Spice Wars: India’s food regulator must step up to beat export bans
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) need to take proactive approach to enhance the credibility of Indian food products globally. Singapore and Hong Kong have banned two popular Indian spice makers. File photo

Spice Wars: India’s food regulator must step up to beat export bans

By elevating regulatory standards, FSSAI can ensure that Indian food products are safe for domestic consumption and meet the stringent safety criteria abroad

Last week, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), a statutory body meant to regulate and supervise the safety of Indian food products, announced after conducting several tests that it found no traces of ethylene oxide (ETO), a carcinogenic compound, in MDH and Everest branded spices.

The investigation follows the ban of spice products from these two companies by Singapore and Hong Kong. Late last week, Nepal also banned the sale of some mixed spice products from these brands.

Global concerns

According to Reuters, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is investigating products from the two popular brands for potentially containing the pesticide. According to media reports, the European Union has also raised concerns after discovering the same cancer-causing substance in chilli peppers and peppercorns samples.

The ban's impact has been so profound that a survey by LocalCircles, a community social media platform, showed that one in three households in India is inclined to avoid buying spice from these two companies. The survey received over 24,000 responses from consumers located in 293 districts of India.

Evolving FSSAI

Interestingly, while several food product companies in India are decades old, there was no dedicated food safety regulator before the FSSAI was set up in 2011. Until then, various acts and laws related to food safety were administered by various Union ministries. The key acts in place prior to the FSSAI included the Vegetable Oil Products (Control) Order, 1947; Vegetable Oil Products (Control) Order, 1947; Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954; Fruit Products Order, 1955; and the Meat Food Products Order, 1973.

The Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006 was passed to consolidate these different laws and establish a centralised authority - the FSSAI - to manage food safety regulations in the country. The FSSAI was set up under the leadership of then Union minister Anbumani Ramadoss to ensure proper monitoring of food hygiene and quality in India.

A larger problem

Hence, the relatively young FSSAI is still a work in progress, which means that several gaps in its regulatory framework show up whenever incidents like the ban on spice products come up for scrutiny.

This time around, though, it is a much larger problem than what FSSAI wants us to believe.

Spice industry

India's spice industry is a global powerhouse, exporting over 200 spices to some 180 countries, with an export value of $4 billion. Domestically, the market is worth $10 billion, making India the world's largest consumer of spices. Hence, as the LocalCircles survey shows, even a whiff of the ban can impact the exports of spices from India as well as domestic consumption.

At the same time, compliance with safety standards in India is not easy, especially for small and medium industries. Of the 2.5 million food and beverage manufacturing MSMEs, around 2.3 million belong to the unregistered sector. The unregistered food processing sector employs 5.1 million workers, constituting 14.18 per cent of employment in the unregistered manufacturing sector.

Small-scale sector

In contrast, the food processing industry in the registered factory sector engages only around 2.03 million people.

Hence, the food processing industry is dominated by small-scale, unorganised players, with only a small portion coming from the registered factory sector. Therefore, their ability to comply with regulatory requirements becomes difficult as they may not have enough resources at their command to do so.

Some difficulties

Food Business Operators, especially small and medium-scale industries, find it difficult to identify relevant procedural and compliance changes and lack the capacity to track regulatory changes.

Medium-scale food businesses may struggle with the costs associated with compliance, such as testing and analysis of food products. This financial burden can hinder their ability to meet all regulatory standards, leading to compliance challenges.

Few testing labs

There are also certain overlapping and residual standards maintained by other regulatory bodies like BIS, leading to lack of clarity on compliance requirements for producers. Also, India has a limited number of food testing laboratories compared to population, with lack of uniformity in testing methods and shortage of qualified personnel.

Most food testing laboratories lack state-of-the-art infrastructure and require upgrades to meet international standards. There is a limited number of Food Safety Officers and lack of capacity in the state food and drug administration hinders enforcement efforts.

Other issues

Effective implementation of food safety regulations is challenging due to the vast and complex nature of the Indian food industry, ranging from small street vendors to large corporations.

Tracing ingredients, especially raw agricultural commodities, is difficult due to lack of standardised recordkeeping and intentional food fraud. This undermines the safety of the entire supply chain. Small and medium businesses lack resources to implement robust traceability systems, making it harder to assess risks of raw materials.

The challenges

Therefore, while India has made progress in aligning its food safety regulations with international standards, challenges remain in ensuring consistent compliance across the diverse food industry due to regulatory complexity, lack of awareness, infrastructure gaps and resource constraints. Overcoming these challenges requires collaborative efforts between the government, industry and consumers.

To ensure global acceptance of Indian food products, the FSSAI should expand testing protocols to detect a wider range of contaminants, including ETO, using advanced technologies for accuracy.

Transparency needed

Strengthening compliance through intensified inspections, unannounced audits and a robust tracking system is crucial. Enhancing transparency by issuing clear, updated guidelines based on scientific research and international standards will help stakeholders adhere to safety practices. Investing in research to find safer sterilisation methods and collaborating with international organisations will integrate global best practices.

What is more important is that the FSSAI should give incentives if any of the small-scale producers voluntarily send their food products for testing which ensures that there is all around compliance with the regulatory framework.

Pro-active approach

By elevating its regulatory standards, the FSSAI can ensure that Indian food products, particularly spices, are safe for domestic consumption and meet the stringent safety criteria of international markets. This proactive approach will enhance the credibility of Indian food products globally, fostering greater acceptance and trust among international consumers.
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