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Food testing - An essential part of regulations
Tuesday, 14 September, 2021, 13 : 00 PM [IST]
Joshna Joseph
Food testing is an important aspect in terms of food safety and food adulteration. Food testing is an essential part of the regulation which ensures that the food that we consume are safe and does not contain any harmful physical, biological or chemical substances.

Currently there are around 190 food testing labs in India which are NABL accredited. In order to carry out the testing of the appeal samples FSSAI has recognised 19 referral food testing labs in India. FSSAI has recognised National Reference laboratory (NRL), to set up a country wide standard for routine procedures, validation of developed standard procedure for food testing, development of new methods and ensuring proficiency in testing across the food laboratories with special reference to the risks or food categories.

Either a primary food laboratory or a referral food laboratory can be considered for declaration as a NRL. Presently there are 12 NRLs and 2 ANRLs recognised by FSSAI to ensure proper standard testing procedures are followed by the food testing laboratories. FSSAI has also provided the labs a guidance format for setting up a food testing laboratory along with the guidelines for good laboratory practices which helps in proper setting up of a laboratory.

All the FBOs registered under FSSAI are mandated to conduct testing of their food products periodically. All the parameters for testing have been provided by FSSAI. According to a survey conducted, it was noted that 78% of the food testing labs in India were NABL accredited and 57% were FSSAI notified. It was observed that most of the labs have chemical testing as compared to biological and pesticide residue testing as the capital requirement for biological and pesticide residue testing is more, the referral labs have more facility for biological as well as pesticide residue testing as compared to FSSAI notified private labs.

Due to lack of trained personnel it is becoming difficult to manage the lab activities and also the capital for private labs. The turnaround time (TAT), for lab testing is around 8-14 days, for chemical testing the TAT is around 3-4 days while for microbiological parameters it goes up to 7-10 days depending upon the parameters.

The major challenges observed have been in the domains of equipment and machinery, manpower availability, skill development, regulatory, research and development, capacity utilisation as well as consumer awareness.

In order to improve these challenges following points have been taken into consideration.
1.    Stricter implementation of food testing regulations.
2.    Training and Capacity Building.
3.    Lab-Industry-Regulator Forum.
4.    MoFPI to provide grant only to NABL/FSSAI Recognized Laboratories.
5.    Single Window System, to avoid multiple accreditation bodies.
6.    Linking FBOs to INFOLNET in order to streamline the process and FBO sensitization.
7.    Consumer Awareness for the need of food testing.
8.    Delegation of Power to State Laboratories for Procurement.
9.    Manpower Availability and Optimisation.

The food industry also comprises in house labs for food testing, the corporate companies constitute 20% while the MSME sector constitute 80%. Few of these large corporates have established their own laboratories, some of which are organised. There are around 50 NABL accredited laboratories owned and operated by various Food business operators. Of these, 52% laboratories are open to others for testing, 38% cater only to in-house requirements while 10% are partially open to others for testing.

Some of the key companies who own the NABL accredited laboratories include ITC, Nestle India Ltd., Tilda Hain, Britannia, Markfed, Patanjali Food & Herbal Park, Mother Dairy, Karnataka Co-operative Milk Producers Federation Limited, LT Foods, Synthite Industries, Dabur, Marico amongst others. Many of these corporates own more than 1 such laboratories. Majority of the labs owned by FBO can test for food and agri products, while a few specialised labs can also test for marine products and pesticide residues.

Besides these NABL accredited laboratories, there are numerous other small laboratories which exist within the processing plants of the FBOs for their day to day testing of raw materials and final products. The number of such laboratories existing in the ecosystem is difficult to determine, as there is no central repository or database that capture such laboratory details.

Food testing comprises of 3 types of critical tests that need to be conducted to ensure that the food is safe and contaminant free. These tests can be broadly classified as chemical tests, microbiological tests and test for heavy metals and residues. Besides these, there are few specialized tests like GMO - genetically modified organism testing that are required for specific food products such as soybean, rice, tomato etc. and can be conducted by limited number of laboratories.

Chemical tests include tests for Moisture, Water Soluble Extracts, Total Ash, Crude Fibre, Total Solids, Total fats, Protein, Carbohydrates, saponification value, aflatoxin etc. Biological tests on the other hand include tests like Aerobic Plate Count, Yeast and Mould Count, E. Coli, Coliforms, Salmonella spp., Listeria monocytogens and many more. Heavy metals and insecticide, pesticide residues can enter the food chain through various channels and impact the human metabolism and can accumulate in the body causing severe toxicity.

This makes it important for food industry to ensure that their products are free from these toxic elements by regularly testing their ingredients and products for compliance with the regulatory requirements. The common heavy metals found in food include lead, arsenic, cadmium, tin, copper. Food materials are also tested for preservatives and additives to check whether the amount in the present in the food is according to the regulations prescribed by the authority.

50 Food Safety on Wheels (FSWs), are also proposed to be provided to the States/UTs. Mobile food testing laboratories are expected to give consumers in the remote and interior areas easy access to the facilities for checking the common adulterants in the food items. Since the food testing laboratories are established only in major cities, there is a difficulty in testing samples of perishable items from the small towns and villages. Testing for common adulterants can incorporate confidence in the local population while strengthening the hands of enforcement machinery by screening large number of samples for common adulterants.

(The author is R&D Manager at Soch Foods LLP. She can be contacted at
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