July 5, 2024


Should the FSSAI be replaced?

The past several months haven’t been good for the Indian food industry, particularly the packaged food sector. Excess sugar in baby cereals, harmful chemicals and pesticides in spices. These are just a couple of controversies food safety authorities have had to deal with.

Everyone naturally looks to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) for answers. However, they’ve come under fire for not properly implementing food safety standards. If India is to overhaul its food safety framework, should the FSSAI be replaced or be bolstered with changes?


Food regulation and safety in India can be traced back to 1954 when the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act (PFA) was enacted. The law was amended three times in the decades ahead. Modern food safety and regulation in India is a relatively new concept. The Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA) was introduced only in 2006. It replaced and consolidated several food-related laws and regulations.

Thanks to the FSSA, we have the FSSAI as the apex regulatory body responsible for ensuring food safety and regulating their manufacturing, storage, and sales. It was set up in 2008. The FSSA was last amended in 2021 to expand its scope.

In a country as large and diverse as India, keeping up with food safety can be an uphill climb. Several developing economies face some inherent issues with food safety. For starters, outside of urban zones, getting a safe and nutritious meal can be a luxury.

Food manufacturing and processing facilities often lack the proper infrastructure and resources. It’s part of the reason why there are an estimated 100 million foodborne illnesses in India every year, resulting in an average of 1.2 lakh deaths.

Over the years, things have gotten worse from a food safety standpoint. A 2022 review by the FSSAI found a significant increase in food adulteration cases. In 2012, it was 15%. That increased to 28% in 2019.

This happens for a few reasons. First, manufacturers sometimes skirt registration requirements they’re legally obligated to meet. In other instances, companies find it hard to trace their ingredients, especially agricultural commodities. It’s especially true for small and medium-sized businesses that don’t have high profit margins. Most of these companies, big or small, are focused on lowering costs to maximise their revenues.

It’s probably why we see instances like the MDH and Everest spice saga, which came to the fore because Singapore and Hong Kong banned it after allegedly detecting the carcinogenic pesticide ethylene oxide. In April, the European Food Safety Authority released a report that stated turmeric, chilli, peppercorn, and dried beans from India contained ethylene oxide. Cumin seeds and rice samples exceeded the pesticide residue limit.

It’s not a good look for India or the food regulator. With consumers left to pay the price, has the FSSAI failed in its objectives?

VIEW: An overhaul needed

The FSSAI has been under the gun for being lax on several occasions. It took foreign authorities to bring to light some of the harmful substances found in the food and ingredients that millions of Indians consume regularly. In the past, the FSSAI has initiated criminal and civil proceedings against errant businesses. What didn’t happen was letting the consumers know which food items were contaminated and by which brand.

The FSSAI’s 2021-22 report didn’t mention anything related to product recalls or cancelling food licenses. Those are established global practices. That means a brand selling a snack unsafe for consumption could continue to sell it after paying a penalty. The Maggi example is indicative of this. The FSSAI asked Nestle to recall the instant noodles brand due to the excessive lead it found. A petition filed to reverse the ban on Maggi by Nestle in the Bombay High Court went in its favour. Four months later, Maggi was back on store shelves after testing showed it was safe.

The Maggi scandal is probably the only one where a company and its brand were named and shamed. But otherwise, consumers are left out in the cold. Consumer rights advocates say the regulatory approach is reactive rather than proactive.

COUNTERVIEW: Kept up with the times

The food and agricultural ecosystem is dynamic, and the importance of safety can’t be overstated. In less than a decade, the food and agricultural sector in India has boomed. Everything from food, dairy, and meat has shown remarkable growth. The FSSAI, for its part, has been working to keep up. It has worked extensively to build and update its regulatory and oversight infrastructure.

It has increased the number of testing and referral labs from 12 in 2014 to 22 in 2023. The number of scientific panels in FSSAI has increased from 9 in 2013 to 21. It now covers a wide range of product categories, ranging from cereals to dairy to fruits & vegetables, and meat and fish. It even looks into food additives and genetically modified organisms.

It has been more proactive of late in the wake of several reports of lapses by companies and brands. It has revoked the licenses of 111 spice producers over the past month. That number could rise as the FSSAI continues to test 4,000 samples from across the country. More recently, it has begun cracking down on protein powder brands after its study showed false and misleading information on their packaging.

Reference Links:

  • Why India struggles to keep its food safe – The Economic Times
  • Activists call out FSSAI for increasing permissible level of pesticides in Indian herbs, spices – Down to Earth
  • FSSAI Says Reports on Increased Permissible Pesticide Levels in Spices ‘False, Malicious’ – The Wire
  • Regulating food standards: Food safety laws in India are sufficient but lacking in enforcement – The Tribune
  • FSSAI cracks down on protein supplements over health risks and misleading claims – The Hindustan Times
  • India’s food safety regulator has changed approach, set global standards – Business Standard

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) The FSSAI should be replaced.

b) The FSSAI shouldn’t be replaced.


For the Right:

A rational ayurveda

For the Left:

Colonial corrosion: Decolonising Indian science