Speaking at Food Vision Asia in Singapore last week, Madhavi Das, the regulator’s chief management services officer, said it “was fair to say” that the FSSAI had now come to embrace collaboration not just with food companies but with “all stakeholders”.
The adoption of this new mindset apparently began with the arrival of a new chief executive last year following the Maggi noodles affair in 2015, which left many companies wondering if the regulator had been working with them or against them.
To many observers, the episode was seen as a farrago of unilateral actions and high-handed declarations by the FSSAI after samples of the Nestlé-manufactured noodles were found to contain illegal levels of lead and monosodium glutamate.
Though it was later revealed that the results did not stand up to further testing, the regulator found itself at “loggerheads with the food industry,” as one influential Indian columnist put it, and later on the wrong side of judicial rulings.
Until recently the FSSAI was also widely criticised mostly for employing a system whereby all but 377 non-standardised food items required prior approval, as did many “proprietary” foods, even though these had had a long history of consumption in India. It has since transformed this “approval system” approach to one that is much more international in its scope.
Recalling the FSSAI’s attitudes at the time, one major ingredients player in India recently described to FoodNavigator-Asia how the authority had become accustomed to “taking a top-down approach to regulation”, and bemoaned a “lack of clarity” in its rulings. Now “there is more communication than in the past,” the source told us.
Explaining the regulator’s position before the arrival of Pawan Kumar Agarwal to the chief executive’s desk, Das pointed out that the body, which was established in 2008, is very new by international standards.
“The initial focus was obviously on traditional regulatory methods. We had to set in place standards and I would request for everybody to remember that we came from a prevention of food adulteration mindset and regime.
“And [now] we have moved to a more holistic mindset of ensuring safe and wholesome food. So there was a transition period; there was a period where standards needed to be set, where the entire focus was on standards and enforcement.
“I think it is fair to say that there has been a change; I would also attribute it to the CEO, I work with him very closely,” Das added.
She also described the need to widen the collaborative net to include civil society organisation, school boards, municipalities and other government departments.
“I think the entire feeling has been that until we get down to looking at every stakeholder and getting their buy-in, we are not going to get where we want, which is for safe and nutritious food for 1.3bn Indians,” she said, adding that it would be “presumptuous to say that the authority could do this alone”.
“There is no way over 200 people sitting in the FSSAI are going to take care of a country the size of India without the buy-in of the stakeholders. So this is something that is here to stay, in my mind.”