Speaking at a meeting discussing the Food Safety and Standards Act in Tamil Nadu, FSSAI CEO Pawan Agarwal said that ‘recognised’ private labs were available in the country, and these should be utilised if government ones could not meet demand.
“The facilities in (government) labs may not be adequate. But while the labs are being upgraded, officials have been have been given permission to get the samples tested in private labs. I am not sure why this is not being done,” he said.
“The only thing that is required by the labs is a qualified food analyst.”
In addition, an FSSAI spokeswoman told FoodNavigator-Asia that there is no difference in the costs for conducting tests at private vs public laboratories.
“There is no differential in the cost structure for testing in a public/ private laboratory. [The] amount that has been fixed for testing any sample is INR 5,000 (US$69.85) except [for a] few special food categories including foods for special dietary purposes etc.,” she said.
Government laboratories in the country are known to be highly understaffed. In the central Indian city of Bhopal, for example, just five technicians are on hand, but the laboratory received over 1,700 samples for testing across 20 days, according to Times of India.
“Under normal course, the capacity of the state laboratory is of testing 6,000 samples annually, but now, under present circumstances, we are working day and night and even on holidays,” said Bhopal Food and Drug Administration Controller Ravindra Singh.
“Some samples are also being sent outside for testing. As far as understaffing is concerned, we have arranged for some more staff and also roped in some students.”
FSSAI guidelines state that all submitted food samples need to be analysed within 14 days of collection, but given the severe understaffing situation, all reports are likely to require a minimum of three or four months before completion.
Worse yet, collected samples are reported to require at least a week’s time to reach the laboratory from the point of collection.
Agarwal added that testing samples after the date of expiry and penalising the originating food company for any negative results was a ‘grave offence’, but given the high volume of tests to be conducted, the likelihood of this occurring appears to be significant.
That said, the FSSAI spokeswoman told us that the agency has no intention to establish more public labs in the county, as this was not the answer.
‘Establishment of more labs won't solve the shortage of manpower, [particularly] food analysts,” she said.
“FSSAI is upgrading [our] own labs in Ghaziabad and Kolkata along with up gradation (sic) of some of the state food labs. We have also made provision of mobile food safety vans so that [these] can reach the remote areas wherever possible.”
Earlier this year in July, FSSAI published a list of over 100 National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) accredited labs on its website.
“FSSAI has notified a total of 179 accredited laboratories [for] the purpose of carrying out the analysis of food sample taken under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 and Rules & Regulations made there under,” said FSSAI Joint Director QA Umesh Kumar Jain.
“The recognition and validity [of these] laboratories shall be governed by the guidelines or orders issued by the FSSAI.”
That said, although 179 laboratories were said to be NABL-accredited in the country, the list also noted that the validation for some 46 of these were either expired or about to expire.
No further information is officially available as yet about the revalidation status of most of these, but there appears to be a contradiction between the some of the statuses published here and as stated by the individual labs.
One of these was the Tlabs chain of laboratories, which investigates tea quality according to both pesticide and quality parameters. Tlabs received FSSAI accreditation earlier this year in April, but according to the FSSAI list, its validation expired in March.
TRA Secretary and Principal Officer Joydeep Phukan confirmed with FoodNavigator-Asia that Tlabs is NABL-accredited, but was not listed as such because the revalidation process was still ongoing.
“There is actually a six-month period for labs to revalidate after the accreditation expiry. We submitted our revalidation application on August 16, and after inspection by NABL in 15 to 20 days, the status will be updated,” he said.
“I spoke to the FSSAI CEO recently, and as soon as the revalidation status is updated, FSSAI should update the list to reflect this.”
In addition, the Centre for Analysis and Learning in Livestock and Food (CALF) also received accreditation in April this year as a National Reference Laboratory for dairy and dairy products according to the Hindu Business Times, but no mention of this was made in the recent FSSAI list.