Only a few days back, the US government reached an out-of-court settlement with British Petroleum (BP) for a 2010 oil spill it had caused in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil major will pay $18.7 billion in damages.
Spewing 4 million barrels into the sea, the oil spill had caused 11 deaths and led to a massive destruction of the marine ecosystem. Instead of worrying about how the huge penalties will impact future investments, I remember US President Barack Obama saying soon after the oil spill happened: "Will make BP pay."
And it did. This is how the world's only superpower means business.
Lessons not learnt
While it may be perfectly right to feel outraged at the huge BP oil spill penalties when compared with the paltry compensation package of $470 million that Union Carbide was made to pay for the Bhopal gas tragedy, I thought over the past three decades India had learnt the lessons the hard way. The desperation of foreign investments will not be at the cost of human lives, food safety and the environment.
But I was perhaps wrong. Following the recall of Nestle's Maggi noodles, food processing minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal has accused the food regulator - Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) - for inculcating an "environment of fear" in food industry. Her ire was obviously aimed at the food safety organisation which had imposed a ban on Maggi noodles in June. Addressing a gathering at the regional CII office in Chandigarh recently, and later in a detailed interview with a newspaper, she criticised the spurt in food safety tests which she believes is hampering more investments to come in.
The minister's outburst against the FSSAI comes at a time when a US study has found sugary drinks responsible for 1.84 lakh deaths globally every year.
Considering that the consumption of sugary drinks has multiplied in India over years, and knowing the damming health impacts, including fatalities, it leaves behind, I expected the food processing ministry to launch a massive nationwide campaign to educate people about the dangers of consuming colas, and at the same time directing the manufacturers to ensure that the sugary drinks being sold are completely safe for human health.
Chemicals in processed food grave threat
The Diabetes Foundation and the Centre for Nutrition & Metabolic Research has pointed to the continuous rise in consumption of sugary beverages, including energy drinks. With per-capita consumption of sugary drinks rising from 2 litres in 1998 to 11 litres in 2014, these sugary drinks are being blamed for an increasing number of deaths and disabilities.
The task to ensure processed food is undoubtedly safe becomes more onerous and urgent in the light of the report submitted by the US President's panel on cancer. It estimates that 41% of Americans living today will suffer cancer in their lifetime. The report warns against the pervasive use of chemicals in processed food - including pesticides, insecticides and synthetic ingredients in the processed food. Fighting cancer, therefore, requires tougher laws and strict implementation of food laws. If the US food industry was responsive enough, the country wouldn't have faced a cancer epidemic.
Manufacturers having a field day
Following the Maggi noodles ban, the FSSAI has drawn samples from some of the major brands like Hindustan Unilever, Britannia, Nestle India, Heinz India, MTR, Haldiram and others. Quality test of food products for safety certainly warrants urgency, considering that food adulteration and contamination has become rampant over the years. With nearly 80,000 food processing companies in operation, including Big Food, and with hardly any quality laboratories to check what goes inside, manufacturers have had a field day so far.
It took 16 months from the day the first Maggi sample was drawn to the final test report. Woefully lack of adequate testing laboratories all these years has therefore been an easy escape route for the food companies to manage getting scot-free. A report showed how 75% companies, whose samples were drawn, escaped being penalised because of gaps in quality testing. In the past five years, only 25% of the 53,406 companies whose samples had failed to conform to quality standards, could be penalised. The penalties of course are too low which does not provide any deterrent.
More testing labs needed
It is alright to decry 'Inspector Raj' but unless the inspectors draw samples regularly how will the food processing industry be made to clean up its act? In China, there exists one food quality laboratory for 20 lakh people. In India, one lab is available for 88 million people. The thrust, therefore, should be to increase the number of quality testing labs at a phenomenal rate. And I am sure the Chinese labs are not only for decorative purposes but for testing food samples. If the food industry is perfectly comfortable with regular food testing in China why it should cry foul in India?
The need for investment, therefore, should not be compromised in the name of tougher food safety laws as well as environmental norms. India needs responsive business, and all investments must respect the rights of the people. The food industry must be asked to adhere to the safety laws, and if it is unable to do so, be directed to pull down the shutter.
(The writer is a Mohali-based food security analyst. The views expressed are his personal)