Ashish Bahuguna, a 1978-batch IAS officer of Rajasthan cadre, took over as Chairperson of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) over a year back. He took over the position amidst controversy surrounding the food regulator. Lot many decisions have been taken and many actions have been initiated by the FSSAI under his leadership. On the occasion of the completion of the decade of enactment of the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006, Bahuguna talked to NuFFooDS Spectrum on different topics related to the Act like its difference from the previous Acts, its shortcomings, its successful implementation by FSSAI and plans to reach to the stakeholders. He also unveiled his vision of the food sector’s growth in next decade.
As FSS Act has completed 10 years of enactment, what do you feel about its progress?
Though the FSS Act is now 10 years old, it has actually only been under implementation in right earnest for just over 5 years. With the passage of this legislation, it was for the first time that it was made explicit to civil society that food is an integrated subject and that any law dealing with food would have to deal with the entire spectrum of the food production and consumption process. This is the main feature of this Act. What the Act has also done is to integrate all the then existing food laws under one umbrella and it has provided a focus on the direction in which government would expect the civil society to deal with food in a way that aids the process of development in the country, both on the parameters of human resource development and economic development.
Earlier, the emphasis was on checking of adulteration. The underlying thinking was that there is a general tendency amongst manufacturers to compromise with quality and to deliver sub-standard products to the consumers. And therefore, the earlier legislation sought to prevent adulteration. The FSSA 2006 looks at this issue in a radically different manner. Besides providing for the integration of the food laws, the Act also changed their underlying paradigm by placing it in the context of the prevailing stage of our development, and the actual practices in the field while keeping the overarching emphasis on safety and the goal of improving nutrition. So, while earlier the responsibility for overseeing the functioning of the food sector was on the enforcement authority, under this legislation it is the joint responsibility and the joint obligation of the producers, manufacturers, suppliers, and the regulators. The idea is to pro-vide a space in which the consumers can be empowered to demand production of safe and nutritious food products. I think that is the underlying objective of this Act.
Which according to you are still some weak areas in the legislation that needs to be improved and strengthened?
Well, the legislation may not have been able to adequately capture the concepts, as enunciated in my reply to the first question, that were tried to be put into place. The wording of the legislation focuses more on what can’t be done or what requires approval, whereas to my mind the regulation should stipulate what can be done and how it can be done. For example, it is said that food can’t be manufactured or sold unless it is in accordance with the notified regulations and with the express approval of FSSAI. However, the legislation seems to presuppose a complete list of standards, which is not possible for the food sector, especially in India where a multitude of ingredients, culinary traditions, food habits, etc. exist. In a sense, the Act implies that the government will decide on how and what food is to be manufactured and made available to consumers, rather than the consumers deciding on what is it that they really need, want and desire as they are entitled to and which the industry is obliged to manufacture and the regulator to then regulate accordingly.
What do you feel about FSSAI’s role in implementation of the Act till now? What needs to be done more in future?
FSSAI has so far focused on setting the standards for various foods and food products and that has taken a very substantial part of its time. In fact, FSSAI has bitten off more than it can chew. Instead of trying to make standards for each and every food product, which in a country of such diverse consumption patterns as India is an impossible task, FSSAI should focus on putting into place standards of practices and proto-cols. FSSAI has focused on vertical commodity standards, the setting of which is not only extremely time consuming, but has also led to situation where a large number of products exist in the market for which no standards are prescribed. We have now kind of self-corrected this and are trying to focus more and more on setting horizontal standards. And these, we feel, would be able to adequately guide the manufacturers of food across the entire spectrum in the best practices to be followed by them. This also makes enforcement simpler. Instead of looking at the end product and collecting samples from the retail end, we go to the points of manufacture for sampling, testing and analysis so if there is a problem with the food it can be corrected at the point of inception. Another thing that we need to focus on is to be able to advise the manufacturers on where they are going wrong, so as to enable them to rectify their short-comings, whether infrastructural or procedural, instead of only launching legal proceedings against them.
So far we have mainly focused on the organised sector of the food industry. In India more than 90% of the food industry is in unorganised sector where the enforcement machinery hardly reaches. So, if we can focus on improvement of practices within the organised and the unorganised sectors it will be a major help in our endeavour to ensure the availability of safe food.
How FSSAI can reach to every FBO? What is being done for that, particularly to reach out to unorganised sector?
There are two things; one is that most of us are mistaken in the impression that we have registered the vendors in order to regulate them. But that is not the intention. The intention is to actually capture the extent of the sector so that policy makers, implementers and planners have a better idea of how to plan and streamline the growth of this sector. When we are registering FBOs the idea is to help them, because most of them are operating on the margins, many of them are not even licensed by municipal corporations, most of them face harassment by one or the other public authority. In fact, registration with FSSAI will provide them with a little bit of support to tackle their day-to-day existence with these other elements. Secondly, what we would ideally like to do is to reach out to every FBO. However, we can’t do that immediately in one single go. So while on the one hand, we have to conduct intense publicity campaigns across the sector, on the other hand we have to rope in the municipal organisations.
Each town has some places which are famous for food and these are frequently visited by locals and tourists. If we can get municipal authorities, food vendors and local food regulators on board and try to conduct campaigns to improve the sanitation and hygiene in these areas, that itself would led to a marked change in existing practices. This is what we have tried to do in Delhi, where with the help of some NGOs, Government of Delhi conducted workshops for the petty street food vendors to educate them in habits of hygiene and sanitation. We have been fortunate enough to access funds under Skill India initiative so that we could also provide the trainees with rudimentary infra-structure like aprons, caps, gloves, etc. The idea is to improve practices, to make better products available to the consumers and that too without adding too much cost. We would be happy if other state governments come on board for such activities. We have devised an electronic system to facilitate registrations through the aegis of Common Service Centres spread across the country and for the time being FSSAI is incurring the additional charges for these services. This should prompt more and more FBOs to obtain registration and also avail other facilities from the government that would help their businesses to grow and prosper.
How FSSAI can reach to every consumers? What is being done for that?
The consumers may or may not be aware of the requirement that FSSAI logo is mandatory on food products, but the manufacturers and producers are all aware of this requirement. And you must have also noticed that in the past few months there are companies who are actively carrying advertisement campaigns based on the fact that they have been licensed by FSSAI. FSSAI is a new organisation which is still in its infancy so naturally there will be a problem of recognition to begin with. But in the past one year, we have been in the news for good and bad reasons, so that has improved our name visibility and recognition. With time, consumers will be able to immediately connect that a food product having the FSSAI logo would be safe. Like I said, in the organised sector this recognition is already there, but in the unorganised sector the scale and volumes are such that it is very difficult to reach out to all of the constituents. However, as standards improve, so will be consumers become more cognizant of their rights and they will virtually free the manufacturers to conform and comply with FSSAI standards and requirements.
Indian people are considered to be more prices sensitive?
Yes. And we are less cognizant of the harm caused by lack of quality. For example, we have somehow been brought up to believe that expo-sure to impure food and water will toughen up our immunity. Most Indians believe this and thus we are more forgiving of shortfall in quality. Sometimes we are not able to establish causality between illness and what we eat or drink. In fact, if you look at the data you will find that a significant portion of diseases in India are food and water borne. Yet this fact has not established in the people’s mind. I am very hopeful that the ‘Clean India’ mission is putting the focus on these very issues. It shows how ordinary behavioural changes related to cleanliness can change our lives. Furthermore, quality need not always come at a higher cost. We must be conscious of quality but it is not necessary to spend more money to get good quality. This requires a societal change in mores, habits and way of life and cannot be the responsibility of just one organisation or government. I am of the firm conviction that if consumers are guaranteed safety then they wouldn’t mind paying a little extra.
How do you visualise the next decade from the point of view of the Act? In which way food sector will grow?
How fast this sector grows will largely depend on how fast India grows. India is poised for growth. In comparison to other sectors of the economy, the organised food sector will grow extremely fast. The demand for packaged foods will increase. We must realise that India is a country where eating habits are still fairly traditional, the industry will continue to have to cater to the needs of this segment of the population. There will also be a strong move within the industry to cater to niche markets of safer prod-ucts using as little of additives as possible making them as close to organic products as possible. The segment of health foods will keep growing. An-other segment of the industry would cater to convenience products be- cause more and more families are becoming nuclear and work demands leave very little time for cooking. More ready-to-eat and heat-n- eat foods will come into the market. Of course the pull of snacks and fast foods category will also remain. All these sectors will grow. The unorganised sector will also try to keep pace with the other organised sectors.
Consumers will demand products that are safer and more nutritious. These things are happening in post-harvest stage but many things will happen in the pre-harvest stage as well. There will be fortification of food at the cultivation stage, in the food processing stage and in the food consumption stage. Like developed nations, Indian consumers will also have more varied food habits but our industry would have to cater to this for different segments at different price ranges. Food will continue to be the essence of India, its plurality and variety in culinary traditions and habits will continue.