If one has to talk on harmonisation of Indian standards with that of codex, one has to understand the need for the same. India is a signatory of WTO as well as Sanitary as well as Phytosanitary (SPS) agreement.
The objective is to facilitate trade among countries and not impose any measures that restrict trade. This trade among different member countries is not possible until and unless a country’s national standards are aligned for domestic producers as well as importers. In case of any dispute, codex standards then become the guiding standards in WTO. The need, therefore, implies treating Indian consumers at par with their counterparts in other member countries.
On part of FSSAI, the process of harmonisation of Indian standards with codex standards started about three years back. Several of the food standards have been drawn from provisions of the PFA and FPO Act. However, there was an on-going demand for review of these standards taking into account the latest development in food science, food consumption pattern, new specifications, presence of new contaminants and toxins as well as use of new food additives and ingredients required by the producers and manufacturers.
The road to harmonisation involved a two-pronged approach consisting of formulating/re-visiting both the vertical as well as the horizontal standards as defined in FSSAI Act. While horizontal standards were applicable across various categories, the vertical standards were reflected through the quality standards in FSS Act for individual food products such as fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, milk and milk products, fat and oils etc.
The task of harmonisation of Indian standards with that ofcodex has never been easy and one must commend the efforts of FSSAI for having the courage to take up the subject and interact with the Industry on the same. While these are noble thoughts, we truly need to ask if India is ready to be aligned with Codex. There are a number of hurdles which require to be overcome in order to achieve this objective:
India is a very large country and correct regulations alone will not achieve the goals of the law. Since inspection is the dependable method to prevent malpractices within food industry, there is need for knowledgeable inspectors. There is not just a need for enough inspectors in the future but also need for educated, trained and capable inspectors. Furthermore, sampling procedure should be well defined as well as communicated.
Heavy Metal and Residue Regulations:
FSSAI has recently finalised the contaminants, toxin and residues regulation and to a large extent have tried to harmonise it with Codex standards. While part of what farmers produce gets processed by the industry, the fact is, that there is an unabated use of fertilisers and pesticides at the farm level. Moreover, there is no control on the quality of irrigated water being used by farmers. Holding the processed food industry responsible without any liability on part of farmers will make it difficult to enforce the regulation, especially among the SME sector.
FSSAI has correctly taken steps to identify and approve food testing laboratories which are NABL accredited. However, these 100 odd laboratories, FSSAI and NABL approved, are not enough in a large country like ours. Only increase in number of NABL and FSSAI approved testing labs and staff will help enforce the harmonised regulations. Many state FDA’s own labs are not NABL approved. If one takes the example of North East India itself, there is only one NABL and FSSAI approved lab in the region. While the region is ‘naturally organic’, the buyers of the produce have no way of knowing until the tests come from labs located in Kolkata. Having said so, one must also take note of the fact that the Ministry of Food Processing does have a scheme for development of food testing labs in the country. However, it will take time for these to fructify.
While there is a market for all category of food products in India, Indian mass market has yet give value to the fact the ‘Quality comes at a premium’. The fact is that Indian consumers are price sensitive unlike their western counterparts. Furthermore, the cost of implementation of new regulations is most likely to be passed onto the consumer, resulting in increased food prices and inflationary impact.
Self regulation is an accepted practice in most western countries. FSSAI needs to take steps for introduction of industry self-regulation and joint regulation with industry bodies besides providing better intellectual property protection and introduction of commercial incentive to innovative companies, who are investing money for product development and human trial.
FSSAI currently looks to implement the FSS Act through its state FDA’s as well as through its five offices. It should be noted state FDA’s budgets are under the control of state governments. For many state governments this may not be priority in terms of budgetary allocation. Considering that there are approximately five crore food business operators in the country, It is simply an impossible task to enforce the FSS Act through the limited resources and manpower available at disposal of FSSAI.
Simplification of Standards:
While the Industry welcomes harmonisation of standards with Codex, it is important to understand that the needs of micro, small and medium enterprises are met. Food processing industry in India is driven primarily by SME sector and therefore it becomes important that the standards associated with product, process, hygine and sanitation are simplified. It becomes very difficult for SME enterprises to hire resources dedicated interpreting the regulatory standards. Simplification of standards, that too, in regional languages is the need of the hour. Efforts should be made to publish the simplified standards in languages such as Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Punjabi, Telugu as well as communicate the same through industry interactions etc.
The fact is that the situation in every country, including India, is different. In a country where taste palate for the same product changes with every 100 km, Codex should be taken only as a guiding standard. Codex standard should not be taken up in blind faith. While countries, including India, are encouraged to align with Codex, they still have option to deviate from Codex. However, deviating from Codex standard requires the country to have scientific justification. Scientific justification comes from scientific risk assessment as well as practicalities on ground. It is in this assets that the country must invest.