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Food safety ministry told ‘could do better’ in five-yearly report card

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock
A five-year audit has uncovered severe flaws in India’s food safety apparatus, with the government’s chief auditor accusing officials of botching investigations and employing too few enforcers.

In its evaluation of the Department of Food Safety, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) said that a staff shortage had disrupted the licensing process for food operators.

Against the department’s own target of more than 200,000 business licences processed in 2015-16, it fell some 150,000 short. Even though an online licensing payment portal had been launched to some fanfare, there was still little evidence of how many businesses had applied for one, the GAG report claimed.

Moreover, it found that no alcohol licences had been issued in that period in Delhi, even though legislation from 2012 made it mandatory for businesses offering wines, beers and spirits to obtain separate licences.

But the department’s alleged administrative shortcomings appear most worrying. From the report it has emerged that it failed even to prepare a database of food business operators (FBOs) dealing with such essentials as school meals, packaged water and milk.

Without this vast list of manufacturers, restaurants and retailers it would be impossible to launch even the most cursory investigation. 

The department didn’t even have a database of all the outlets where local majors Mother Dairy and Amul Milk were stocked, even though it was expected to check samples at all of these. Neither did it appear concerned about alcohol licences.

"Audit scrutiny revealed that the department did not cover FBOs dealing in alcoholic drinks and wines in Delhi. They did not check whether the FBOs concerned had acquired the requisite licences or whether these were still valid. The department attributed non-coverage of such FBOs to shortage of staff​," the CAG report added.

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The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) issued a notification last May which set the compliance date for trans fat limits, as well as label declarations for class titles, trans fat content and saturated fats, for February 27.

The aim of the policy was to restrict the quantity of saturated fats to a maximum of 5% in foods.

Influenced by calls from industry lobbies to extend the deadline for compliance, the FSSAI has has advised its officers not to take punitive action, as long as any saturated fat and trans fat values are found to be below the values declared on labels.

The extension will apply to vegetable oils and fats, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, edible fats, margarine and fat spreads, among other items.

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Production the world’s second largest producer and consumer fell 10% year on year in 2015/16 to 86.5m tonnes, due to damage caused by unseasonal heavy rain and hail storms. These happened across major growing areas and coincided with the critical flowering and grain filling stages. 

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Moreover domestic consumption, which increased by 10% last year at 96.8m tonnes, is seeing India shift from a net exporter to a net importer. 

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With wheat imports forecast to reach 3.7m tonnes this year, nearly eight times higher than the previous season, this will represent the highest level in a decade. 

Related topics: Policy, India, Food safety

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