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India’s food safety - From testing for adulteration to testing for safety
Friday, 23 December, 2016, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Dr Pankaj Jaiminy
Food is the closest product of human consumption and has the power to delight consumers. This makes it very critical for these products to be safe for human consumption.
Food producers across the country are increasingly growing sensitive about the fact that the food they produce should be the safest for human consumption.
Industrialisation has transformed the quality of the value chain that raw materials pass through. Prior to widespread development, it was safer to source raw materials in a purer form.
However, with the advent of globalisation, raw materials are today sourced from various parts of the world and the safety of the value chain is now the responsibility of each of the members that constitute the value chain.
Sensitising members of the value chain about the importance of safety, along with partnership among stakeholders, is the key to overhaul the food safety environment in India.
This involves partnerships between producers of food, various stakeholders such as regulators and policy makers and the government.
One critical aspect of food testing in India, that has witnessed a radical change in approach, is the change from testing for adulteration to testing for safety.
While the two aspects might seem similar, testing for safety requires a higher extent of precision and expertise.
Food was traditionally adulterated to achieve higher profits while compromising on the quality of raw materials.
However with stringent laws in place, the focus has now shifted to ensuring the safety of food products.
At times, there is a vast difference of time and location between the food’s country of origin and consumption.
It is, therefore, imperative for today’s food businesses to test the safety of their food. The Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, has helped food manufacturers drive the focus of quality and move beyond adulteration.
A majority of the testing labs today carry out tests at the parts per billion (ppb) trace level as per international standards.
The implementation of the mass spectroscopy method, along with state-of-the-art technology, is required for detection of contaminants at the ppb level.
An encouraging number of labs in India operate on mass spectroscopy instruments which examine contaminants through unique mass number and characteristics.
These methods, although internationally acclaimed, require high levels of customisation as per local needs.
Test results can be inconsistent based on the type and location of food items. Methods of food testing have immense scope to consistently be improved upon in order to be effective from time to time.
Processes that are highly impactful today might not be as impactful ten years from now. Process and policy are two sides of the same coin, and consistently need to move parallel to each other in order to be highly effective. Collaboration is the key to drive innovative thought processes.
The Make in India campaign has encouraged a considerable number of food producers to set up shop in India.
The next few years will witness an increasing number of global brands establishing manufacturing units in India.
Most global brands are self-regulated and require the larger infrastructural landscape in any market to be able to support their self-regulatory patterns of functioning.
Global businesses should be empowered in the country through strong partnerships with regulators and policy makers.
Talent is also one of the challenges the sector faces. Students aspire to enter the sector and should be encouraged by providing them with the right kind of environment to further their careers.
As infrastructure improves, the opportunities for talent will become more lucrative and a higher level of expertise will be infused into the sector.
Traceability is a critical part of food safety testing. As complicated supply chains from farm to fork challenge the industry, it is critical for businesses to adopt a nimble approach towards traceability.
A proactive step to this effect is to have a constructive approach towards increasing safety standards.
While cost effectivity to adopt the concept is initially low, in the long run it helps ensure the safety of the end consumer and, at the same time, keep up the brand value of the food manufacturer.
Industry bodies and governments should take the lead in ensuring the adoption of such safe practices across food businesses of all sizes.
Such practices can help reduce the instances of product recalls and win the trust of the end consumer as well.
Our experience, through the recent past, has been that irrespective of the size of business, food manufacturers are proactively adopting the concept of food safety.
It is indeed capital-intensive. However, there is an increased level of sensitivity towards the concept.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has taken commendable efforts to ensure that self-mandate is complimented by favourable infrastructure and policy.
If the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, has to succeed in the country, there should be collaboration among stakeholders, including the ones that are even the most remotely associated with the mainstream supply chain.
The state of development of a nation is not always reflective of the level of food safety in a country.
But as a country develops, food safety incidents to help authorities plug issues along the path to development.
India is well prepared to succeed as a nation, and the state of food safety in the country too, is set to succeed like never before.
It is now the responsibility of the consumers, businesses and regulators to join hands and work towards making the food on our plates as safe as they can get.
[The author is assistant vice-president (food, health and cosmetics), testing, certification and inspection, TÜV SÜD South Asia.]
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