Fortification fight: Help for Indian food and nutrition firms to meet implementation challenges
The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), an NGO founded in 2002, will now offer technical support in the form of training programmes and product testing to make it easier for companies to fortify foods such as wheat, rice, milk and oil.
According to Pune’s FDA commissioner, Suresh Deshmukh, the department is the first in Maharashtra to have developed such an initiative.
He added that the main purpose for doing so was to tackle India’s persistent problems of blood-related disorders like anaemia, as well as vitamin A and D deficiency, which have led to bone disorders, defective eyesight and brittle bones even among young children.
Speaking to NutraIngredients-Asia, GAIN’s head of programmes, Deepti Gulati, said the NGO was already active in 18 states in India, and had been working closely with the FSSAI on the fortification of wheat, rice, milk, and edible oil.
In June last year, GAIN organised a conference in Maharashtra, where the Deshmukh led the agenda on food fortification. Soon after, the NGO began working with the government to introduce fortified wheat flour and edible oil into its publicly funded programmes.
Gulati added: “We also started working with industry partners to build up their capacity to appropriately and adequately fortify rice and milk for the open market.”
To ensure this can be achieved, the FDA has begun organising training workshops for food suppliers and manufacturers to educate them on food fortification and encourage them to adopt the practice.
This started with a pilot workshop for manufacturers in Pune on January 18, which was overseen by FDA minister of state Girish Bapat. Along with other NGOs such as the Vatsalya Foundation, GAIN provided technical support by helping to run the workshop’s training programmes.
Gulati said: “Mr Deshmukh kicked off this initiative to promote food fortification in a big way, so we will continue to work with the FDA to sensitise our industry partners to the importance of food fortification and how they should voluntarily adopt it to contribute to public health.”
She went on to say that after the ‘sensitisation’ process, GAIN would provide ‘hands-on training’ to industry partners “on how to appropriately and adequately fortify their products with micronutrients, such as iron, folic acid and vitamins A, B12 and D in milk, and vitamins A and D in oil”.
“To ensure these products are compliant with FSSAI standards, we will randomly select food items at the time of packing and from the marketplace for testing at government-certified labs, so we can ascertain the presence of micronutrients both qualitatively and quantitatively.
“We will then share the results with the industry, and in case any of these products are not up to scratch, we will give them refresher training so they can meet national standards.”
Once the products satisfy FSSAI requirements, GAIN will then help the companies involved to register for the +F logo — the official logo signifying food fortification approved by the FSSAI.
The NGO will also advise its industry partners on the kinds of claims they are and are not permitted to make on their product labels.
Gulati said, “They can’t make tall, unrealistic claims, but there are specific claims they can make that are government-approved, and we help them to understand what these are and where they apply.
“We will also share with them our experiences with consumers to help them better understand their needs and preferences.
“At the state level, we will organise training programmes to educate food safety officers on how to avoid adding to their products vitamins and minerals that may actually be contaminants.”
Voluntary, not mandatory
Gulati also noted that despite the past controversy surrounding the FSSAI and its alleged push for the mandatory fortification of staple foods, the regulator did not, in fact, intend to advocate for mandatory food fortification.
“The FSSAI does not push for mandatory fortification, but it does want to create a conducive environment for fortification by helping to set up partnerships with industry and provide the necessary training to make this happen.
“However, the government itself has decreed mandatory fortification of salt with iodine, and hydrogenated oil with vitamin A, though it is now looking to ban hydrogenated oil due to its trans fat content.”
On GAIN’s part, Gulati said the NGO also encouraged manufacturers and suppliers to voluntarily adopt fortification, as it would benefit not just industry but the Indian people in general.
She also said that food fortification was a complementary strategy that offered convenience and affordability to consumers, as opposed to reliance on dietary supplements, which were often too costly for the under-privileged demographics prone to malnutrition.
She added that while things were off to a promising start, the road ahead would be a long one.
“This is a great initiative, but there’s still a long way to go. Pune is a cosmopolitan city, so the staple foods sold there come from many other cities and states, and as such, are not necessarily all fortified. At the city level, the government cannot dictate that all staple foods sold there must be fortified.
“However, it can encourage companies to fortify such products, and we will help them to do so. It will require a continual, multi-sectoral effort.”