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Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Indian food safety paradox - Does labeling “endanger” safety of food products?

May be yes as per the notification issued by FSSAI on rectification process for cases of minor labelling defects - What could be “minor & major” defects on food label ?




According to Section 3 of the Indian Majority Act, 1875, a person domiciled in India who is under the age of eighteen years, is a minor says Google. Probably, this would be the popular search criteria after a recent notification by Indian regulator (FSSAI) relaxing the enforcement proceedings on the food businesses faulting labeling norms prescribed under the act. The haphazard notification uploaded in the midnight created lot of buzz in the industry circles. Although the notification puts the state food safety officials in bad light one should not forget the efforts of these officials in ensuring the safety of food, in fact they are the torch bearers. However, they are never in the spotlight. Forgetting the rush and position (often these notifications are issued internally) of the notification, let’s beat the notification to pulp and understand the spirit behind it

References to labeling relaxation in the FSS doctrine (its laws & regulations)
The compendium of food packing and labeling regulations doesn’t given any reference of minor or relaxations in the labeling norms. However, there are few exemptions provided in these norms based on the package size and nature of products (perishables). Noteworthy to mention that a reference to the rectifiable defects in the import regulations section 6 (4)  i.e. name & address of the importer, FSSAI logo and license number, non-veg or veg logo, category or sub-category along with generic name, nature and composition for proprietary food. This regulatory reference is only applicable if the product is imported. Hence the legal sanctity in the court of law for this notification is questionable, unless it is amended in the respective regulations. (We have seen the erstwhile product approval process being squashed by Hon Supreme court in August 2015 on similar court)

Process delineated under scheme 32 - Improvement notices  
In a nutshell the designated officer can take a two pronged approach when dealing with food safety issues during the enforcement. First, he has the power to seize the product, premises when there is a reasonable ground that public health is risk. Second, he can seek an explanation from the food business on the reasons for non-compliance and investigate further. Upon completion of the process in both the scenarios the designated officer has the right to either neutralize the issue or initiate legal proceedings. Hence, in the notification FSSAI central team is advising the state bodies to exercise second option considering the severity (A detailed explanation is provided in our previous articles, please click here). The classification of labelling defect as "minor" or "major" is still in the discretion of the designated officer.

What are missing links in the puzzle? – Synergies within the functions 
a. State laboratories - State officials adapt an approach of sending the products to the food analyst laboratory in their jurisdiction for assessment and it is the lab that certifies the product as “misbranded” or “misleading” or “unsafe” after “safety” assessment. Subsequently, the state officials issue an improvement notice and upon improper or no response they initiate the legal proceedings. 
b. ASCI – there is lot of traction build on by advertisement standards council of India recently by issuing notices to the food business. However, the grievous punishments for faulting labeling norms are very minnow. Also, most of the cases are amicably resolved by both parties 
c. Data, data, data – one cannot make bricks without clay (reciting a dialogue) - We frequently follow the achievement section on the FSSAI website for some news on the adjudication proceedings every month. However, based on our interactions with industry and the state officials it was informed that FSSAI central division does not have complete visibility, access on the number and nature of the notices issued to the licensed food business. Lot of synergic constraints are observed in the enforcement structure (decentralized offices of FSSAI, laboratories and even ASCI). In this context, it is difficult for the regulator to build a risk profile for products, process and brands. Any attempt to such mammoth task would be an interplanetary travel for FSSAI considering its current IT infrastructure. 
Only because of this reason, all consumer grievances on twitter and citizen connect are left unattended or unresolved.

A classic example is the recent news on outbreak of formalin contamination in fishes. Every department is clueless on the factual position and have paved way for the politicians to talk on behalf of fishermen. Finally, FSSAI published a guidance document on the testing procedures and home remedies. Till date, nobody is having concrete data on the existence and extent of  this contamination. 

Another example is about imported products, FSSAI keeps a check on the products coming to India only in certain ports. Often, products are denied entry on the grounds of labelling defects, novel ingredients etc.,. However, products of similar composition (which are rejected) are very much available for purchase to consumers in the online marketplaces. A clear display of list of products rejected or denied entry would help the compliance departments take a decision on selling (USFDA publishes frequent data). Also, it would definitely assist FSSAI in making consistent decision across all port of entries. (only couple of instances incomplete data was published ) 

Conclusion


In the notification it was mentioned that minor labeling doesn’t endanger food safety. Globally, labeling regulations are made to help consumers make informed purchasing decisions only and hence even a major defect doesn’t necessarily impact the safety of the product. It only persuades the consumer to make wrong choice. Any food safety professional with good head on the shoulders concur that food safety is related to the inherent characteristic of the product along with the packing (packing refer to primarily plastic and its migration, color). 

With a liberty in interpretations one could mislead the consumers by writing "cure diabetes", "heart diseases", and even "cancer" (sorry about the extreme examples) under the shadow of this notification. Also, everyone in the industry knew the challenges in the inconsistent interpretation of regulations across the regional offices. In the enforcement machinery few are plebeians and others are patricians but we all are end users of food. Hence a pragmatic, synergic approach should be exercised in enforcement considering the governance structure of FSSAI.

Bottom-line: Go with the political* flow - this would be the current slogan in the regional offices.
*Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas translated as collective efforts inclusive growth

Link to original notification - Click here 

Please write us at smartcomplianz@outlook.com if you have any clarifications or more information 

(All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only. The owner of this blog makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site)



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