‘No worries’? Food safety fears in India as COVID-19 lockdowns lead to a shortage of lab staff
The matter was first surfaced by FSSAI CEO G.S.G Ayyangar, who had issued a letter to 18 Chief Secretaries of States in India calling them out for impeding the access of food safety laboratory staff to get to work.
In the letter, which FoodNavigator-Asia has viewed, Ayyangar highlighted that operations in both FSSAI-approved private labs and public labs that had been mandated to conduct food safety tests were being hindered.
“These laboratories need to function even during the lockdown period as they attend to samples not only from the industry but also enforcement samples from [the government’s] Food Safety Officers, [but] some labs have pointed out that they are finding it difficult to obtain movement passes for their staff,” wrote Ayyangar.
“As a result, their function is being adversely affected [at a time when] food supply chains are rather fragmented [and] food safety has assumed paramount importance.”
Ayyangar directed the Chief Secretaries to ‘instruct local administration’ to issue these movement passes to laboratory staff post-haste so as to allow labs to continue functioning through the lockdown.
India has been in lockdown since 24 March, and has now moved to separate the country into red, orange and green zones according to COVID-19 infection rates. Of note is that its most populated and advanced cities such as Mumbai and Delhi are still considered red zones – and the Chief Secretaries of states where these are located were amongst those chastened by Ayyangar.
“Regular laboratory testing of food items is critical to ensure food safety [and] many high-risk category food business are required [by law and licensing] to test their products periodically,” he added.
“[In] industries such as dairy, FSSAI has also mandated [tests to be conducted at various stages of processing] by FSSAI-notified/ National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) certified labs.”
‘No issue at all’
Despite the lack of laboratory testing manpower in so many states, FSSAI has nonetheless continued to maintain that there is ‘no issue’ with food safety testing despite admitting that ‘many states’ have been affected by the issue as ‘situations differ on the ground’.
When queried about whether the lack of food laboratory staff had caused any issues for the food supply chain in India or whether people needed to be worried about food safety given the circumstances, the agency insisted that all.
“We have a big network of labs across the country including our own labs of FSSAI, State Government labs as well as other notified private labs. There is no issue of testing,” a senior FSSAI official who declined to be named told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“[As for whether people need to be worried], the answer is not at all. FSSAI is taking every possible measure to ensure [the] safety of food during these times.”
She declined to respond to queries on what further actions that FSSAI intends to take to help improve the situation beyond this, or to give further details on the number of staff affected.
Adulteration and lack of manpower existing issues
Food and beverage adulteration, especially for dairy, has been a notorious issue in India long before the COVID-19 outbreak came along – and with less testing able to be done in an economy struggling to survive amidst lockdown, one can only imagine how many more cases now exist.
FSSAI has continuously tried to put a positive face on the issue, from claiming it to be a fabricated ‘myth that has been busted’ by its own reports, and later shoving responsibility for monitoring and testing back to the industry.
These moves have been riddled with inconsistencies and were shown to have limited effect after consumer surveys saw dairy adulteration continue to rise after implementation.
Manpower has also been a long-time issue: FSSAI moved to issue recognition for local private laboratories to conduct food testing after being overwhelmed by samples last year due to a lack of staff to conduct testing and even encouraged that samples be sent to these instead of public laboratories.
A common complaint back then with the slow testing was that many samples were tested long past the FSSAI guideline limit of 14 days from collection, and with COVID-19 having brought staff numbers down again, it is highly likely that a similar situation will occur once more if nothing is done.