Imported food items stuck due to labelling issue

01 February 2014 | News | By Bureau Report

Exporters to India often use stickers on their products to comply with rules and regulations. Importers fear they would get a short window to sell their products. This festive season has been a tough time for food importers in the country. Over 200 tonnes of foodstuff imported to India has got stuck at the Indian seaports and airports due to Food Security and Safety Authority of India’s (FSSAI) zero-tolerance policy towards non-compliance of its regulations. The imports mainly contain chocolates, nutritional supplements and also include other food items such as snacks.

According to industry estimates, imports worth between Rs 500-Rs 750 crore are stuck due to a stand taken by the authority. Custom authorities at ports and airports have blocked the consignments saying that all labelling information should be printed on the packaging itself and that an affixed sticker is no longer permissible.

Exporters to India often use stickers on their products to comply with rules and regulations outlined by FSSAI. The stickers include information such as red or green symbols indicating whether the product is vegetarian or non-vegetarian, providing information in English. FSSAI now has mandated that all labelling information be present at the time of export.


Industry criticises the move
The stance of the authority has affected food import. There are many consignments lying at the ports since months. Food items have a short shelf life - often between one to one-and-half years. This is a growing concern among importers as they would get a short window to sell their products, even if it went past the customs.

“We have a consignment of chocolates lying at Chennai port since six months. The shelf-life of these chocolates is only one year and half of it is already gone,” said a distressed chocolate importer.

“Food manufacturers in Europe export their products to many countries. India’s share in these exports is comparatively small. So for these exporters, it is not economically viable to print separate labels for India,” said another importer who imports nutritional supplements to India. Many importers have resent the consignments back to the exporters due to increasing delay in getting clearance.

Besides the labelling issue, 100% sampling of food containers arriving at Indian ports is adding to the delay in clearance. “100% sampling is ridiculous. Earlier this was around 10%. We don’t have problems with 10% sampling. We understand that sampling is necessary to check that the shipment contains the same stuff as mentioned in the documents and not anything illegal. But 100% sampling is itself contradictory to the word ‘sampling’,” an importer said furiously. “Imagine how much time and manpower it would take to check each and every package. This is causing a lot of delay in passing the consignments,” he added.


EU expresses concern
The European Union (EU), largest trading partner of India, has expressed concerns over FSSAI’s stand on the labelling issue. An EU spokesperson in Delhi said if affixing labels in a customs bonded warehouse, is no longer allowed, this could seriously affect the import of food products into India. If FSSAI maintains its position on labelling, this means in practice that, except for very large exporters whose operations make it economically viable to set up a separate production line for their items going to India, the Indian market will become largely inaccessible. So if confirmed, the above could constitute a serious trade barrier for the imports of European food items, added the EU spokesperson.

The EU is seeking to engage in a dialogue with the competent authorities, to understand the reasons for the change and try to find a solution to avoid a disrupting the import of EU food products into India. The EU, which consists of 27 nations, is India’s largest trading partner. India imports variety and majority of food items from the region. In 2012, EU goods exports to India stood at Euro 38.5 billion, out of which food exports were approximately Euro 385 million (approximately 1%).


Health Minister clarifies stand
Replying to the issue in the Lok Sabha, Union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad clarified FSSAI’s stand. “In some import consignments referred by Customs to FSSAI for grant of NOC for customs clearance, samples were not drawn for testing inter alia due to non-compliance with the labelling requirements prescribed under Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labelling) Regulations 2011. Examples of such labelling non-compliances are either absence of list of ingredients, nutritional information, name and address of the manufacturer, Best Before/Use by Date, declaration regarding food additives, etc. or such information on attached stickers which are separable,” Azad informed the House.

The minister also cited a ruling of Madras High Court awarded in Rajputana Distributor Vs Deputy Commissioner of Customs and Others of 2011 in its judgement. “As per the provisions of the Act, the label must be an inseparable one, as otherwise, to suit the convenience; the importer may fill in any information therein. If the goods imported, especially food products, do not satisfy the specifications mentioned in the act at the time of import then such goods have to be restrained from being brought into the market and in the case on hand, the food products are chocolates, which are normally consumed by children and therefore, safety measures are mandatory.”



What do regulations say
An official from FSSAI, on condition of anonymity, said “The regulations already exist. Many importers fail to read them or simply ignore them. Public has a right to know the information related to the product they are buying. People’s safety and health is of prime concern to FSSAI.” Large number of consumer complaints is the reason behind regulations being followed more strictly, he added. FSSAI is ready for talks with the industry. However, whether FSSAI will allow concession for importers on this occasion is not clear. He said, “It’s a policy matter.”

In March 2012 FSSAI issued a notification for guidelines related to food imports clearance process, covering food categories such as proprietary food, functional food, dietary supplements, nutraceuticals and other similar products. As per the guidelines, absence of the vegetarian/non-vegetarian logo and details (name and address) of importer on the label, are considered ‘rectifiable labelling deficiencies’ which may be dealt with via sticker labels in the customs bonded warehouse at the port. However, details such as name and address of the manufacturer, nutritional information, date for best before or expiry cannot be rectified by sticker labels. FSSAI requested all importers and exporters to ensure that their products comply with the guidelines. In a further notification published in January 2013, FSSAI barred sticking labels over one another.
Though FSSAI’s strict stand on adherence of these regulations is welcome for safety of the imported food in the country, sudden demand to comply with it during the festive season has attracted strong reactions from the industry.


Though FSSAI’s strict stand on adherence of these regulations is welcome for safety of the imported food in the country, sudden demand to comply with it during the festive season has attracted strong reactions from the industry.


Analysis

Different sides - different views

* “This means in practice that, except for very large exporters whose operations make it economically viable to set up a separate production line for their items going to India. [This] could constitute a serious trade barrier for the imports of European food items” EU spokesperson

 

* “As per the provisions of the Act, the label must be an inseparable one, as otherwise, to suit the convenience; the importer may fill in any information therein”

Madras High Court in a 2011 ruling

* “Regulation 2.2.1(4) of the Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labeling) Regulations 2011, says the label shall be applied in such a manner that they will not become separated from the container” Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. 


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