These are proposals that come from member countries.

Codex had 30 member countries in 1963 and the most of them were developed countries. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), World Health Organisation (WHO) and Codex invited other countries to be members. India became member in 1964. Initially, the developing countries, even after becoming members, did not know how to participate in Codex, how to give comments, how to contribute to the international standardisation process. Most of the time, the developing countries were silent spectators from 60s to 90s although the number of countries that became members kept on increasing rapidly. Today 185 countries and the European Union are members of Codex.

Codex works on the principles of consensus, transparency and inclusiveness. There are three independent experts’ groups, not under Codex but under FAO and WHO. These groups are perfecting various standards. These groups comprising of independent experts carry out risk assessment according to a defined process and submit their proposals to the particular Codex committee which reviews the standards. It is an inclusive process. All countries can give their comments. The documents are circulated well in time. After countries give their comments, the committees formulate their views. The outputs of these committees then come to commission where 140 to 160 countries participate with their nearly 800 delegates. They give their comments. And then by consensus the standards are adopted.

Initially developing countries were not making contribution. On several occasions some of the countries did not have money to travel. So, a Codex trust fund was created with contributions from mostly developed countries plus two developing countries – India and Malaysia. It is managed by WHO with a defined process to encourage participation of representatives of developing countries. So that the delegates from developing countries can travel and give their comments. The fund is also used for training in developing countries. Practical orientation on how to create a new working proposal and for giving comments is given in the training.

There is a procedure for initiating a proposal and it is provided in the Codex Procedural Manual. A country has to follow that criteria and format and give information. Then the concerned Codec committee reviews it and its recommendations go to the executive committee where they carry out a critical review of the proposal. Then it goes to Codex commission for final approval. After that, the concerned Codex Committee starts working on it. In most cases, an e-working group is formed and all countries are invited to participate. Within a timeframe they have to create a draft which goes back to committee, if required scientific risk evaluation is done. Then there is an 8-step process. The entire process on an average takes 3 to 4 years for a standard to be set. It takes so much time because continuous evaluation has to be done and suggestions from various governments have to be considered. Today developing countries are taking a lead role in Codex work. Maybe in 1963 it was rich men’s club, but today it is not. I don’t think that criticism holds true now anymore.

What measures are being taken to bring in awareness about Codex standards?

The people will come to know about it at different stages. Once the draft notification of standards is prepared, it will be uploaded on the website. Every person in the industry at least will have opportunity to comment. Whenever there are conferences, seminars etc we do provide information about what is happening about harmonisation. When we began the harmonisation process, we organised briefing sessions at four different places. I am also planning to invite representatives of embassies for briefing once the draft standards are ready. We will also write to associations of food business. There are various ways to communicate.

Compared to India at what stage some other counties are?

There are several countries who need to bring about this change in their own countries. So, we keep organising training programmes. Two months ago, we did a training programme for SAARC countries and another one is scheduled shortly. Of the eight SAARC countries, if only India upgrades standards and the other countries do not, then the regional trade will suffer. We don’t want that. We want to facilitate regional trade also. So, we want these countries also to upgrade their standards. We are willing to support them. 

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