Food for thought

Call it anything but food safety

By Ankush Chibber

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food safety Food

Call it anything but food safety
Apparently, India’s food safety rules and regulations are just as stringent as those in other, more developed countries. And that’s according to a proper source, one who should know his onions.

But it’s all a load of rubbish. As a journalist who knows this industry inside and out, when I read this sort of guff, I feel like hitting my head against the wall. Repeatedly.

At the same time, there are plenty who buy into this incredible self-appropriating myth of security - how many Indian mothers are flashing a smile of relief and reassurance now they have heard the news?

No matter what rubbish we are told, we know the reality. We are Indians. Even we don’t trust what we are given to eat much of the time.

But speaking at a conference in Kerala, N Anadavally, a food safety consultant with the United Nations, reassured India’s consuming public that the country’s food safety rules and regulations are just as thorough as you would expect to find in New York, London or Paris.

And of course we should believe her, just like we should believe a cricket commentator when he lauds a young Indian batsman who makes a fifty on a flat track at home against a poor string of medium-pacers. Brilliant job that.

Indian food standards on par with the West? That’s the kind of headline that would make us all, as patriotic Indians, feel warm and snug inside. Or rather it isn’t, as far as I’m concerned.

I have two problems with what Anandavally said. She might have included a bit of truth in her statement, but there is a big difference between a modicum of truth and what we all want to hear.

India may have regulations, but when it comes to enforcing and implementing them, the government machinery is not even close to efficient. A Western nation? I wouldn’t be surprised if Bangladesh has a better food safety mechanism than India, to be frank.

In this country, food safety rules exist only on paper, and then only in a twisted little way—for those who have the money.

You don't need to be an expert to dig out the problem. For instance, think about whenever you go down to the market on a Friday. You fancy some chicken? Sure, go to the nearest bunch of rusted, ramshackle cages and the guy nearby will happily sell you something squawking and scrawny sat in its own faeces.

Even though the trusty milkman delivers you milk each morning, you are still aware that his cowshed is next to the railway tracks, by the drain the poor migrants go for their morning ablutions.

And then there’s your fresh vegetables, of course. They might can come from far-out farms in the villages, but it is more than likely that they are still doused in the same chemicals that the West used when Kennedy was still alive.

Those crisps you’ve been picking up from the kirana store for years? Well, they have probably been fried in the same vat of oil for the same length of time.

What’s more, the chances of you getting by unharmed from all this increase as you continue up the social ladder. If you are somewhat wealthy, in the way that you can pay US$500 a month in rent and have a decent set of wheels: chances are that you will get by with just a dose of food poisoning at home at the very least, once a year. Of course, you can't speak for the places you eat out at.

India’s rich takes the route that has been helping sustain many multinational food companies here—they buy packaged food.

Right from frozen chicken to that Tetra Pak milk, all of which are together easily 40% more expensive than those products that are bought loose or from the local market.

In a perverse way, food processors in India are actually in the business of selling food safety. If you can understand the local language, you could just about read through any marketing campaign for a packaged food product and bet your bottom dollar on seeing the word “safe” somewhere in  there - just as if all other foods were unsafe.

Well, that wouldn’t be 100% off the mark.

I know there are people in the sector out there who think that things should get better with the Food Safety and Standards Authority (FSSAI) coming around, but I would like to call the bluff on that. A new all-powerful authority? More permissions? They called this the lets-chuck-a-licence-at-that approach during the British Raj of the last century.

Believe me when I say that there are enough licences out there, and there have been for the last three decades at least. But for every new licence, there is of course a new way to subvert it. It’s the Indian way—called jugaad locally—and Indians are ostensibly proud of it thanks to the way Western management gurus have feted the whole principle behind its madness.

It would be clichéd to say the system will not change as long as people and their attitudes likewise do not change, but there is no other way to put it.
Changing things, though, is a stretch, and therein lies the reason behind my other problem from Anandavally's statement: did you notice how she said “as good as any developed country”?

This is a new form of jingoistic emotion, whereby we have to peg everything in comparison to the West and be as good—if not better—at anything they can do.

Overall, it is a step in the wrong direction when it comes to changing attitudes.

It is also the same emotion that lets people in this country believe that Ayurveda can cure cancer. It is dangerous.

Have your say: Do you agree with Ankush? Let us know in the comments below.

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Growing pains

Posted by Ramkishan Rao,

Mr. Chibber is right in his observations. However, any developmental process has shortcomings associated with the achievement of the goals. He provides excellent examples of these shortcomings. Such keen observations are much needed to challenge the process of proper implementation/execution.

Having said that, I concur with Ms Anandavally that India has necessary legislation in place to make the food safer, notwithstanding the implementation process.

I am cautiously optimistic that food will be much safer in India in years to come. there are scores of examples for this optimism.

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Spot on

Posted by ambika,

Absolutely spot on. Food safety is a big issue in India.Something needs to be done to ensure better regulations are in place along with efficient government machinery to ensure that they are implimented effectively.

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Spot on

Posted by Dude,

He is right. Food safety is a joke.

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