India's food safety regulator, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), should have a mandate that is clearly focussed and outcome-oriented on food safety. It should not focus on nutrition or health promotion, which should be left to other agencies, says a report commissioned by the FSSAI and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Such a rational and focussed mandate is the first step towards a rational and focussed compliance ecosystem in order to streamline the process of food imports and reduce the compliance burden on the food industry, adds the report.
The study is based on extensive research and analysis, including field interactions, by policy research institute Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER).
Other recommendaitons in the report include a country-wide regulatory statement, regulations that impose least possible burden and are predictable enough to ensure certainty, and a robust surveillance system that will not only help with inspections but also help identify FBOs that need support in terms of compliance. It suggested a collaboration with the FSA (UK) to develop a strategic food surveillance system that could be used to develop a prevention-oriented risk-based inspection or intervention system. Periodic Regulatory Impact Assessnents and use of technology, including social media for real-time assistance were also among the recommendations.
The study found that food safety regulations in India are unpredictable and inconsistent, and compliance cost has increased. Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), not connected to the internet, are often not aware of the rules and regulations set forth by the FSSAI. Even those who have connectivity find relevant information is not easily accessible.
Food Business Operators (FBOs) said the FSSAI had “dramatically strengthened” the regulatory system in the last four years, and while the compliance requirements were not “burdensome”, they were challenging.
While businesses in general said the inspections by the Food Safety Officers took no more than around 45 minutes, there were cases—in Mumbai and Chennai—of seeking bribe. FBOs were concerned over the delay and misinformation in sending samples to laboratories, particularly as some products were of perishable nature. Also, there was no consistency in reimbursing FBOs for food samples taken.
The FBOs said frequent and abrupt changes in regulations, especially labelling, resulted in huge losses and general uncertainty. Licence renewal and product approval were found cumbersome as documents already submitted had to be submitted afresh, and a modified licence has to be obtained for every diversification, however minor that be in nature.