Understaffed and groaning under the weight of outdated infrastructure, the country’s food-testing laboratories are struggling to examine the quality of eatables available in the markets with labyrinthine codes and clogged courts worsening health standards.
The manpower crunch hasn’t spared the Capital that otherwise boasts of above-average testing facilities. Against a sanctioned strength of 32 food-safety officers, Delhi has only 12 personnel, who are spread thin trying to cover all 11 districts.
“The food safety unit is a small team of 12 food inspectors, one of whom is almost always on VIP duty. This means we are always overstretched, with one inspector for each district,” said KK Jindal, the city’s food safety commissioner.
The situation is mirrored nationwide and may have contributed to wildly varying test results on the popular snack Maggi that was banned by several states and the national regulator for containing dangerous levels of lead and chemical taste enhancer Monosodium Glutamate. But does it mean the labs got it wrong?
Not so, said Jindal. “It’s not as simple as testing one possibly-contaminated sample. For each brand, we may need to pick 20 samples from the same batch and test,” he said.
Delhi’s lab is currently undergoing a Rs 3.5-crore upgrade and renovation which, scientists hope, will also fill the vacancies.
But it is capable of only performing chemical analysis so samples are sent to one of the 12 private NABL-accredited laboratories. “The sample load is really high and our lab isn’t equipped to perform tests for the presence of microbes, pesticides or heavy metals,” said Jindal.
Lengthy guidelines add to the officials’ woes. It takes an officer about two hours to collect samples in accordance with legal norms and it may take up to a year to get all documents in place for prosecution.
Even after the department gives a go ahead, it may take eight to 10 years before a matter comes up for hearing, sources said.
“There’s only one designated court to hear cases related to food safety, and the backlog is huge,” said an official in the department.