Food safety and the impact of Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006

Sandeep M Nandakumar

A debate on food safety in India is highly necessary but it is all the more confusing as it is not yet resolved whether the food security or the food safety or both is/are the problems that our nation faces today. As regards the problem of food security, the availability of food seems not to be the problem because the problem lies with the public distribution system. Take this as a very subjective opinion, and if you concur with this, it is factually true that the debate should be regarding the quality and safety of the available food. The legislation that dealt with the safety of food was the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954 which has been replaced by the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006. The Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006 is a consolidation of several other central legislations as well. Procedure wise, it is commendable that the new legislation established a single central point authority, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India with its head office at Delhi.

One of the main functions entrusted with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India is to collect and compare statistics with regard to contaminants in food and to identifyemerging risks in food safety in addition to promoting general awareness on food safety. The Act also envisages a system of providing training to persons connected with food business and to create a nation-wide information network to the public especially consumers so as to provide information on food safety. Though it was reported in December 2014 that the year 2015 will witness a nationwide survey to fulfil the above mentioned objectives, it is not sure whether the mission was a success or at least in the right direction.

Evaluating the legislation from a theoretical vantage point, one must feel contented as there are provisions for mandatory registration for small or petty food business operators, licence for other food business operators. But practically one may feel a bit doubtful about the effectiveness of the legislation given the fact that certain provisions are not implemented or at least difficult to implement. Even if one claims that it can be implemented, the monitoring process can be extremely challenging. For example, Section 26(3) of the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006 provides that no food business operator shall employ any person who is suffering from infectious, contagious or loathsome disease. One may easily understand the merit of this provision, but it will work well only if effective monitoring is done by the Food Safety Officers designated under the Act.

At the same time, the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006 is one piece of legislation that can do wonders if proper education is provided not just to consumers but also to certain professionals. An understanding of Section 35 of the statute shows that the legislation may impose a legal duty on the registered medical practitioners in an area to report all incidents of food poisoning coming to their notice to a specified officer.

Section 53 of the Act is the one that was the matter of recent discussion in the media as it deals with penalty for misleading advertisement. According to this section any person who publishes, or is a party to the publication of an advertisement, which falsely describes any food; or is likely to mislead as to the nature or substance or quality of any food or gives false guarantee, shall be liable to a penalty which may extend to ten lakh rupees. The section came up for debate when the authority decided to ban Maggi Noodles as it is unclear whether the actor/actors who endorses the product in advertisements would also be liable. In fact, the section should be a bit more unambiguous in its definition of which all can come under the purview of ‘party to the publication of an advertisement’.  Another point to be noted is that it is not sure whether the limit of 5 Lakh Rupees (Sections 50 and 51) will deter persons from providing sub-standard food or that which is not in conformity with the Act.

Having said that, it seems the government has now decided to seek help from the stakeholders for suggestions to amend the exiting legislation as well. Is this going to be never ending process?