Our food standards are unreliable

Close watch India needs adequate scientific systems to scrutinise food products science photo/shutterstock.com

Testing should be based on rigorous statistical norms so that producers are not unfairly blamed for lapses

Any industry that directly impacts the consumer and is vital to the individual’s health and livelihood should be monitored and regulated closely.

An industry that is dominated by various enterprises across the organised and unorganised sector — from large multinationals to grocers to individual street vendors across the supply chain — needs it even more.

That said, India’s food regulators face a challenge while executing this monitoring process effectively. They need to be equipped with adequate and upgraded infrastructure and resources.

While empanelling laboratories with the regulatory bodies, the individual capabilities of the laboratories and available infrastructure (testing equipment) need to be studied. This is in order to capture accuracy levels, especially in the case of trace-level contaminant testing.

Also, to adequately understand the safety of the food produced and consumed, ingredient quality becomes essential to study.

Common standards

Crops grown in different soils may reflect heavy metals that may be harmful, but also minerals that may be beneficial. Sources of heavy metals and contaminants found in food could arise from groundwater and soil and hence in some raw material used in the manufacture of finished products.

Laboratories need to standardise new test methods to evaluate and quantify additives used in products at very low levels which are functionally critical for the processed food.

Although the levels for food additives permitted by law are mentioned, currently test methods to evaluate these are not commonly carried out by food testing laboratories.

Sample preparation is another critical area that needs standardisation. A statistical sampling protocol needs to be followed that makes a sample representative of a batch.

A common manual followed for sample preparation will help streamline some variations in analytical results.

Large-scale manufacturers are aware of food quality testing requirements and also have the means to set quality systems and a testing protocol which ensures the safety of their products.

Create awareness

Smaller manufacturers, who are unable to afford the cost of such services, may release products into market without appropriate tests or full understanding of the quality and safety of their products.

Knowledge and awareness of the importance of quality testing needs to be imparted to all food manufacturers and handlers.

A continual task is to update food standards to account for contemporary consumers’ increasingly diverse diets.

In situations which may impact a large population, results of the nationwide tests on food products being implemented by State and Central governments as well as private laboratories should be released to the manufacturers and wider public in the interest of transparency, scientific integrity and consumer safety.

While several tests are being conducted by various laboratories across the nation, these laboratories may vary in resource capabilities, and so may be using different testing methods, procedures and equipment.

Different methods to estimate different components across samples may yield divergent results based on the sensitivity of the testing equipment used.

A holistic understanding of the legitimacy of safety and quality concerns needs to be based on a robust statistical approach which would help ascertain the risk associated with consumption of food products.

Enhance infrastructure

The regulatory body will need processes to be in place to randomly scrutinise food products on the shelf or perishable food being served albeit under a set frequency protocol based on the level of risk involved.

This will need adequate trained scientific man-power in the field and infrastructure to draw samples at times if required under sterile conditions.

Temperature control and logistics to transport samples to the nearest testing laboratory needs to be put in place so there is no alteration in sample quality in the transit period.

The government has proposed spending ₹900 crore towards modernising testing infrastructure. This is encouraging news and would enable the regulatory body to effectively monitor food products across categories.

These funds should be utilised towards improving the capabilities of the nation’s testing labs to the benchmarks established by international counterparts.

The greater the consistencies between the testing methods of Indian and international labs, the more aligned will be the product test results.

The Indian food industry will hence be enabled to be more transparent and accountable to consumers, who can continue enjoying innovative food products without concerns for their health and safety.

Generating transparency in sharing food quality results with the public would have a cascading effect in enhancing public interest and awareness.

This drive would automatically ensure manufacturers accountability in devising new food products and convenience foods. Whether it is an MNC or a local manufacturer, they are equally responsible for the quality of the food they manufacture.

A comfort level would also be achieved for investors setting up food manufacturing facilities in India.

They would be reassured by statistical protocols exist to determine safety of food produced.

A huge initiative needs to be taken on a pan-India basis to create standards for commodities, some of which are as basic as fresh fruits and vegetables.

Establishing baseline data, such a study will illuminate the food testing needs of our country truly from farm to fork while strengthening the nation’s capability to protect consumers both in India and abroad.

The writer is director of D-Technology, a food sciences consultancy

Published on July 01, 2015
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