Inclusive and based on prevention, Thai model of food security can be replicated in India

ArujGarg_BhukkadThe Codex Alimentarius Commission (“CAC”), established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization in 1963, lays down the international standards and model codes about food, food production, and food safety for countries to incorporate in their national legislations. The Codex food safety standards has also been recognised by the World Trade Organization (“WTO”) after the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (“SPS agreement”). Developed in response to the increasing movement of food across international borders and concerns about the absence of standards in some countries where food products had originated, most of these standards relate to the food manufacturing and processing industry.

In India, food safety regimes have, to check compliance with regulatory standards, traditionally relied on inspection of products or the premises of production, after production has been completed. With the new Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (“the Act”), there has been a partial shift towards a methodology where the focus is on prevention. With such a methodology, there will be schemes that rely on quality of the product and standards are tailormade for each organisation based on their operations. This is the foundation of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (“HACCP”) methodology under which all potential hazards in the production process are outlined and an action plan is developed to counter all of those hazards. This involves a deeper understanding of the raw materials used and the various processes for creating the final product. The Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Business) Regulations, 2011 provides guidance on good manufacturing practices such as those for design of premises, quality of materials used for production, and sanitary and personal hygiene norms for employees.

Legal Research AdvertisementThe success of a HACCP-based approach needs firstly, the hiring and training of skilled manpower to document and monitor every aspect of the production process; secondly, investment in systems which ensure the consistent application of standards to avoid the hazards identified beforehand; and thirdly, a firm commitment from the management to adhere to the standards at any cost along with a multi-department effort within the organisation to report any malfunctioning element in the process.

For example, Metro Cash and Carry, which operates numerous wholesale cash-and-carry stores in the country, follows a HACCP approach for their food products. They have a quality department at each store and quality personnel consistently seek reports from every department in the store handling food to analyse their performance and keep a tab on the application of the prescribed standards.

The biggest challenge for small and medium-sized enterprises is to come up with the HACCP plan in the first place. Since these plans require specialised scientific knowledge of food products, most companies rely on external consultants for help in developing them. The World Health Organization (“WHO”) has therefore suggested that the food safety authorities provide food vendors with a basic HACCP plan containing applicable information such as the basic principles of food microbiology, sources of contamination, and transfer of food borne diseases.

There are other novel initiatives that have helped promote food safety and the economic interests of street food vendors. Thailand launched the Clean Food Good Taste Project (“CFGT”) to promote food safety amongst the street food vendors in the country. A CGFT logo marking the CGFT certification on an establishment indicates that the vendor meets the requisite standards for food safety. This system is unique as it uses a multi-agency approach in formulating and implementing the food safety regime with respect to small or street food vendors. Vendors and consumers are able to participate in setting standards and inspections and they are encouraged to set up vendor and consumer associations to disseminate information.

Image above is from Mattmangum's photostream on Flickr and has been published under a CC BY 2.0 license.
Image above is from Mattmangum’s photostream on Flickr and has been published under a CC BY 2.0 license.

The inclusiveness of this project ensures that vendors have adequate information to implement the conditions and consumers, aware of the standards required for a CFGT certified establishment, can even report violations to the authorities. A vendor-training mechanism on good sanitary practices, which equips vendors to incorporate their practices, helps make the project sustainable. A vendor has to opt for a CFGT certification and this helps bring serious individuals and organisations into the process.

The success of the project is rooted in an economic approach, as propagated by the HACCP methodologists, that investments made to adhere to these certifications result in better quality. Product consistency will result in additional gains and will offset the initial investment made to achieve the standards. The Thailand experiment has good potential of being replicated in India. A public-private partnership model to reduce bureaucratic red-tape will help boost consumer confidence and hopefully elevate food safety standards in India.

(Aruj is the Chief Bhukkad at Bhukkad, a natural fast food brand. Bhukkad’s second outlet is opening soon at 80 Feet Road in Koramangala, Bangalore. The previous two posts in this series are here and here.)

Human Rights

Food safety licensing costs will scuttle unorganised food sector

ArujGarg_BhukkadWhen dealing with government authorities, you are often advised to pay a consultant or a tout an amount of money to immediately get your work done without facing any harassment. As the owner of a food business in search of a food safety license, I was also tempted. I made inquiries and the lowest quotation for the food safety license was ten thousand rupees. The statutory cost however, is only one hundred rupees. As I could not afford ten thousand rupees, I had no option but to go through the process myself.

After three weeks of running around six different offices, I finally understood the process. The website of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (“FSSAI”) is very comprehensive but it didn’t offer much practical help. The local municipality, which is the implementing agency, has its own norms. Even though I am a trained lawyer, I faced a lot of trouble in just trying to understand how the law worked. It made me wonder how difficult it must be for others, especially the small operators.

LawSchoolInductionMuniyappa sells dosas in a mobile van at a busy crossing in the Banshankari area of Bangalore. On a good day, he makes a profit of approximately eight hundred rupees. He also pays a cop fifty rupees to allow him to use that junction. He told me that while he was aware of the new food safety law that requires him to get a registered license, he simply could not afford a consultant. The proper process of registration would also require him to shut shop for a few days. Apart from losing money, he might even lose his spot if he did not show up for a few days.

Cost of compliance

The costs to be incurred relate to applying for the license and compliance. Let’s analyse these costs with respect to a small or Petty Food Business (“PFB”), who have to undergo a process of registration and medium-sized enterprises, which have to obtain a ‘license’.

For the average PFB in India such as Muniyappa’s, the costs associated with registration are too high. It is much more cost-efficient for him to pay a bribe upon inspection than to undergo the process of registration. The cost of compliance is also too much for him. People like Muniyappa also cannot arrange for the conditions expected from a PFB under Schedule 4 of the Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses) Regulations, 2011, such as an effective drainage system and the compulsory use of potable water.

To ensure compliance by a PFB, I suggest that the law should provide for a process of spot registration, and also offer training and aid to adhere to the safety guidelines. An online registration exists but is not yet activated in all the states in the country. Even this will not be a viable option for most PFBs in the country, as the process requires the use of computers and the Internet.

For medium-sized enterprises, the compliance costs are the main cause of concern. Very few enterprises truly understand the complexity of the conditions, and the owners are finding it difficult to renovate their premises just to comply with the new law. Some medium-sized enterprises, like those in the manufacturing sector, are required by the provision in Annexure 3 to the Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses) Regulations, 2011to hire experts to oversee the process of production and help them upgrade their facilities and to meet the conditions prescribed under Schedule 4. This is also proving to be difficult, both in terms of talent and in terms of cost.

A sweet shop in Nagarbhavi, near the NLSIU campus at Bangalore, has been in operation for more than eight years now. The owner and the employees have picked up their skills on the job and do not possess any requisite degree to monitor their processes. The requirement of labels under the Food Safety and

Image by Connie Ma, published under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.
Image by Connie Ma, published under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Standards (Packaging and Labeling) Regulations, 2011 will require considerable time, effort, and investment for the unorganised packaged food industry, including the shops that sell ‘local chips’. They neither have the expertise nor the funds to implement such labeling guidelines.

Unprepared for US standards

These examples clearly demonstrate how difficult it is for the unorganised food industry to work under this new law. It has the potential to scuttle the unorganised sector and will benefit the organised food industry and multinational corporations by reducing local competition. These enterprises have the financial muscle to adhere to the conditions and ensure regular compliance with the Act. As a Food Business Operator (“FBO”) under Section 3(o) of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, responsible for compliance under this law, I understand that the conditions stipulated by law are essential for protecting public health. Some of the conditions are critical to ensure food safety and a phased enforcement of these conditions might be a solution. But, as these conditions have been inspired by the ‘hazard analysis and critical control points’ approach to food safety, adopted by organisations like the United States Food and Drug Administration, it will take more time and training for it to be replicated successfully in India. I shall explore these codes in my next post here.

With the infinite number of food vendors in this country, the current administrative setup is woefully inadequate to implement a law with such an exhaustive list of conditions fairly and effectively. To make the intention of this law a reality, dedicated food zones need to be created, where vendors of all sizes can set up shop without worrying about the physical infrastructure to facilitate their business. Otherwise, the writing is on the wall for most food vendors in this country.

(Aruj is the Chief Bhukkad at Bhukkad, a natural fast food brand. Bhukkad’s second outlet is opening soon at 80 Feet Road in Koramangala, Bangalore.)

Human Rights

The unrealistic food safety law

ArujGarg_BhukkadThe deadline to register with the food safety authority was fast approaching. Numerous advertisements in the radio and the print media emphasised how this was the ‘last last day’ to apply. No more extensions would be granted. As the proprietor of Bhukkad, a small eatery at the NLSIU campus in Bangalore, I knew the time had come to register Bhukkad with the local municipality and be a part of the formal legal process. The Food Safety Officer in my area shot a passing glance at my documents, looked me straight in the eye and enquired matter-of-factly about ‘office expenses’. No inspection, no questions asked, he added.

In August 2006, India adopted a new food safety regime with the enactment of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (“the Act”). The Act, which has caused immense confusion among the various stakeholders in the food industry, consolidates several laws dealing with food safety. In a three-part article here, I will present an analysis of the new law from the perspective of small and medium food enterprises.

The term used in the Act to describe a food vendor is ‘Food Business Operator’ (“FBO”). The smaller food establishments, called ‘Petty Food Manufacturer’ or ‘Petty Food Business’ (“PFB”) need to go through a simple process of ‘registration’, which only requires an application fee of Rs. 100. Other establishments need to obtain a license from the state or central authority depending on the nature of the activity and their categorisation in the Schedules under the Act. In such cases, the process is much longer and it is more likely that there will be a physical inspection of the premises.

For me, the most significant part of the Act is that it brings petty food vendors and sellers under the purview of the food safety law through the expansive definition of the term ‘Food Business Operator’. It includes hawkers, small-scale manufacturers, itinerant manufacturers (vendors and temporary stall holders), and distributors of food at religious or social gatherings, or any small-scale business or a food industry with a turnover below Rs. 12,00,000. A majority of these vendors are part of the unorganised sector and cater to a large section of Indian society. The term covers the itinerant food vendors from whom you buy golgappas, chats, and momos and all those enterprises and individuals that come in direct or indirect contact with food including kirana store owners and transporters who merely facilitate resale.

The end of street food?

ChatwallahRegistration as a petty food business operator requires adherence to a long list of conditions of sanitation and hygiene as contained in Schedule 4 of the Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses Regulations, 2011 and the failure to comply with these conditions can lead to penal liability. Though enough notice has been given for these regulations, small businesses, especially street vendors, are definitely not prepared for this legislation. At the moment, they have two options: either close the establishment or grease the palms of inspecting officials to stay in business.

The harsh reality is that food safety standards in India are quite low. Even consumers often appreciate the low cost of food over food safety standards. If these establishments adhered strictly with the licensing conditions, the price advantage would cease. The willingness to comply with these rules is therefore low. Combined with the discretion given to the Food Safety Officer who is from the local municipality, this is a breeding ground for a lot of corruption and harassment. The conditions are drafted so loosely that the inspecting officer can easily reject or revoke an application or license.

These conditions relating to food safety hold the potential to improve and standardise hygiene and sanitation across the food industry. To achieve this object however, apart from implementing the law, the concerned authority should train PFBs in the law. For example, water-related diseases may reduce with the requirement that all operators should use potable water. However, there is no information about what constitutes potable water. An itinerant biryani seller near my house pointed to the nearest tap as his source of water. He does not understand the concept of potable water for he himself drinks water from the nearest hand pump. Secondly, with the high amount of dust and pollution in the environment, it will be very difficult for PFBs to clear the scrutiny of the food safety officials. So even though this is a well-intentioned legislation, it can sound the death knell for numerous small food businesses.

The Act can also have a significant impact with respect to packaged foods. The labeling requirements have been made stringent and all information relating to the product, which affects a human being, must be printed on the product. The Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labeling) Regulations, 2011 have comprehensively laid out requirements such as those for labeling of ingredients and nutritional information. Importantly, consumers can now look forward to uniform label patterns across different product categories. The Act has the potential ensure that food manufacturers and traders follow a consistent standard for food safety throughout the process of food delivery from the source to the end consumer if regular inspections are carried out by the concerned officials. The possibility of adulterated or sub-standard food being served can also reduce to a large extent if tests are carried out regularly at in-house laboratories or Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (“FSSAI”) accredited laboratories as mandated by the regulations stipulated in Schedule 4 of the Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses Regulations, 2011.

The Act is a classic case of implementing the law without understanding the ground reality. In the current form, the unorganised sector will get severely affected and a number of livelihoods lost. I shall explore more about this in the second part of this article.

(Aruj is the Chief Bhukkad at Bhukkad, a natural fast food brand.)