The advisory, which was issued in May last year, requires manufacturers of packaged foods, beverages, health products and supplements to disclose any changes to ingredients or formulation to the FSSAI—at significant cost to the importers.
Last month, the Bombay High Court found that the advisory was not justified to the point of being “unlawful”. It ruled that the FSSAI did not have the power to issue the advisory as its terms were not included in the Food Safety and Standards Act.
The Supreme Court agreed with the Bombay law lords in its decision this week, adding that the advisory could only stand if it were ratified by India’s two houses of parliament.
Beginning last year, the FSSAI set out on a process to tighten food standards regulations and step up inspections in the wake of complaints over the quality of imports.
However, this extra and costly level of bureaucracy has led to sizeable food shipments left stranded at ports across India. According to The Hindu, 400-500 containers that failed to meet the FSSAI’s compliance regulations are in this position.
Under FSSAI regulations, manufacturers of packaged food items must list the contents in English on the labelling, which must in turn mention the ingredients used and their nutritional values. The producer’s name, address and country of origin must also be mentioned, and in the format prescribed by the regulator.
“We believe business worth Rs15,000-20,000cr [US$2.47bn-3.29bn] is being hit due to FSSAI’s norms. We are also asking the government to keep Codex [an internationally accepted labelling standard] as a benchmark before tweaking rules,” Firoz H Naqvi, secretary of the Food Ingredients Manufacturers & Suppliers of India Association, told The Hindu.
Best of frenemies
The latest High Court ruling against the FSSAI is expected to have a wide impact on the food industry, with analysts now speculating that industry groups such as the All India Food Processors' Association, which represents companies including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, Britannia and Hindustan Unilever, and the powerful Indian Drug Manufacturers Association will file impleadment applications in the Supreme Court.
It is understandable how the FSSAI has so often struggled to defend its policies in the courts, especially in light of the scale of the challenge it faces.
"We are implementing the food safety standards on a huge scale for the first time in the country. It is a big challenge and there are also litigations, but ultimately, it is for the benefit of the consumer," said K Chandramouli, the authority’s chairman.
However, food importers forced to see their goods perishing in containers and port warehouses are becoming increasingly less sympathetic.
“There seems to be a political stalemate over the issue. The guidelines set by the government are affecting business,” lamented Prakash Sanghvi of Delta Nutritive, an importer, in The Hindu. “The whole process of checking [labels on imports] takes about three to four months and during this period, importers have to pay ports to retain their shipment.”