The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) enquiry into Delhi's mustard oil adulteration episode of 1998 had given a clean chit to the 'conspiracy' theory. Hundreds fell violently ill in August that year, with 50 succumbing to death. The erstwhile BJP-led Coalition had ordered the investigation to find out if the adulteration was indeed caused by greedy traders or whether there was a grand conspiracy by transnational interests to drive consumers away from 'loose' oil to packed. Large-scale adulteration of mustard oil with oil extracted from the seeds of the argemone mexicana weed was considered to be responsible for the huge death toll. But health officials are still not convinced that the weed seeds were actually responsible for the deadly dropsy.
The fatalities from dropsy happened at a time when the agribusiness industry was fast moving into the food sector. At that time mustard oil was being freely sold as a loose product and quality of the oil was never doubted. Dropsy forced the consumers to rely more on the packed mustard oil. More recently, the detection of pesticides residues beyond permissible limits in the aerated soft drinks being manufactured by the multinational giants Pepsi and Coke has forced the government to harmonize the national laws in tune with the international obligations.
Despite not being legally binding for any nation, these guidelines have become part of the ongoing negotiations under the World Trade Organization (WTO). The food safety standards therefore have to be harmonized internationally and there is a threat of economic sanctions for those countries which do not move in tandem.
In line with that, the central government has proposed the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2005 (the draft Bill is under circulation for comments), and plans to repeal nine existing food laws and take out food safety from another eight central and state laws. In a country where it isnt easy to shake-up the bureaucratic echelons to take immediate remedial steps in view of the food safety concerns, and where human health has never been accorded top priority, this bill assumes significance.
But the fundamental question remains: why such a tearing hurry to bring in a national legislation and that too without a national debate? Is it aimed at making it easy for the agribusiness industry or is it really for protecting health?
It is true that a majority of the Indian laws on food are outdated and are only meant to exploit the food manufacturers. Thanks to pressure from the agribusiness companies, the Ministry of Food Processing has at least decided to come up with a comprehensive legislation that brings food manufacturing, sale, and safety under a single umbrella. The proposal includes setting up of a National Food Safety and Standards Authority, and provisions for setting up Food Appellate Tribunals at the central and State levels, and a number of scientific panels and committees.
While the professional manner in which the constitution of various committees is spelled out is commendable, what is intriguing is the lack of adequate peoples representation on the proposed National Food Safety and Standards Authority. Only one member each from a consumer organization and agribusiness companies have been slated to be on the Authority. This is grossly unfair. Overstuffed by bureaucrats and also headed by a senior bureaucrat, the government somehow seems to be having too much faith in the capabilities of bureaucrats. There is no space on the authority for the informal food sector. In fact, the proposal does not make any distinction between the two sectors.
Designed more or less on the lines of the European Unions Food Directive 2002, which is also the basis for the ongoing discussions at the Codex Alimentarius (again dominated by the food industry), the proposed food law does not make any distinction between the food products being manufactured by the agribusiness companies and the food products being sold by street hawkers and dhabas that dot the national lifeline. While the general prescriptions and regulations spelled out meet the requirements of the agribusiness companies, the same cannot be blindly applied to the small-time hawkers that provide cheaper food to the working class in the urban centers.
Take the case of the tiffin suppliers in Mumbai, how will the same food safety laws be applied to them? Will it not restrict the manufacture and supply of food that serve millions of poor consumers and office-goers everyday?
The dropsy tragedy eclipsed the sale of 'loose' mustard oil from the market thereby helping the packaged oil industry. Likewise, the objectives of the proposed food laws appear to be directed at eliminating the competition that informal food sector including the dhabas and tiffin carriers pose to the agribusiness companies. As long as food is being sold at such cheap prices, the agribusiness companies will find it difficult to gain a strong foothold in the Indian market.
Let us not forget that the food being offered by the dhabas and the hawkers has generally been found to be more hygienic than what is sometimes offered in the top hotels, where much of the food dishes that are served are usually cooked from frozen foods. There have been several studies on the hygene of food at the informal sector. Recently, a study in Kolkata (used by the UNDP) clearly established this. Still, there is a need to make a distinct provision in the bill to regulate food quality amongst dhabas and hawkers. But dhabas cannot be clubbed with the food chains that the agribusiness companies run.
It is also important that the proposed law takes into consideration not only food safety but also sets up criteria for monitoring the nutritive and human health aspects of the food products being sold. Food safety has often been misconstrued as nutritionally fit. If the junk food being sold through the fast food joints was good for human consumption (i.e., even if it conformed to safety standards) there is no reason that obesity should emerge as the biggest killer worldwide. In the United States, where junk food is a habit, resulting obesity has now emerged as the biggest threat to nations health.
Elsewhere too, the junk food industry (and the sale of colas) has seen the emergence of obesity and related ailments top the health concerns. Such is the extent of malaise that even in Mumbais slums, obesity is fast increasing. The proposed food law is deliberately silent on the hidden food epidemic that is the result of the factory-farmed food that is produced by the agribusiness companies.
This is because the food laws are being prepared by the agribusiness consultants and officials primarily to help these companies and retailers market their produce. For instance, the proposed law states: no person shall manufacture, process, export, import or sell genetically modified articles of food, organic foods, functional foods, neutraceuticals, health supplements etc. except in accordance with the regulations made-there for under this Act. It does not make labeling of genetically modified foods mandatory.
This serious lapse the silence on labeling of food products specifying whether these are genetically modified or not -- is also in tune with the commercial interests of the GM companies. They have been spearheading a global campaign that does not provide the consumers a choice between a normal product and a GM food.
Unlike in the European countries, hotels, restaurants and supermarkets are not the only sources for food consumption in India. Home cooking is the major source of peoples daily food, and therefore regulations on industrialized and preprocessed food alone alone wont do. The proposed law therefore remains a weak instrument to check existing flaws in the food chain.
Along with the framing of such laws what is urgently required is setting up of food quality laboratories. A special financial allocation needs to be made for a network of food laboratories throughout the country. If the standard being floated by the pesticides and fertilizer quality checking labs is any indication, there seems to be little hope.
The challenge before the Ministry of Food Processing is first to build up consumer confidence before embarking on the path to harmonize food laws. At the same time there is an urgent need to step up monitoring of food imports. It is a known secret that much of the agricultural commodities and food imports into India are of poor quality. If quality control mechanisms are not put in place and the focus is not shifting from protecting the commercial interests of the agribusiness companies, the proposed food laws will remain another paper tiger.