Food laws are not a recent phenomenon; they existed in some form in the most ancient cultures. As early as 375 BC, Chanakya in his ‘Arthashastra’ writes about food adulteration and punishments. Before independence, Indian provinces had their own acts and rules; for example the Bengal Food Adulteration Act (1919), Bombay Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1925; Madras Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1918, the Punjab Pure Food Act 1929 etc. These laws were based on the British Food and Drug Act 1892 designed to prevent economic deception and fraud; the Prevention of Food Adulteration 1954 is one such law of independent India. Food adulteration laws are essentially enforcing product quality standards, which are of not safety standards. Economic fraud alone – as with adulteration acts – cannot be its sole purpose, ignoring the larger issue of safety and health. So what kind of law is required to protect the consumers?Image via iStock.com/JulijaDmitrijeva
Too late to test . . .
If the food is unsafe, then placing tens of thousands of packages in the market and then testing them for safety – as is being done – makes no sense. It’s too late to test. Tens of thousands of units would have been distributed nationally. Unsafe food can cause illness from harmful microbial contaminations. Consumer protection pivots on the premise ‘unsafe food should not be placed on the market’ by strictly monitored preventive measures overseeing production and processing.
Food scares . . . really?
Consumers must know that food scares are not the same as food borne illness. The World Health Organisation noted many food scares often present little or no risk but the sensational and dramatic news coverage that precipitate consumers’ unreasoned reaction. Unless the regulator communicates forthrightly and effectively, consumer confidence in the Indian food industry will be damaged. India in recent times too has experienced food scares blown out of proportion. When the Regulator remains silent at the time of crisis, it is often construed as compliance to media reports. Laws are now made to strengthen the regulator’s ability to communicate the true nature of the risk in a food scare in a scientifically authoritative way; allaying unnecessary consumer fears.Image via iStock.com/JulijaDmitrijeva
From marketplace to supply chain
Modern food safety laws began in the early 2000’s with several countries realizing that testing in the marketplace is too late, especially when the food is infected with pathogenic bacteria. To achieve a realistic food safety control system, hazards e.g. microbiological hazards such as salmonella, etc. must be identified (hazard identification) and reduced (risk assessment) along the entire food chain as a policy – including primary production. So the regulatory policy has shifted from “testing at the marketplace” to “safety of the food chain”. The latter is a science-based law.
India’s new food law, the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 (FSSA) is modelled on the risk analysis (science-based) framework, though it excludes primary production, possibly for political considerations. With such a law backing the regulator – consumers can expect protection from unsafe food and food scares.