FSSAI said the regulations would “lay down procedures for safety assessment and approval of foods including imported foods, derived from genetic modification processes based on the internationally well established and accepted scientific principles, procedures and practices before being approved for food purposes”.
After formal approval of FSSAI’s Scientific Panel, Scientific Committee and the authority itself, the draft regulations will be notified in the Gazette of India to elicit comments from various stakeholders. FSSAI said these will be duly considered, after which the regulations will be finalised with the approval of the Government of India.
Prior to the approval of such foods, FSSAI would be in charge of the assessment of their food safety, while the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change would assess aspects related to their environmental impact.
Fallout after recent scandal
Recently, stores in Delhi, Punjab and Gujarat were found to be selling genetically-modified (GM) foods, according to the Centre for Science and Environment’s (CSE) Pollution Monitoring Laboratory of India. CSE claimed that out of 65 products tested, 21 were found to be GM-positive.
These products included cooking oil, packaged food and infant food. Some also made false claims of being GM-free.
Under India’s Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, no person shall manufacture, distribute, sell or import any genetically modified (GM) article of food except under the Act and regulations made thereunder.
In the wake of that scandal, the Coalition for a GM-Free India had accused the Government of India of “actively jeopardising the health of all Indians by allowing illegal hazardous GM foods” and that it “knowingly created a regulatory vacuum in which there is no authority taking responsibility to put a check on such GM foods from coming into our food supply chain”.
“This is highly irresponsible and reprehensible,” said the Coalition.
“The fact that every regulator and ministry has failed in the discharge of its responsibility shows a sinister and wilfully dangerous pattern that seeks to jeopardise and compromise on the health safety of citizens of India. The Coalition for a GM-Free India now appeals to the Prime Minister of India to urgently intervene in the matter, to fulfil the BJP Manifesto promise of 2014, and ensure that citizens are not subjected to the hazards of GM foods.”
Lack of action damning?
Furthermore, the Coalition recently wrote to FSSAI CEO Shri Pawan Kumar Agarwal “seeking concrete action”.
The Coalition pointed out that it first wrote to Agarwal and FSSAI months before, on March 16, on the illegal import and sale of GM foods in India, that were in violation of the Food Safety and Standards Act on GM foods.
“The lack of action by FSSAI tells the citizens of this country that, as the food safety regulator, you are knowingly allowing this illegal proliferation of unpermitted and hazardous GM foods in the country,” said Kavitha Kuruganti, co-convenor, on behalf of the Coalition.
The statement further called FSSAI’s response “wholly inadequate” and said it “does not create any confidence in ordinary consumers/citizens that FSSAI is serious about regulating unsafe illegal foods in the country”.
GM labelling threshold
These new FFSAI regulations will be in addition to the Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations, 2018, which the regulator said would for the first time include mandatory labelling for packaged food items with 5% or more GM ingredients.
Agarwal had said this would help to “bring clarity” but critics, including CSE, had said that not only is this measure not stringent enough, there is also a question about enforcement.
CSE said, “We believe that the criteria for exemption from labelling of food containing GM ingredients needs to be much stricter.
“Considering that GM food is not allowed in India, we believe that the limit of 5 per cent for three ingredients is too high.
“We recommend that limits for individual ingredients should be set in line with the EU regulations of 0.9 per cent.”
Nonetheless, FSSAI reiterated, “These proposed regulations will further bind food businesses to provide appropriate information to the consumers so as to enable them to exercise their informed choice in respect of purchase of foods, including GM foods, should any such foods be approved for manufacture or import in India.”
FSSAI stressed that the threshold level for labelling of GM foods refers to the maximum permissible level (in percentage) of unintentional and technically unavoidable GMO content in food that does not call for labelling and that a large number of countries including Japan, Canada, Thailand and Indonesia prescribe such a threshold value of 5% by weight.
FSSAI further pointed out that the cost of demonstrating or verifying compliance to the specified threshold increases as the threshold level decreases.
“The proposed labelling of GM food in India falls within the range of internationally followed threshold level and seems to be practical and cost effective,” it stated.