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Straight talk

Beast of bureaucracy makes logjam hard to avoid

By RJ Whitehead , 29-Jan-2013
Last updated on 29-Jan-2013 at 12:31 GMT

If there’s one thing India doesn’t need, that’s more bureaucracy. As the saying goes, the British introduced it, then the Indians perfected it post-Independence. And even as the country celebrated its sixty-fourth Republic day last week, all the form-filling and paper-pushing–and consequent palm-greasing–have continued unabated well into the twenty-first century.

Rather than them fading out, even more bureaucratic processes are being introduced by the day, and one of the most recent examples of tedious triplicate concerns any new or existing food products that are classed as “proprietary”.

Last month, the Food Safety and Standards Association of India (FSSAI), the government-promoted body that has recently taken over as the country’s food watchdog, announced that it would start a new system of issuing approvals, meaning that any products that are not classified in the Food Act will need to follow a regulatory “new product approval” guideline, as laid down by the FSSAI.

Proprietary foods as a definition doesn’t just cover the latest in pre- and probiotics and newly formulated breakthroughs; no, it deals with items as simple as low-calorie ice-creams, digestive biscuits and low-sugar jams. And it doesn’t matter how thoroughly a company announces its product’s ingredients on packs and in advertising, it will still need to attain FSSAI approvals.

According to the guidelines, makers of all proprietary products must now submit applications to the central government for approval–previously, they could all be approved at state level. The product can then launch only after all the necessary approvals have been obtained.

If, for example, the existing law requires that fruit jam must contain sugar in a predetermined quantity spread. Manufacturers must stick inside it to retain a regular formulation–any more or less for a new product, and the recipe will be up in front of the FSSAI before you can say “strawberry preserve”.

While there is no doubt that safeguarding consumers’ right to eat exactly what they expect is a good thing, FSSAI could quite easily have taken a much less heavy-handed approach to its approvals.

Indeed, it is wonderful news that the consumer will at long last have a protector as for so long food companies have been writing whatever they’ve liked on labels and broadcast all sorts of outlandish claims in their advertising.

The end of this free-for-all came when the newly installed FSSAI early last month issued 38 notices to food companies and initiated prosecution proceedings against 19 of these under the Food and Safety Standards Act. Examples included nutrition foods that promised children would grow twice as tall, fitness formulas that claimed to give three time the stamina and hot drinks that would make kids become stronger, taller and sharper.

What’s more, these were not no-name products from hinterland villages–ones that wouldn’t know any better. They were international brands, like Complan, Boost and Horlicks. The fact that the supposed flag-bearers were leading the way with these outlandish claims sets a poor example for smaller companies across India and it is right for the government and the FSSAI to do something about it.

But while giving a much-needed boost to consumer rights, the FSSAI has also succeeded in making things unduly difficult for the food industry, and this in turn can have long-lasting repercussions.

Regulations that are conducive for growth while at the same time helping the consumer are to be applauded. But those that are overly one-sided can succeed in delaying new product development and all sorts of innovation. And both of these are extremely important for India during a time of fast changing tastes and the rise of proprietary products. Categories like muesli, for example, are growing at 40% a year within a market estimated at Rs100 crore (US$18.7m), while the Rs200 crore oats segment is growing at around 30%.

The rate that new products are coming onto the market, and the speed with which government bodies grant approvals, add up to an inevitable logjam–and probably not too far in the future.

The hope is of course that the FSSAI will learn from its ruling before long and realise that it must tailor the process into something more user-friendly for all sides, and for the sake of the industry.

However, those well-versed in Indian bureaucracy will not hold out much hope of this–authorities don’t like to lose face in India. So as diet yoghurts and digestive biscuits wait in the vain hope of eventually being approved, let’s hope that a united industry lobby to level the playing field so that both consumer and manufacturer can occupy a level playing field.

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