Food safety labs in poor health

Technicians at work at a food testing laboratory in Bengaluru

Maggi noodles being tested in Assam   -  PTI


The recent scare about the presence of possible cancer-causing ingredients in bread refocusses attention on the state of food safetylaboratories across India. A round-up from the States presents a rather disquieting picture

Kolkata, June 6

The three-storeyed building set behind the high walls of 3 Kyd Street, alongside the MLA hostel in Kolkata, is pretty nondescript in itself. But the curious goings-on in this sleepy little establishment have in recent years set off tectonic tremors felt across the length and breadth of India, with reputational damage to established corporate brands in the food business. It is from here that laboratory tests on samples of the beverage Coca-Cola and Nestle’s Maggi noodles bestirred the corporate world (see ‘The lab that sniffs out pesticides and lead’), forcing multinationals to scramble to win back the lost trust of hundreds of thousands of their consumers.

Of the five laboratories housed in the building, three belong to the Central Food Laboratory (CFL), Kolkata, which was among the first such testing facilities in India. But notwithstanding that label of prestige, the labs reflect the dire state of government-owned institutions that test for food safety, which are struggling to keep pace with a rapidly changing food industry landscape.

In the light of the recent explosive findings by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) about the presence of possible cancer-causing potassium bromate and potassium iodate in bread sold in Delhi, and the focus on the standards for the industry standards set by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), BusinessLine subjected the food safety laboratories themselves to clinical analyses to see how well-equipped they are for the task they have on hand.

The answer is quite sobering.

At the CSL laboratory in Kolkata, for instance, an official, who did not wish to be named, said he did not know when the laboratory equipments were upgraded last. But other than to say that apathy from the political class had taken a toll on the facility, the official stonewalled repeated queries about the state of the equipment and the allocation of funds for the facility.,

“Sorry, we can't provide any details about the testing facilities or the apparatus. We have to maintain confidentiality,” the official said.

Laboratory Director AK Adhikary declined interview requests from BusinessLine. “I am not allowed to speak to the media. Please excuse me,” he said, when asked about lab upgradation initiatives.

Adhikary leads a team of 45 officials, including technical officers and lab technicians. But that is considerably less than the laboratory’s sanctioned strength of 69. Clearly, the facility is understaffed.

Appeals to authorities to fill vacant posts have fallen on deaf ears, says another official. “The staff shortage issue is taken up at every bi- or tri-monthly meeting. Nothing happens,” he laments.

Stretched resources

The condition of the testing facilities in other States is no better. Officials in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh complain of the limitations of the food-testing infrastructure. The food laboratory in Nacharam (Hyderabad) finds itself stretched since it now has to cater to two States –– Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

KN Swarup, Joint Food Controller. Andhra Pradesh, says that the laboratory’s needs in terms of both staff and equipment are not fully met. A senior official of the Telangana government adds that food samples picked up for random testing are too small to be representative.

These deficiencies in the laboratory infrastructure are amplified in the fast-changing landscape of the food processing industry.

It is this that allows ingredients that are suspected to be injurious to human health in processed foods to fly beneath the radars of the testing laboratories: be they the presence of pesticides in colas and bottled water; lead in noodles; or, as in the recent case involving the CSE study, the presence of potassium bromate and potassium iodate in common bread.

Pressure to approve

In Karnataka, officials at the office of the Commissioner of Food Safety, speaking on condition of anonymity, have a more serious allegation to make. They complain of “pressure to pass food products, especially from packaged goods and fast food companies.”

On occasions when the combinations of chemicals used are way too complex, the labs do not have the bandwidth or the technical capability to verify the health hazards that they may cause, says the official. “We had to let go (of) two products which had a combination of potassium bromate, cypermethrin (which is used as an insecticide) and decomposed substances that were unfit for consumption,” he explains. Worryingly, doctors say the combination, when used over many years, can cause convulsion, coma and respiratory failure.

Bulldozing their way

Food officials also complain of “high-handed” company representatives who come with their lawyers when such issues are raised. “We had several instances of multinationals who point out that some of the ingredients have been approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration in the US), and wonder why Indian regulators have a problem. Indian companies typically pressure us by politicians,” alleges an official.

Speaking off the record, industry representatives counter this allegation, and say that food approvals and rejections are not based entirely on science. Last year, a petition filed in the Delhi High Court by Pradip Chakraborty, a former FSSAI Director of Product Approval, had made serious allegations of corruption.

Severely short-staffed

Addressing queries on the challenges faced by government regulators, Gujarat’s Food Safety Commissioner HG Koshia says that labs in his State carry out thousands of tests every day to get quality drugs and food across to consumers. “We can do tests for heavy metals and other contaminants,” he says, adding they faced limitations not just in respect of equipment, but also technically capable staff to run the tests.

Of the seven labs in Gujarat, only five are accredited; Koshia says he is pushing for more labs to secure the requisite accreditation. Top labs across the country may have high-end equipment, but it is expensive to run these equipments regularly, he points out.

Since food is a State subject, even a policy enunciated by the Centre may see differential implementation across the States, says another food regulatory official. In some States, the health departments may not infuse the funds required to strengthen the food safety commissionarate or the lab infrastructure, he observes.

Over four years, the number of inspectors in Gujarat has doubled to 200, says Koshia. “Parallelly, I am also increasing the number of food analysts,” he says. The process to get the right people for the right posts is time-consuming — often taking up to two or three years –– particularly because the entire process is bureaucratic, he points out.

From ‘prevention’ to ‘quality’

There is an increased sensibility about food safety in India, notes Pankaj Jaiminy, Assistant Vice-President (Food, Health and Cosmetics) with TUV SUD (South Asia), a German testing, inspection and certification company.

With the earlier Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, the regulatory outlook was focussed on prevention of health hazards. But with the setting up of the FSSAI, the focus has evolved to the next level of safety and quality. But that requires the older government and private labs to change their outlook accordingly, and get them in tune with international standards of food safety, he adds.

Adulteration is largely a manufacturing problem at the production level, whereas safety and quality involve the entire supply chain, and takes in even back-end traceability, he explains. This means that every aspect of the food supply chain –– from where the company sources its raw materials, where and how it is stored and transported and how it is processed –– matters ( see graphic), Jaiminy adds.

There are labs equipped to test food across the country, says Jaiminy. Specifically, there are 98 FSSAI-notified labs, 100 inter-department labs, and 400 food testing labs with accreditation to test different portfolios. The idea is to use the existing infrastructure optimally, even as upgradation efforts get under way at at the others, he says. TUV SUD is authorised by the FSSAI to inspect and audit food operators.

Labs are largely equipped to pick up contaminants (as a parts-per-million measure), says Jaiminy. But as the standard goes up to parts-per-billion or -trillion, the equipment will have to be upgraded, he points out. Increasingly, labs are equipped with mass spectroscopy equipment to pick up low-level contaminants; the funds to subsidise lab upgradation efforts are coming from the Food Ministry, he adds.

The problem, however, is inadequacy of manpower, given that it needs technically skilled staff to run the equipment. Sometimes, guidelines are broadly outlined and staff are required to do the method validation of samples themselves. For instance, the standard for apples may be different from that for juice.

Global vs local norms

The internationally accepted norm for food is Codex Alimentarius, the ‘food code’ established by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organization in 1963 to develop harmonized international food standards. Therefore, contaminants banned internationally should be banned locally too. However, the norms for locally produced foods can be set by the local regulator.

However, it would not be fair to use the same yardstick to regulate mass-producing corporates, on the one hand, and street vendors, on the other, says Jaiminy. This is particularly because the latter has only a limited scale and potential to do harm. But that said, they all need to be trained, educated and regulated, he adds.

All things considered, the consumer too needs to take some responsibility for food safety, notes Jaiminy. Consumers need to buy products with the FSSAI mark, which in turn will incentivize producers to go in for this certification. “As a consumer, you need to be empowered with information on what is in the product and this should be declared on the label. Only then are you able to make an informed choice,” he points out.

With inputs from Venkatesh Ganesh in Bengaluru; G Naga Sridhar in Hyderabad; and PT Jyothi Datta in Mumbai

Published on June 07, 2016
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