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“Microbes keep on evolving through mutation”
Monday, 15 March, 2021, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Anti Microbial Resistance (AMR) has come into focus eversince the debate over the Corona virus pandemic and its effects has ensued. Research is essential to understand this aspect thoroughly in the fight against Covid-19. Dr Vijay Pal Singh, Joint Director, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), whose primary area of concern is AMR, in a telephonic and email interaction with Manjushree Naik throws light on the causes, concerns and results in regard to microbes and what the apex food regulator is doing. Excerpts:

The pandemic, apart from the havoc that it has created worldwide, has shown us how we lag behind in our understanding of microbes? What challenges has this thrown up for us?
Microbes are both good and bad. While some are helping us in digestion and nutrition, others cause disease. Microbes keep on evolving through mutation which helps them survive in adverse conditions. The most important challenge is theses microbes are zoonotic in origin and it is important to understand their adaptations in human. So it is extremely important to have a very proactive approach in food safety through HACCP, bio-safety and bio-security measures to avoid occurrence of various foodborne illnesses from arising.

This is especially important since China keeps talking about finding Corona virus on frozen foods from India and other countries. How can we ascertain this claim and prove that food is safe and does not carry Corona?
As of now there is no solid scientific evidence from India about the Corona Virus on frozen foods. Same is being monitored by food laboratories.

We all are aware that microbes are everywhere including food. Then how do we concur that food is safe?
All microbes are not harmful in nature; some are very good for us. Some are foodborne and pathogenic in nature which cause various diseases. In that also FSSAI  has  set the safe limit for them in a  vide gazette notification, Food Safety and Standards (Food Products Standards and Food Additives) Regulations, 2011 Appendix B in various food commodities. These standards are set after rigorous scientific discussions by the scientific panel of FSSAI.

Use of antibiotics in animals and their residues in food is something we need to tackle immediately in view of Corona. What steps are being taken in this regard?
FSSAI has set the standards of veterinary drugs and antibiotics residues in Food Safety and Standards (Contaminants, Toxins and Residues) Second Amendment Regulations, 2018, and further direction under Section 16 (5) of Food Safety and Standards Act 2006, dated March 29, 2019.

We have also done the awareness programme with CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) into three cities like Delhi, Mumbai and one via online platform. We created a pool of master trainers who will further train the food processing industries professionals for safe food practices. We also developed the module of smart use of antibiotic in poultry value chain. We are further planning on similar trainings in other sectors like dairy and fisheries.

FSSAI has been working throughout the pandemic by taking steps to ensure that people do not face any problems in buying and consuming food. Elaborate.
In the lockdown period, FSSAI has ensured that it is available, in action and operational. It rose to attend to challenges thrown at us during the pandemic and proved true to its motto; “Inspiring Trust, Assuring Safe and Nutritious Food”. FSSAI is actively engaged in disseminating message and information regarding safe practices to follow in Covid pandemic including countering myths and misconceptions in public such as that Covid spreads through food, especially chilled and frozen food.

To ensure easy access and supply of food, food imports were notified under the essential services and the food import offices were working regularly during the lockdown. FSSAI notified labs were also facilitated to function non-stop in the lockdown period.

To ensure uninterrupted food services/supply and to further facilitate trade during lockdown due to Covid-19, FSSAI issued directions for expeditious clearance of crude oil, food grains and onion. FSSAI allowed issuance of Provisional NOC (P-NOC) for imported pre-packaged retail food articles. It has reduced the clearance time, congestion at ports and demurrage charges on importers.

FSSAI issued Guidance Note on Food Hygiene and Safety Guidelines for Food Businesses during Coronavirus Pandemic. This served and still serves as the benchmark document for best manufacturing practices in food sector during the pandemic.

FSSAI also released an eBook on basics of Food Hygiene, Safety and Nutrition Guidelines for Consumers to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. This highlights the best practices to be followed by consumers in Covid-19 pandemic while handling food. FSSAI has also created a Covid-19 specific page on its website that incorporates various communication collaterals, guidance notes and press releases along with important notifications, directions and orders released by FSSAI during this period.

What more is being planned by your department to tide over the pandemic threat?
FSSAI has been constantly innovating its approach to ensure that safe and hygienic food reaches the consumers. We have been using various communication tools including social media to disseminate information pertaining to food safety, personal hygiene practices, healthy eating habits, social distancing and other valuable tips for citizens. We are displaying healthy recipes every week so that people understand the concept of local and seasonal produce and inculcate such habits in everyday practices.

We are also nudging food industries as well as aligning ourselves with various relevant departments and ministries dealing with food to ensure adoption and expansion of our ‘Eat Right India’ initiatives.

India's unorganised sector is around 70% hence hygiene and food safety cannot be ensured. Elaborate in regard to AMR.

The vast scale and diversity in our country as well as the existence of a large unorganised sector often leads to issues around safety and hygiene of food. India is rich in terms of types of food establishments including street food, local roadside hawkers, unorganised food producers as well as local cart based retailers along with organised food processing, manufacturing and retail.

FSSAI has ensured that irrespective of size and scale of businesses, registration and licensing is compulsory. At the same time, Schedule 4 guidelines are laid down for food businesses that ensure food safety and hygiene practices during the food chain. Due to the vast unorganised sector, these issues remain untackled. However, the training and capacity building of small businesses especially unorganised markets can ensure such practices are diligently followed.

Can food remain safe till we rein in Corona in view of antimicrobial resistance?
To address concerns raised regarding safety of foods products especially meat and meat products, FSSAI had earlier in March 2020 constituted a Committee of experts to examine the possibilities of presence of corona virus in food items. The Committee in its report opined that there is no conclusive evidence for the foodborne transmission of Coronavirus. Corona virus predominantly affects the respiratory system and spreads from human to human via droplets while sneezing, coughing, contaminated hands and surfaces. The Committee agreed with the advisories of global organisations that the predominant routes of transmission of Coronavirus appear to be human to human.
It also clarified that meat from cooked sources; livestock including poultry is safe to eat.  However, as a precautionary measure, I advise people to avoid consumption of raw or undercooked meat and meat products.

Are you working in collaboration with food regulatory bodies of other countries?
FSSAI is aware of the inconsistencies in the food standards and regulations, within and across countries and has undertaken harmonisation of domestic standards with Codex by and large. The Codex Alimentarius is a collection of internationally adopted food standards and related texts presented in a uniform manner. These food standards and related texts aim at protecting consumers’ health and ensuring fair practices in the food trade. The publication of the Codex Alimentarius is intended to guide and promote the elaboration and establishment of definitions and requirements for foods to assist in their harmonisation and in doing so to facilitate international trade.

FSSAI is undertaking the task of framing of new food products standards, harmonisation of the existing standards with Codex, updation of regulations through way of amendments in light of new science based understanding, formulation of guidance notes for ease of food business operators as well as consumers, etc. through an established system of functioning through Scientific Panels, Scientific Committee and Food Authority.
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