Just when the Maggi fiasco ended, Pawan Agarwal found himself in a whirlwind of challenges. In Decemeber, the newly appointed CEO of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) was lost. “I had never dealt with food,” he said, but on his mind were a bunch of reforms, some conventional and some radical.
Four months later, he is in control, and Agarwal is not making anything less than a statement – be it the role of large food companies, street food vendors, temples, mosques and churches, and even what should be right kind of food advertisement – there is no shirking from giving hygienic food. Soon, FSSAI’s whip can come cracking down on anyone. “There is a very thin line of what is unsafe and what is unhealthy,” said Agarwal.
FSSAI will soon ensure that consumers are not misguided by what they see, hear or read as advertisements. There are 167 million households with television sets. But, what is alarming is that the Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI) in January alone upheld 51 companies out of which 12 were food makers for misleading advertisements. Some of the companies were yoga guru Ramdev’s Patanjali Atta Noodles, Coca-Cola and Perfetti Van Melle.
Patanjali failed to prove that Atta Noodles was oil-free, and Dabur didn’t substantiate how Chawanprash helps fighting pollution. According to Agarwal, health claims and nutritious claims are different. “In advanced countries there are systems in place for verification of every such claims. As we move forward, we would like to put in place very robust systems of verification of such claims,” he said.
The industry has a mixed reaction to this development. Ad-guru Prahlad Kakkar expects this move to bring discipline in the food business. “Consumer trust ads but this does not mean that ad makers can claim everything and anything under the wrap of creativity,” he adds.
Companies like Nestle, Coca-Cola and many others decided not to talk. However, Agarwal said that it is also the companies’ responsibility. So far, the Maggi ban has been FSSAI’s biggest success. But, if Agarwal is able to pull off these mega projects, FSSAI will be able to bring a lot more than 15% of India’s food consumption under its purview. “We want to increase our reach to the balance 85% of the business that’s not under FSSAI, now,” Agarwal said.
And, at the other extreme, Agarwal sees FSSAI’s role in ensuring that lakhs of people visiting the celebrated religious places shouldn’t fall sick after consuming “prasada” or the food for religious offering. “God will take care of you, but even the FSSAI is taking care of you,” Agarwal laughs.
To begin with, Shree Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai, Sai Baba temple in Shirdi and Sri Venkateswara Swamy temple in Tirupati will play the role of seeding good food practices into the religious system. “They are very forthcoming… the role of priests in serving lakhs of devotees is limited… it’s the role of the large kitchen, which are adopting food safety management systems,” Agarwal said.
He isn’t leaving it there. He will be talking to other prominent churches, mosques and gurudwaras, but, “we will have to move very cautiously.” Agarwal wants to impact large scale centres to spread awareness – more than 300 million people worship at these places every day.