LIVE MINT, New Delhi, April 18, 2008

The new authority’s balancing act will be to ensure food safety without adding to the costs of making it safe

Bhuma Shrivastava and Rasul Bailay

New Delhi: All food sold in India, at restaurants, retail chains, even roadside outlets, will come under the scanner of a regulatory body that is expected to start functioning in June although several questions remain about how a sector as wide and diverse as food will be regulated.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has been set up under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, and it is expected to enforce quality and safety norms for a sector that accounts for 35% of people’s consumption expenditure. People familiar with the developments at the regulator and who do not wish to be identified say it will start by monitoring larger players and companies in the hope that the standards it creates will trickle down to smaller firms and entrepreneurs.The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India will begin enforcing quality, safety norms with retail chains such as Reliance Fresh, besides hotels and restaurants, as they’re easier to inspect

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India will begin enforcing quality, safety norms with retail chains such as Reliance Fresh, besides hotels and restaurants, as they’re easier to inspect

Pradeep Mehta, general secretary of trade and consumer rights organization CUTS International, said that while the creation of a regulator was a welcome move, it would be a challenge to implement the “new and sweeping legislation” on food safety. “It is a puzzle to me how they will do it. There is the organized sector of large players such as Coke (The Coca-Cola Co.) and PepsiCo. and then there is the unorganized sector of hawkers and small enterprises which may not even be registered. Plus, they need support of the state governments,” he said.

The Act, and by virtue of this, the authority’s powers, are “sweeping” as described by Mehta—it will effectively have a say on the quality of all food, from farm to fork. The authority is required to create “science-based standards for articles of food and to regulate their manufacture, storage, distribution, sale and import, to ensure availability of safe and wholesome food,” according to the Act.

The new regulator comes under the purview of the health ministry, which has already appointed a CEO for it, G. Balachandran, a former joint secretary in the ministry of environment.

“A CEO has already joined. Each state is to have a state food commissioner and we have already asked the states to fill in these posts. The authority should begin working from June this year,” said an official in the health ministry familiar with the development. The regulator will have 50 employees and will function out of the new Food and Drug Administration Bhawan in New Delhi. The proposed Central Drug Authority to regulate the drug industry is also expected to operate from this premises.

According to a study by audit and consulting firm Ernst and Young, India’s food and grocery retail segment is worth $152 billion, and is growing by 3.5-4% every year. Besides being a leading producer of pulses, rice, wheat, fruits and vegetables, the country spends almost 35% or Rs742,104 crore of its “private final consumption spend on food alone,” making it the single largest component in household budgets, the report says. Still, the sector has largely remained unregulated.

Eight existing orders, such as Prevention of Food Adulteration Act of 1954, Fruit Products Order, 1955, and several issued under Essential Commodities Act, 1955, will be subsumed in the jurisdiction of this new authority, giving it considerably wide powers. And the Quality Council of India (QCI) and Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) will lend their expertise in laying standards for the regulator to administer. QCI is an autonomous body under the government and works in the area of standards and quality. BIS is the national standards body of India.

The balancing act for the new regulator will be to ensure food safety without adding to the costs of making it safe. “We first need to lay down standards, develop benchmarks for nutrients and food safety, ones that match international standards, and then ensure they are adhered to. The trick is all of the above need to be without increasing the cost of food products,” said the ministry official, adding, “Food safety should not spell lack of food security by setting the quality bar too high or making it too expensive.”

QCI secretary general Girdhar J. Gyani said its officials are in discussions to create standards under which India will frame its own set of Good Manufacturing Practices and Good Hygienic Practices for food processing firms. “Regulating the entire food sector will be a Herculean task and the authority will need to go stage-wise, starting with hotels that are three stars and above,” he added. QCI will also accredit bodies that will carry out inspection for the regulator.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority will begin by focusing on the bigger fresh produce and food retail chains such as those run by Reliance Retail, Subhiksha Trading Services Ltd and RPG Enterprises, among others, besides hotels and restaurants.

“If we start with the big retail chains, it will set the norm for others. Moreover, it is easier to inspect these places because of their size and scale. Hopefully, the standards will seep down over time and make way for self-regulation by the industry,” added the official in the health ministry.

He said these companies and others in the industry would be consulted before standards are finalized

“We will support that (the new standards)…obviously. (But) if they want us to support it they should give us some ti-me to implement it. If they ma-ke the rules very stringent then nobody can comply with those rules. If it is something that makes it costlier to implement then it will not work,” said G. Kashinath, president for agriculture commodity sourcing at Subhiksha, India’s largest discount chain operator.

The new regulator will also be responsible for imported and genetically modified food products, as well as food recalls in case unsafe or hazardous batches are discovered.