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From Farm to Fork: On World Food Safety Day

  • 12 Jun 2024

Introduction: Understanding Food Safety

Food safety is a scientific discipline focused on the proper handling, preparation, and storage of food to prevent foodborne illnesses. It is closely linked to nutrition and food security, as unsafe food can lead to a cycle of disease and malnutrition, impacting both infants and adults. Pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi can be transmitted through food, potentially causing illness or death.

In developed countries, stringent standards regulate food preparation, whereas in less developed nations, there are fewer standards and weaker enforcement.

World Food Safety Day, celebrated on June 7, 2024, highlighted food safety incidents. This year's theme highlights the importance of being prepared for food safety incidents, no matter how severe they may be.

Food safety, nutrition, and food security are inseparable pillars of global well-being. Each year, nearly 600 million people, almost one-tenth of the world's population, fall prey to foodborne illnesses, resulting in approximately 420,000 fatalities and the loss of 33 million healthy life years (DALYs).

The economic toll is staggering, with low- and middle-income countries bearing a heavy burden of $110 billion annually due to decreased productivity and heightened medical expenses from unsafe food practices. Shockingly, children under 5 years old shoulder 40% of the foodborne disease burden, suffering 125,000 deaths yearly.

Beyond the immediate health consequences, foodborne diseases place immense strain on healthcare systems and hinder socio economic development, casting shadows over national economies, tourism, and trade.

Food Safety: Unravelling Challenges

  1. Corrupt Practices in the FMCG Industry: The Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) sector often violates labelling requirements regarding product ingredients. A notable example is the Maggie noodles ban due to alleged high levels of lead and MSG.
  2. Complex Compliance Requirements: Producers must navigate both Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA) and BIS (Bureau of Indian Standards ) or AGMARK (Agricultural Marketing) standards, which are aligned with international criteria but complicated by state-level regulations.
  3. High Risk of Foodborne Diseases: Low- and middle-income countries face the highest risk of foodborne diseases due to unsafe water, poor hygiene, inadequate food production and storage, and insufficient food safety legislation.
  4. Pervasive Adulteration: The extensive and widespread adulteration of food products, including milk, spices, and edible oils, poses a significant threat to food safety in India.
  5. Information Gaps: Small and medium-scale Food Business Operators (FBOs) struggle with unclear and frequently updated regulations.
  6. Urban-Rural Disparity: Food safety awareness is primarily urban, leaving rural consumers underserved.
  7. Limited Public Awareness: A large portion of the Indian population remains unaware of proper food safety practices, including handling, storage, and hygiene. Overuse of pesticides and fruit-ripening agents in agriculture, which can cause cancer, exemplifies this issue.
  8. Insufficient Infrastructure and Resources: The domain of food safety standards in India faces challenges due to a shortage of laboratories, trained personnel, and the necessary funds for regular and stringent food inspections.
  9. Weak Enforcement and Accountability: Enforcement of food safety regulations in India is frequently lax. Numerous food businesses operate without proper licences and consistently compromise safety standards.
  10. Globalisation of Food Supply Chains: The increased complexity of global food supply chains heightens the risks of contamination and foodborne outbreaks. As food crosses international borders, robust international cooperation and standards are essential to manage these risks effectively.

Declining Food Safety Standards Across Indian States

The 2022-23 State Food Safety Index (SFSI), created by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), highlights a concerning decline in food safety standards across many Indian states. Since the inception of this evaluation in 2018-19, food safety scores have consistently decreased over the past five years.

Major Findings from SFSI: The index reveals a substantial drop in scores for several key states, including major food industry centres like Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Andhra Pradesh, with their scores nearly halved. Only Punjab showed a significant improvement.

Areas of Concern: The most concerning decline is in the area of “Food Testing Infrastructure,” suggesting that state enforcement capabilities to ensure food safety are weakening. Furthermore, compliance measures, which include licensing and inspections, also saw lower scores, indicating a reduction in regulatory adherence.

Consequences of Institutional Weakness: This decline persists despite government initiatives to support the food-processing industry, such as the production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme, which aims to boost export potential and address infrastructure deficiencies like inadequate cold storage facilities.

Safeguarding Food: Global and Indian Regulatory Responsibilities

Globally, several key organisations are responsible for establishing food safety standards and guidelines:

  • World Health Organization (WHO): Provides international leadership on public health, including food safety.
  • Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): Works with countries to improve food safety and set international standards.

In India, the primary responsibility for food safety lies with:

  • FSSAI: The main regulatory body that sets food safety standards, oversees compliance, and addresses food safety issues.
  • Ministry of Health and Family Welfare: Provides oversight and support for food safety policies and regulations.
  • State Food Safety Authorities: Implement and enforce food safety regulations at the state level, conducting inspections and ensuring local compliance.

These organisations work together to ensure that food safety standards are maintained, protecting public health and ensuring safe food consumption.

Despite challenges, significant progress has been made in enhancing food safety globally, regionally, and nationally. Key initiatives and developments include:

  • The Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC): Created by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), the CAC establishes international food standards, guidelines, and codes of practice to safeguard consumer health and ensure equitable food trade practices.
  • Technology and Innovation: Advances in technology, such as blockchain, DNA sequencing, and rapid detection methods, are revolutionising food safety by enabling faster and more accurate detection of contaminants and tracing the origin of food products.
  • Public Awareness and Education: Public awareness campaigns, educational programs, and community engagement initiatives play a crucial role in promoting food safety practices, empowering consumers to make informed choices, and holding food producers accountable.
  • Regulatory Harmonisation: Efforts to harmonise food safety regulations and standards across countries and regions facilitate trade, reduce barriers to market access, and enhance the consistency and effectiveness of food safety measures.

The Tata-Cornell Institute (TCI) is currently examining India's food safety regulations to improve legislation, implementation, coverage, and address existing challenges by advocating for upgrades and enhanced cooperation among relevant stakeholders.

Recommendations by TCI:

  • Clarify Responsibilities: Integrate BIS and AGMARK standards into the FSSA, and define mandatory vs. voluntary requirements and roles of FSSAI, BIS, and the Directorate of Marketing and Inspection (DMI).
  • Develop Resources: Increase the number of laboratories, upgrade infrastructure, and delegate more responsibilities to private labs.
  • Training Programs: FSSAI and academic organisations should create training programs to build expertise in food safety.
  • Simplify Regulations: Streamline regulations for FBOs to make them unambiguous and clear.
  • Emphasise Hygiene: Promote basic hygiene practices like frequent handwashing and wearing gloves among food handlers.
  • Public Awareness Campaigns: Collaborate with other ministries to educate the public about workplace, farm, and household hygiene and safe pesticide use, particularly in rural areas.
  • Increase Consumer Demand: Encourage consumers to demand safe foods, driving compliance from industry, producers, and food handlers.

Conclusion

Progress to ensure food safety has been made globally through international standards, technological advancements, and public education. However, the decline in food safety standards in Indian states highlights the need for improved regulations and infrastructure. Challenges like foodborne illnesses, global supply chain complexities, and food fraud require ongoing vigilance and innovation.

The Tata-Cornell Institute's recommendations for clearer regulations, better resources, and increased awareness can enhance food safety in India. Collaborative efforts and technological advancements are key to overcoming food safety challenges and building a trustworthy food system.

Reference Articles:

  1. https://foscos.fssai.gov.in/
  2. https://www.who.int/health-topics/food-safety#tab=tab_2
  3. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/food-safety
  4. https://www.fao.org/food-safety/background/qa-on-food-safety/en/
  5. https://www.cdc.gov/food-safety/prevention/index.html
  6. https://www.who.int/campaigns/world-food-safety-day/2024
  7. https://openknowledge.fao.org/items/7574e000-d051-4ab9-977c-1c06d5ad5cba
  8. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/social-sciences/food-safety
  9. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/food/food-standards-save-lives-say-fao-and-who-on-world-food-safety-day-89892
  10. https://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/food-wine/world-food-safety-day-2023-date-history-significance-theme-8648772/
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