Regulatory issues are a key area of concern for both investors and trade in food businesses. To ensure transparency, consistency and predictability of business environment, the food regulatory ecosystem has to be based on the principle of One Nation, One Food Law. This requires two things- a nationwide law plus consistent implementation of this law in every part of the country. A uniform national law, the Food Safety and Standards Act,is now in place.However, despite a single nationwide Act, implementation across individual states and UTs remains fragmented and inconsistent, which has been an area of deepconcern.
The reason behind fragmented implementation across individual states and UTs can be traced largely to legacy issues. The Food Safety and Standards Act was enacted in 2006 by consolidating 9 existing food safety legislations spread across numerous Ministries and Departments. The FSS Act marked a paradigm shift in policy, moving from mere prevention of adulteration to a more holistic approach of ensuring safe and wholesome food. Ideally, implementation of this entirely new philosphy should have been built on a fresh foundation, with resources aligned to the new policy. In reality, the erstwhile employees and institutional structures were cobbled together under the new system, resulting in several legacy issues e.g. each state having its own individual structure (often spread across different departments and Ministries), employees from the old regime with mindset issues as they were essentially enforcement oriented and differing priorites across states. The result has been fragmented and weak systems and structures in many State Food Authorities. Given the clarity of the policy intent viz. to ensure safe and wholesome food to every Indian citizen, it was imperative to create a unifying implementation framework.
In the past year, FSSAI has taken a number of systematic steps to create just such a unifying framework. The objective is to ensure consistent implementation of the law across every state and UT in India.. FSSAI has concentrated its efforts in 6 major areas:
1. Establishing globally benchmarked food product standards.
2. Consistent enforcement of the law across all States and Union Territories.
3. Facilitate hassle free food imports
4. Assure credible food testing through a robust lab network.
5. Encourage globally benchmarked food safety practices and processes.
6. Large scale training and capacity building of food businesses.
Food product standards are set centrally by FSSAI, which also codifies food safety practices and notifies various regulations to be followed. The actual implementation is then done primarily through states and UTs. Between the years 2011 to 2017, much of the work related to the setting of standards and aligning them to global norms has been completed by FSSAI; now regular revisions and updations are an ongoing process.
The focus of FSSAI in recent times has been on ensuring consistency in enforcement across States and UTs. Towards this end, a systematic 2 pronged approach has been adopted, which would have far-reaching implications. First, a single nationwide manual for Food Safety Officers has been created. The manual documents functional content, as well as 10 points for ethical behavior by FSOs to bring about a much-needed change in mindset. A nationwide systematic training program for regulatory staff has also been initiated. Secondly, in an innovative and extremely effective use of technology, a digital inspection platform has been created for use by all states and UTs. This system, called Food Safety Compliance through Regular Inspections and Sampling (FoSCoRIS,)has been designed to replace manual inspection being practiced today, with digital inspections. It can be used on handheld devices like mobile phones and tablets by food safety regulatory staff. Food Safety Commissioners of the State can monitor inspections LIVE.For transparency and consistency, standard inspection checklists have been prepared and would be available in the public domain.FoSCoRIS is a game changer, as it would ensure a consistent experience to food businesses, thereby building confidence in the regulatory systems.
In alignment with the government’s policy of digital India, the power of technology has been harnessed in other areas also to ensure standardization, efficiency and transparency. A Food Regulatory Portal, a friendly portal for food businesses is being launched on 2nd November 2017. The Food Regulatory Portal is a unique and comprehensive full service platform for food businesses, to cater to both domestic opersations and food imports.The portal hosts multiple IT platforms at one point to facilitate food businesses and reduce compliance burden. Notable among these are a fully online licensing and registration system(FLRS) and an online food import system fully integrated with customs. Other major steps taken towards bringing One Nation, One Food Law into practice include a nationwide integrated network connecting all food testing labs on a single technology platform through InFoLNet. This would ensure standardization and transparency in food testing. To demystify standards, Indian Food Standards-Quick access (IFS QA) system collates and catalogues vertical and horizontal Indian food standards on a single platform where a user can access all information relating to product standards at a glance.
While, FSSAI is the principal regulatory authority for food, six other agencies are also involved for specific purposes. To ensure a single point of information for all food related business compliances, the Food Regulatory Portal also hosts important information and links to other national agencies in the food safety ecosystem such as Legal Metrology, Customs, Plant and Animal Quarantine, Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) and AGMARK.
Further, to facilitate trade and investment through a quick resolution of inter-agency issues in the food regulatory space, a dedicated institutional Coordination Mechanism for easing food safety regulatory compliances is being created in the form of a high level inter-ministerial committee, which would speed up and sort out such issues, and rationalise overlapping requirements and address other gaps in the system. This institutional mechanism would also serve as an integrated greivance redressal mechanism across food regulatory agencies.
FSSAI has thus been making systematic efforts aimed towards laying a solid foundation for uniform implementation of the food law, thereby creating a stable environment for food businesses.