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Serious gaps in ratio of food testing labs to FBOs in the country: Experts
Thursday, 11 March, 2021, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Ashwani Maindola, New Delhi
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has in the last few years put up serious efforts in terms of food testing labs availability.

However, experts feel that despite its rigorous efforts, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that food testing laboratories in India have faced major challenges in the domains of manpower availability, equipment and machinery, skill development, R&D (research and development), customer awareness as well as capacity utilisation.

It has also come to light that there have been serious gaps in the ratio of labs to the FBOs in the country. Moreover, due to chemical testing being less capital-intensive than pesticide residue and microbiological testing, many labs possessed only the former infrastructure.

Industry insiders feel that they must work towards increasing the abilities of these labs and fill the gaps.

Recently the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health had also made several recommendations with respect to the FSSAI. On the Committee’s recommendations for a fully Centrally Sponsored Scheme for upgrading manpower, strengthening infrastructure and robust surveillance systems at the state level, FSSAI in its response has stated that it is implementing a Central Sector Scheme for strengthening of food testing laboratories and upgrading manpower.

FSSAI is incorporating a Central Sector Scheme for Strengthening of Food Testing Ecosystem with a total expense of Rs 481.95 crore. This includes Rs 300 crore for building up a network of laboratories across the nation as well as provision of mobile food testing labs and other related equipment.

Under this scheme, 39 state food testing labs of 29 states/UTs & 10 referral labs have been bolstered with high-end equipment in order to enable efficient testing of safety parameters (pesticides, heavy metals and antibiotics). Till now, 60 mobile food labs have been provided to 32 states/UTs for training, testing and awareness generation even in remote areas. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, a total of 179 online training programmes with 37,000 participants have been conducted.

Ashwin Bhadri, CEO, Equinox Lab, stated that a core area of enhancing the food safety infrastructure involves strengthening food testing laboratories for better functioning across stages. FSSAI has worked towards the development of new National Food Laboratories (NFLs) at Chennai/Mumbai, investment in training and capacity building efforts for field staff, FSOs as well as food businesses for self-compliance along with INFoLNET, which is a web-based online system created by FSSAI to form a network of food labs across the country.

Bhadri added that since the year 2019, FSSAI has made rapid progress towards the use of advanced technologies for food testing. Several new rapid food testing kits/devices for detection of food-borne contaminants and toxins have been introduced that will ensure “faster, better, cheaper” real-time testing of food. So far, FSSAI has approved 30 rapid food testing devices/kits under these norms. These Rapid Tool kits must be popularised to ensure they are widely used.

Moreover, FSSAI has made sure that National Food Laboratories at Kolkata and NCR remain functional for uninterrupted import of food. e-Inspections for ensuring food security and extensive use of digital technology have made sure that FSSAI delivers services even in the lockdown.

Meanwhile, recently, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) conducted an investigation into the quality of honey being produced in India. The results stated that honey sold by many popular brands was adulterated, and, in fact, had been spiked with added sugar.
Therefore, they should not be branded/sold as honey.

The report stated that adulteration has become so sophisticated in India that it is totally possible to cheat the tests that Indian food testing labs conduct to assess the purity of honey.

Bhadri stated that FSSAI has therefore worked on new testing methods for detecting honey adulteration and has recently introduced them as part of its standards. The parameters added in the honey standards help detect the adulteration of honey with sugar syrups, especially rice syrups.

“With this, ensuring the quality of honey has been made more robust” he said.

Also, the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic has forced every nation to buckle up and augment their food safety and security procedures. Food safety in India experienced the same. Going forward, the adoption of food safety and quality assurance mechanisms such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), Total Quality Management (TQM) including ISO 9000, ISO 22000, Good Hygienic Practices (GHP) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) by the food processing industry offer several benefits.

“It would enable compliance to stringent hygiene and quality norms and in turn, will protect consumer health, enhance product acceptance by overseas buyers, prepare the industry to face global competition and keep the industry technologically in conjunction with the best international practices,” concluded Bhadri.
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