“We can offer self-compliance as an economic rationale for food businesses”
Rita Teaotia, Chairperson, FSSAI, talks to TPCI about the body’s major priority areas and how it is handling the complex challenge of ensuring food safety in India, especially due to the large organised sector and non-uniformity of regulation across states.
TPCI: FSSAI is now in existence over the past 10 years. How has the organisation evolved, what has it accomplished so far, and what are the key agenda points going forward?
Rita Teaotia: It’s been almost a decade since we started our journey under the FSSAI Act. The broad brush regulations and the framework are in place. What I think the focus will be on in the coming years is on strengthening the enforcement and surveillance systems that we have. That means adding human resources, both at the Centre and the State; making sure that we are going in a systematic way on high risk products on the surveillance part. So this piece on the enforcement and surveillance will be much more focused, risk-based and targeted to high risk commodities. The second aspect is testing of food products. Although we now have a network of around 266 accredited laboratories, the capacities of these must be expanded to test the full gamut of food products. We have certain labs with the state governments, which have not yet achieved NABL accreditation. This year, it is mandatory for everyone to do it. We have given financial support through basic and high-end equipment, bio-testing, etc. All that is also being provided to the states. At the same time they must have the human resources and be operational.
For testing on the spot and some bit of confidence building among consumers and industries, we have provided ‘Food safety on Wheels’. As of now, 42 are already in the field, but we will ramp these numbers up as the utilization grows. Food safety on Wheels is equipped for rapid testing of food products as well as for outreach efforts, education levels, awareness and some level of training. So on the testing front, this is largely what we would support.
The third bit perhaps could be the capacity building. We have created a FOSTAC programme, which provides training courses to food businesses so they can move towards more improved self-compliance. But while the partners are now in excess of 200, the universe is so large that this is a continuous process. In some states it’s taken on well, but we expect FOSTAC to be a big driver towards self-compliance by the players.
We have also taken up a lot of initiatives that were industry and consumer facing, but more consumer facing, like Eat Right Campuses and various awareness initiatives. The frameworks are in place. Deepening them and taking them across the country is the way forward.
TPCI: Of late, a lot of fast food chains and processed food items have become popular across the length and breadth of the country. Given their magnanimous presence, how is FSSAI taking the Eat Right Campaign forward?
Rita Teaotia: The Eat Right India movement is being helmed by FSSAI as a crucial preventive healthcare measure to trigger social and behavioural change through a judicious mix of regulatory measures, combined with soft interventions for ensuring awareness and capacity building of food businesses and citizens alike. It focuses heavily on consumer awareness through different mediums to promote safe, healthy and sustainable food. This movement covers three broad themes including:
- Eat Safe: Ensuring food safety through personal and surrounding hygiene, safe food practices and combating adulteration.
- Eat Healthy: Ensuring healthy diets by promoting balanced diets, fortified foods and limiting intake of salt, sugar and fat
- Eat Sustainable: Ensuring sustainable food production by promoting local, seasonal food, water conversation, minimizing food waste and plastic use.
Taking the Eat Right message across the country has to be a multi-pronged approach, because there are different groups of stakeholders. Eating safe is actually about personal habits – how you are keeping yourself and your surroundings hygienic. How is the food preparation, both at home and in the food businesses? How do you tackle the problems of adulteration?
How do you eat healthy? We are talking about wholesome diets. Most regulators don’t talk about them, but we are doing a lot of that. There is a focus on eating wholesome and eating fortified products (because micro-nutrient deficiencies afflict more than 70% of our population. You will see in the campaign with Rajkumar Rao that will talk about eating less of sugar, less of salt, less of oil.
The third aspect on sustainability talks about consuming local foods, eating in season, reducing wastage, ensuring there is distribution where there is waste, etc. So these are the three big planks. We are undertaking a lot of measures to take this forward.
One piece is the outreach kind of programmes. We are leveraging big influencers in our promotional films. We are pushing Eat Right campaign in campuses, jails, cantonments, railway stations, etc – any confined area.
In addition, we also have large scale movements like the Swasth Bharat Yatra that we did around a year and a half ago. You can’t do that all the time but in focused and hard form, Eat Right melas are happening across the country carry that message forward and the scale of that forward. Then we have created resources. These are training resources both within FSSAI and easily accessible to people and also IC resources through our website and media library that are easily downloadable. We have also created books like the dart book for detection of adulteration, the pink book on eating right at home, the yellow book on eating right at schools, etc. These are not just feel good resources, but they are designed and written by experts in simple layman language so that they become more accessible. We have a series of these, for hospitals, homes, campuses, etc. So creating these resources and training tools are all the elements that go towards the Eat Right.
TPCI: How is FSSAI looking to collaborate with food aggregators like Zomato and Swiggy, considering they have a number of restaurants on their platform?
Rita Teaotia: In fact we are looking at the way modern food businesses are. With e-commerce platforms like Zomatos and Swiggys, direct selling agents do not have a place. Considering the various other kinds of ways in which food is being produced and sold, we are looking at how we can regulate this. But on the specific question of food-tech platforms, I think that they weren’t clear how food safety standards apply to them. But as someone who is ensuring food availability to a consumer, you are part of this value chain. So you definitely do get covered, both for responsibility and for regulation. The good part about it is that they have begun to insist that all the restaurants on their platform are licensed. They were not bothered about this earlier and they did have unlicensed people on their platform. Happily, they are also beginning to ask for the hygiene ratings. And they are saying that they will display them. I think this is all positive, because a very large number of restaurants are on their platforms. So if they work as a persuader and it is an economic persuasion, I think that it is a good measure. We found them very positive and constructive in their approach.
TPCI: According to media reports, a proposal regarding regulation of export assignments and liberalisation measures to help cos set up businesses more quickly has been in the pipeline. What progress has been made in this regard?
Rita Teaotia: When the FSSAI was set up, the act specifically excluded exports. Now ten years later there is definitely a rationale for integrating the whole thing. After all imports must meet the domestic standards. Exports must at least meet the domestic and then the front facing standards of the country where they are being supplied to. Having said that I would like to add that the level of rejections that India faced in the past has definitely come down in the last decade. And my strong belief is that it has come down because we export around 10% of what we produce. If you comply with the domestic standards and they are harmonized with the global standards as our standards are, then you are already largely compliant. In that sense, I think we have had a positive influence. But going forward we feel that exports of food products must also come within the purview of FSSAI in the same way as exports are, to ensure that there is consistency. Also, this will ensure that our large network of laboratories, human resources, etc is committed to this task to ensure quality – both for our own consumers and for the products we send out. We have made the proposal to the Ministry, but it will require an amendment to our Act. This is among one of the elements that we have suggested.
TPCI: What is your major challenge going forward as the apex food regulator of the country? Also, what does FSSAI plan to do to include food safety at the farm level within its ambit?
Rita Teaotia: The hardest thing to do at this point in time is to ensure uniformity of enforcement throughout the country. Our Act actually specifies that the FSSAI sets the standards, the regulation, testing, recognition of laboratories, audit agencies, etc. But on the ground, who is doing the enforcement, bulk of the licensing – that role is taken by the state governments. So if the state government has put a focus and emphasis on food safety and has the human resources, we have a fairly good case going and we have several states like that. But there are some states where it is put at very low priority. So we need to now get the regulatory part uniform throughout the country. That will only be the tool that will ensure food safety and it has to come by involving all the stakeholders – food businesses, consumers, etc. So that piece we are doing separately. We have recognized that in order for everybody to eat right and safe, it is not just going to be with a food safety officer ‘wielding a stick’ as he will only do sample checks. There has to be education and awareness among all stakeholders particularly the consumers and the food businesses, because they are the main players. But the hard work over the next couple of years has to be on getting uniformity of enforcement for the country.
In case of farmers, we are limited by our legislation. We do not regulate the farmers and the primary producers. Our point of regulation begins from the first point of sale. While we do look at transport, packaging, storage, we do not cover the primary production. But we have a close collaboration with the Department of Agriculture, fisheries, animal husbandry as well.
TPCI: India has a huge network of unorganised food businesses down to the street food level. What has been your strategic approach to cover them?
Rita Teaotia: Regulating the unorganized sector is a large challenge. Firstly, we insist on registration. Anybody in the food business, even if it is a street food person should have registration. It allows us to know what business, where, and when some episode occurs, we know where to go back to. We also want to talk about the basics of hygiene and safety to these people. Some of our initiatives such as the Clean Street Food Hub is targeted at the street food vendors, who are grouped together. Supported by at least either the state government or municipal body or whoever, through water supply, solid waste management, etc, we add to that. So the elements of this certification that we do for clean street food hubs is training, gap assessment and gap filling, and finally certification. Then that certification is revalidated. It is a third party certification. It involves a small fee, but we largely arrange for CSR funds to pay for that fee. People are happy to do this.
Similarly we are looking at clean vegetable markets, meat businesses, etc and these are small and medium ones. So it is more of strengthening that piece, which we are doing in a very large way now.
TPCI: Are there some major countries that you look at as benchmarks in the food regulation space? What learnings do their success stories provide?
Rita Teaotia: For the ambition and scale that we are trying to do here, I don’t see any other developing country looking at it. You look at the basic diet and safety issues, this is something that they don’t do. Developed countries have the advantage that they have crossed all the steps, which we are trying to do. They have much more organised food businesses, while 70% food businesses in India are unorganized. Therefore their solutions and resources are also very different. We have to find a more frugal, low cost and high impact way of working. That is the reason why we have so many partnerships. These are the only way in which we can, with limited resources, do the maximum outreach, get the maximum people involved talking about it. We are working with institutions, networks of professionals, consumer bodies, training institutions, various laboratories, food safety mitras, audit agencies, etc. These are all different groups who are contributing to the same task. In a country of our size and scale and limited resources, is the only way we will be able to actually get everybody in.
TPCI: There are international perceptions of Indian food being unsafe. Is tackling this a mandate that you pursue?
Rita Teaotia: We are not looking at it as a mandate, but things like hygiene ratings, the visibility to these ratings, the Eat Right Street Food hubs, etc. are critical steps. Everywhere in my meetings with the states, we keep the tourism people in. We tell them to talk about this in their pitches. Everywhere you go, make people know that if they want to go out and eat Indian food, they can definitely go ahead. These are the safe places to eat because they are the hygiene rated ones. These are the clean street food hubs. We think that itself has an economic impact. The first one we did was in Gujarat. They were so charmed by the idea that in Ahmedabad city alone, the food commissioner said that he was flooded with applications. People see it from the perspective of business, for instance Eat Right food trucks. So there is an economic rationale when you offer it this way – here is a tool for self compliance. Don’t meet my inspector or my officers. Pay the notified third party certification agency their fees and get yourself audited and certified. You get the right to put the stamp for an year or three years as applicable. So I think these kind of solutions will finally get the message across, instead of heavy handed ones.
Rita Teaotia assumed the office of chairperson, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India on November 28, 2018. She joined the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in the year 1981 and served in the districts of Panchmahal and Gandhinagar in Gujarat. Subsequently, she worked in the energy sector as managing director, Gujarat Industries Power Company Ltd, and secretary, energy, Government of Gujarat. Over a career spanning 35 years, she has worked extensively in both policy making and practise in varied sectors, including energy, health, rural development, IT (information technology) and telecommunications. Teaotia worked as Commerce Secretary in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry between July 2015 and July 2018, before joining FSSAI.