‘Zero tolerance is an aspirational goal’

Improvements are best fostered through guidance rather than policing, and Pawan Kumar Agarwal, chief executive of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), is using this insight effectively while managing and overseeing the responsibilities of a critically important regulatory body.

Mr Agarwal, who took charge at the helm of FSSAI in December 2015, has been encouraging open interactions with all stakeholders in the food sector as he pursues multiple objectives. The food we eat should be hygienic and safe, whether it is at a five-star hotel, from a street-side cart or inside our homes. This, he believes, will happen by facilitating a change in mindsets across the entire spectrum of the food business.

In this interview with Christabelle Noronha, Mr Agarwal talks about the links between food safety and nutrition, collaborations with social sector partners, and FSSAI’s role as a guardian of public health. Excerpts from the interview:

What do you feel distinguishes India’s focus on food safety from that of other countries?

We have studied and learned from what food authorities around the world do, applied it to conditions in India, and redefined our role accordingly. Similar institutions in other countries focus primarily on food safety, but our mandate under the Food Safety and Standards Act is larger — we have to ensure availability of safe and wholesome food. The word ‘wholesome’ has been added to bring in the element of nutrition. That makes our job far more interesting than merely looking at regulation for food safety.

Food safety and nutrition are closely intertwined; food may be nutritious, but unless hygiene and sanitation are maintained, its nutritional benefits get affected and it may even become harmful. We have zero tolerance for deviations from food standards.

Where nutrition is concerned, however, there is an element of individual choice. We can only nudge people towards healthy food choices. Our role in nutrition is more nuanced, and it is here that we are working with the Tata Trusts, particularly in addressing issues of micronutrient deficiencies, also known as ‘hidden hunger’. I know that the Trusts have a strong focus on nutrition, particularly on fortification, which is a low-cost and effective way of addressing micronutrient deficiencies.

How has the partnership between the FSSAI and the Tata Trusts helped in addressing the issue of micronutrient deficiencies?

With the support of the Trusts, we have set up the Food Fortification Resource Centre (FFRC). This centre is co-located within FSSAI, which is a huge advantage given the critical need to monitor food fortification processes and ensure quality control.

People are not concerned with whether food safety is the state’s responsibility or the centre’s; they feel it is the government’s responsibility...”

Apart from setting the standards for fortification, we need to continuously review the industry. Cooperation between FFRC and FSSAI on what is happening in the field enables synergy between the fortification promotion efforts and our regulatory role.

FSSAI collaborates with several social development partners apart from the Tata Trusts. How have these efforts helped?

Most of our development partners are working on activities related to food fortification, where they build on one another’s efforts rather than compete among themselves. Fortification programmes that need large-scale implementation have to be embedded in government programmes.

Our development partners work on both fronts, with state governments to ensure that fortified staples are used in safety net programmes, and with food businesses to ensure open-market availability of fortified food products. What we have achieved over the last couple of years is far more than what has happened in the last two decades.

How do you go about improving standards?

Our food safety ecosystem is still evolving. Obviously, western nations are far ahead of us. In the United States, for example, the Food and Drugs Administration was founded in 1906. FSSAI is fairly new; its first chief executive was appointed in 2008 and it became functional only in 2011.

We are still in the process of establishing systems and processes to ensure that food businesses take care of food safety, but we have covered a lot of ground already. FSSAI is far more visible today than it was a couple of years ago. It is treated with respect and its advisories and guidance notes are taken seriously. There is far more reporting in the media now on FSSAI’s activities. The government, too, is taking a keen interest.

A large part of food safety is about perception; the public worries that what you get in the market is adulterated, and that there are safety issues even with branded products. I can only say that, in reality, the general quality is not so bad. We have to demonstrate that the food that you get in the market is safe. To ensure this, we have to undertake large-scale surveillance of the food in the market, which we have started recently.

The FSSAI effort, says Mr Agarwal, is to educate street food vendors and change their mindset on hygiene and sanitation

How do you ensure that state governments act in unison?

The food safety law is a central law and the state food safety commissioners work within its framework, and we work with them in a coordinated manner. But people are not concerned with whether food safety is the state’s responsibility or the centre’s; they feel it is the government’s responsibility, and the government must discharge that responsibility.

What role do you see for civil society organisations in enabling FSSAI to improve outcomes?

I think civil society can play an important role, particularly in India. We do not have too many large or effective civil society organisations focused on safeguarding consumer interests, and a country this size needs many such organisations and institutions. India needs a consumer movement.

Are there major variations among states in implementing standards and procedures?

Yes, there are big variations in the states’ response to food safety. Some states, such as Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, have a stronger emphasis on food safety than others. In many instances, this is because of tradition or because of individual officers.

In any case, regulatory management in any country has always been a responsibility of the government. In India this was earlier seen purely as a means to prevent adulteration. Now, with the establishment of FSSAI, it is increasingly seen as an integral part of public health regulation.

What about street food? Is that also the responsibility of FSSAI?

Yes, we do regulate it. Street food vending falls in the ‘petty business category’ and vendors have to register with the authorities. Our effort is to educate vendors and change their mindset on hygiene and sanitation rather than police them. We have undertaken a massive programme for training street food vendors across the country.

The public worries that what you get in the market is adulterated, and that there are safety issues even with branded products. I can only say that, in reality, the general quality is not so bad.”

How far are we from reaching ‘zero-tolerance’ on food safety?

Zero tolerance is an aspirational goal. Food safety, in scientific terms, is about hazards and exposure to those hazards. The entire concept of zero tolerance is a continuous process to make foods safer by constantly raising our standards. We have to constantly evaluate our zero tolerance standards and keep lowering the hazard limits.

Our basic concern is the microbiological hazards which arise from hygiene and sanitation. To tackle this, we can’t just police street vendors and small businesses; we have to get them into the habit of maintaining hygiene and sanitation. It will take us a while.