FSSAI steps up to upgrade 15 labs across the country

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The country’s top food regulator the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) plans to upgrade 15 laboratories across the country. Currently, after primary testing at local labs, the sample is sent to an appellate authority in case of discrepancies. Once upgraded, the 15 labs will have the authority to certify their findings, which can be used as the basis for punitive action. India has more than 250 food-testing laboratories, of which about 150 are run by either the state or central governments, but none has the standing that would mean its findings are immediately and completely accepted by all stakeholders, including food companies. That’s the gap FSSAI’s new network of laboratories will be looking to fill.

There’s more work to be done, though, as enumerated in a recent report on the regulator by the government auditor, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) that revealed serious gaps in the organisation’s processes. According to CAG, neither the nodal organisation nor state authorities has documented policies and procedures on inspections, a critical aspect of the regulator’s jop. Alarmingly, FSSAI does not even have a database on food businesses in the country.

There’s more: FSSAI seems to have failed in its effort to set up well-equipped food labs in the states: Only seven out of 72 states laboratories passed the standards issued by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories. The audit report also found that the there is an acute shortage of licensing and enforcement officers in the states.

CAG was asked to audit the food regulator in March 2017. It was asked to look at how FSSAI fixes standards, finalizes regulations, approves products, ensures compliance and conducts surveillance. And it seems to have found lapses in all.

This is worrying. The foods business is a rapidly growing one, and , more importantly, one where poor quality standards could even result in a public health crisis. The foods regulator has to enjoy the confidence of the public as well as companies in the foods business. FSSAI is in the process of reviewing the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 by benchmarking it with similar laws in other parts of the world. It should also look within and address the gaps highlighted by CAG’s audit.

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