Convoluted regulations and toothless enforcement define India’s food safety. With no regulating body to address contamination, Indians are condemned to eat and digest pesticide-laden vegetables, fruits and just about everything else.
There is virtually no effective way to check the indiscriminate use of pesticides because under the archaic Insecticides Act 1968, the regulation committee does not have the mandate to fix the acceptable daily intake of pesticides; nor does it set maximum residue levels (MRLs).
Result: Of the 180 pesticides currently registered, MRLs have been set for only 120. A study conducted by ICMR in 2000 showed that the MRL in India is around 31 per cent, which is far above the world average of two per cent. It is indeed worrisome that solution to this alarming problem finds no mention in the Food Safety and Standards Bill recently passed by our Parliament.
There is no comprehensive national policy on pesticides in the country. Moreover, legal loopholes have helped a thriving Rs 1,500 crore spurious pesticide industry. There is no provision in the Act to deal with counterfeit farm chemicals and the reputable companies, in whose name they are sold, have to prove in the court that they have not manufactured any sub-standard materials. A WHO study outlines that lack of adequate awareness among stakeholders, laxity on the part of enforcement agencies and long drawn court cases have made it difficult to check this thriving business, causing serious health hazards.
The outdated Prevention of Food and Adulteration Act (PFA) 1954 formulates and monitors standards of quality and purity in food. Though provisions of this legislation mandate fine and imprisonment for violating standards, not a single case of conviction has been reported till now, says Ravi Agarwal, director, Toxic Link.
The PFA lays emphasis only on adulteration and is not comprehensive enough to deal with contamination of food through animal feed and the entire food chain.
Under the PFA if a consumer complains of contamination, the sample is sent to a state laboratory. If it is found contaminated, the state labs cannot act on it and the samples have to be sent to the Central Food Laboratory (CFL). And if the report is not in the favour of the accused, it is a long way from the CFL to the courtroom. Enforcing standards remains almost non-existent as a result of this tedious process.
The new integrated food bill, which is yet to get the Presidential assent, will repeal the existing laws like PFA and Essential Commodities Act and establish a Food Safety and Standards Authority of India to regulate the last mile dhaba through “science-based standards.” But in the process, critics say, the legislation will remain a “paper tiger” and dilute the already weak regulatory framework to ensure food safety.
There is no dearth of food standards but the problem has always been their implementation. To do the latter, the new bill will still rely on local food inspectors who are poorly trained and have little incentive to perform their duties diligently. The bill leaves all the administration to the states, which will also have to bear the cost of enforcement. So, while the bill strengthens the central authority, the end result has to be achieved by the cash-strapped states.
Our policy approach to food safety should be based on prevention rather than control of food quality at the retail end. From cleaner production sites to packing, transportation and marketing, various interventions need to be made to ensure that our dinner plate is contamination free.
Food legislations globally are a catalyst for healthy growth of the sector and ensure regulations and strict implementation of standards to produce safe food.