Nutrition Meets Food Science

Is “we had a good meeting” or deliberations the basis in rulemaking

Is “we had a good meeting” or deliberations the basis in rulemaking

During the erstwhile PFA regime, food businesses on receiving a draft regulation would respond by first congratulating the Regulator for its laudable effort promptly followed by groans of pain in implementing the same. Thereafter, numerous observations were raised on ambiguous constructs, or “not in Codex” and if so, then not in EU or US FDA”. When everything else failed, the last laments were unrealistic implementation timelines; it still is. Borrowing international texts was the only or sole basis of rulemaking; context and applicability, national agricultural and dietary practices were – and are – wholly ignored. When the science is strong and evidence bears this out, the last resort is of consumer interests. With agenda is prepared on vague and questionable premises, and absence of a strict term of reference (TOR) the going in position is to represent interests. The going away is inevitably “we had a good meeting”.

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“ We had a good meeting” often relates to alleviating fears and providing relief, settling faction led positions, and finding that encompassing solution that pleases most; eminence and high decibel voices dominate, subduing the quite reasoning and assembly of scientific facts. Conclusive statements are typical; “our points were taken into consideration”, “we were heard”, the presiding official “asked for more information”. Relief is largely the outcome; it’s never about reform or following mandated process.

The regulator on its part has tremendously facilitated openness and accessibility. The speed with which regulations now emerge, footfalls in the corridors have soared. This is a relief since the PFA days where nominated members were “intimated” on an approaching sub-committee meeting. What is not forthcoming however is the gain from this dramatic improvement in face time. In spite of the Act requiring the Authority to reach out to a wide spectrum of interested groups during the initiation, preparation and review of rulemaking, all too often it hears mainly from large well‐organized interests.  While it is unlikely that a regulator is “forced” to listen to a particular opinion and alter policy, its must demonstrate its independence by listening to specialized information wherever it resides. It is only specialized and/or pertinent information that is required at deliberations.

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The advanced notice of rulemaking, which the regulator now puts out (e.g. Labelling and Display), signals the start of the consultation period. Consultations cannot include everyone; however communications (i.e. notice) can. All responders may not be called in for consultation; only those providing pertinent and relevant science merit consultation.  A major complaint is that the Regulator can and should be doing a better job of listening to interests of value to the rulemaking process; it is not obliged to take on board all responses. It is however obliged to respond to them. Consultation and deliberation is about value not volume or privilege or accreditation.

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Deliberations are formal settings with predetermined agenda, itemized topics and allotted time.  It is a record of the examination of preliminary facts, scientific evidence, existing adverse situation (supported by data) that requires attention and reasons for and against a measure. The discourse detaches itself from petty comments and distracting interjections.  Irrelevant querying is politely recognized as coming from skimpy information or irrelevant knowledge. Deliberations are not shy of reaching reasoned conclusions.

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There is a fundamental difference between deliberations and the ubiquitous “we had a good meeting”. The good meeting syndrome is about not ‘losing face” and what is consented to in reaching consensus is brushed aside.

We had a good meeting is all that matters; even if what matters may have not been good.

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Joseph Lewis

A Food Regulatory Consultant,
PhD (Tech) at UDCT, Mumbai

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