The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India halted the import on labelling grounds, in that pasting information stickers on packs is now not sufficient under new regulations.
While companies often use stickers on imported products to specify certain details that are mandatory in India, such as if the items are vegetarian or non-vegetarian, the food regulator is now insisting that all nutritional information should be printed on packs before they are shipped to the country.
“The food safety concerns are legitimate. We have no issues about that. We need to find a manner in which these issues can be addressed, without prejudicing trade. Otherwise, these could constitute non-tariff barriers,” Ambassador Joao Cravinho said in his note.
The FSSAI, the regulatory agency under the health ministry that supervises import of food items to ensure quality, has this month started to take a hard-line on its labelling regulations, which came into force in 2011.
"Why should they have stickers? Stickers are temporary measures. When our [regulations] are clearly laid out, companies must print them on the packs that are to be shipped to the country," one official told Business Standard.
"Stickers often [fall off] during transit or at times there are several stickers pasted on one pack.”
There has been speculation that packaged foods worth between Rs750-1,000cr (USD$120m) were stuck at ports and airports across the country by the start of this month as FSSAI insisted that importers change their labelling.
Tip of the iceberg
Amit Lohani, convenor of the Forum of Indian Food Importers, said his group had already made numerous representations to FSSAI in a bid to resolve the issue, and added that the labelling regulations were just one of a number that had been worrying importers, including the 100% sampling of containers that come into the country.
"Earlier sampling was to the extent of 5-10%, not more. This was to give an idea of what the consignment was made up of. With 100% sampling of each and every container now, this is obviously leading to a huge delay. Containers are hardly getting cleared," Lohani said.
This, in turn, has had a big impact on the sale of imported snacks and treats during India’s recent festival season, and the situation is unlikely to improve in time for the next big holiday period—Christmas and New Year—when around half of the year’s imported packaged foods are sold.