Food safety involves the journey of food from farm to consumer and it’s important to ensure the safety of the entire chain. To determine the safety of processed food, one needs to know how safe are the raw materials, the manufacturing process and packaging. Also, the hygiene and sterility in the entire chain of production has to be looked into. In food industry, the raw material has to be cleared first, so that – if need be – one can trace whether the contamination occurred at the processing or the raw material stage.
This context is important before we go into the Maggi controversy, at the backdrop of which are food safety issues. In this case, do we have the data on the raw material that was used in manufacturing? Do we know if the contaminant came from the raw material or happened during processing or packaging? To pinpoint, a far better system of analysis is required at every stage and traceability is crucial.
There are two kinds of analysis in practice today. From the government’s side, a food inspector randomly picks up samples for analysis. The industry, on the other hand, follows a quality-control process where end-products are analysed and scrutinised.
At the moment, what appears to be wrong is lack of documentation at the quality control stage and absence of batch tests. For food items, especially products that are meant for infants and young children, the manufacturers must have facilities to conduct batch-testing and maintain a data record.
Currently, there is a major mismatch between the raw material analysis and the final product screening. By the time a problem is detected, thousands of consumers would have consumed the product.That’s not right at all. We must have checks and balances at every stage. What is also lacking is regular market surveillance by the regulator. There may be shortage of people in the FSSAI, but the government needs to recruit more staff if food safety has to be monitored professionally. As only professional market surveillance can assure safe food to people, the surveillance must also be extended to public and private catering, including airlines or railway catering which serve a large number of people. For not just packed foods but non-packed food, too, need an assurance of safety to the public.
The task seems insurmountable but to me it is doable. India did it in the past with water. When the ‘pesticide-in-cola’ controversy sprang up a decade ago, an expert committee recommended less than 0.1 parts per billion total pesticides in water. The world said India cannot conform to it and only advanced countries are capable of doing it. A decade later, we have been able to give safe bottled water to the public; which means the process that was put in place is working.
Accredited labs needed
India needs accredited food laboratories for analysis that would be done following a universally accepted protocol. The laboratories must also keep back-up samples for repeat testing. The existing NABL accreditation is for specific analysis; this gives a laboratory legal authority to examine one parameter - say proteins - and put a certificate, NABL accredited, but not necessarily for all tests. The distinction, however, is not clear to many. Who would consider the laboratory as an accredited one for all tests? So, a better system to set up dedicated food testing laboratories that would carry out all tests is imperative.
The Maggi controversy involves two issues – the presence of lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG). The MSG is not a major issue because many natural food contain considerable amount of glutamate. And if MSG was added, even then it is under self-limiting law, say like salt and sugar.
Analytically, it is impossible to distinguish between added and natural MSG, but if the raw materials are tested regularly, then one would know the baseline. In my view, this is not an issue that can be proved and shown to be a violation. The other contention is lead; but the analysis is incomplete in the absence of a systematic study of other batches from other centres in the case of the current controversy. Where is the comparative analysis and if it exists, why did the FSSAI or the company not share it with the public?
The issue is bigger and broader and a lead survey in foods is needed urgently to take stock of the situation. For a regulator, it is important to double check all the values before a major decision is taken, lest societal scare is generated. Was there a larger analysis all around the country to see a pattern in lead contamination? Like many other issues, the noise will subside after sometimes, but as a regulator, the FSSAI needs to constantly check chemical contaminants, toxins, pathogens and heavy metals in food. This is not being done now, thereby posing a greater risk to the public.
And finally, look at the loss of raw material and food from the national basket as one burnt down stacks of noodles. Somebody made a mistake, but India lost that much raw material. Who would answer for that loss? The crop that farmers grow with their sweat is lost in a battle between the regulator and the manufacturer! One requires an answer to this.
As told to Kalyan Ray
(The writer is former Director of Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysuru and is currently distinguished scientist of CSIR at JSS MVP, Mysuru)