Ramdas Shenoy from stirfryMBA.com in conversation with Shri Singhal on role of FSSAI and more
Enumerate in detail about the role of FSSAI for the Food Industry? What is its scope and area of operation?
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is playing a critical role in the direction of food safety to empower India towards a healthy future. Established under the Food Safety and Standards Act (FSS), 2006, the FSSAI is the apex food regulatory body in the country with the mandate to ensure safe and wholesome food for all citizens. As a part of its core regulatory functions, FSSAI sets science-based, globally benchmarked standards for food safety; ensures credible food testing for quality and compliance to these standards and processes through effective surveillance mechanisms.
In the past few years, the Food Regulator has been actively working to enhance the entire Food Ecosystem in a revolutionary way. Various regulatory reforms are introduced to enhance efficiency with ‘Ease of doing Business’ for the Food Business Operators (FBOs). IT-enabled resources are being deployed for improvement in existing portals of licensing & registration, portal of food imports and network of laboratories along with better e-Governance for delivery of various e-services including e-applications and e-inspections, thereby, leading to the internet governance. These recent developments by the FSSAI will not only support ease of doing business but will also provide an easy understanding of rules and regulations to be followed by the food businesses as well as mandatory compliances to ensure food safety.
The FSSAI’s role is very vital to ensure maintenance of food quality throughout the food value chain, be it at the food manufacturing facility or distribution or retail facility as defined under the FSS Act. In order to ensure better quality control of food manufactured/distributed/supplied in the market, the FSSAI has over 200 notified food testing laboratories across the country. All FSSAI notified labs are NABL accredited and have the capability to perform a wide array of testing as defined in the regulations. Additionally, Mobile Food Testing Laboratories (Food Safety on Wheels) have been allocated to various States/ UTs so that far flung areas that are beyond the reach of FSSAI notified labs, can utilize these mobile laboratories to perform food testing at the field level. In addition to this, FSSAI has also published a DART Book to help consumers perform simple and basic tests at home to check adulteration in food items.
FSSAI has been making considerable investment in the area of infrastructure improvement including strengthening of State food testing laboratories; development of new National Food Laboratories (NFLs) at Chennai/Mumbai; investment in training and capacity building of lab personnel and field staff along with provisioning of 53 rapid food testing kits/devices. FSSAI is also focusing on periodic risk-based inspections, third party audits and focused checks to ensure safety and quality of food products available in the market to earn the trust of consumers.
Apart from this, FSSAI has also embarked on a series of initiatives to ensure safe, healthy and environmentally sustainable food for everyone through the ‘Eat Right India’ movement. This movement is a large-scale effort to transform the country’s food landscape and incorporates all the key players in the food ecosystem. It is aligned with the government’s focus on preventive and promotive public healthcare as well as other flagship programmes like Ayushman Bharat Yojana, POSHAN Abhiyaan, Anemia Mukt Bharat and Swachh Bharat Mission. In the wake of the current pandemic, the provision of safe and healthy food has gained greater prominence. Under Eat Right India, the regulator has launched different programs targeting both food businesses and consumers to create an environment of right food practices and habits.
Several benchmarking and certification schemes are initiated to improve overall infrastructure as well as food safety and hygiene levels across food establishments covering street vendors, local dhabas, hawkers and petty food vendors. Hygiene Rating certification for catering establishments including restaurants, sweet shops and meat shops ensures food safety compliances. To educate consumers, a lot of IEC activities are organised to disseminate right messaging about safe and healthy eating practices in the interest of the public. FSSAI also uses various communication tools including social media to disseminate scientific and accurate information around food safety, personal hygiene practices, healthy eating habits and other valuable tips for citizens.
Your journey as part of Indian Administrative Services and as CEO of FSSAI.
From being into administrative services to currently holding the charge as the CEO, FSSAI, the journey has remained quite interesting. I belong to the 1987 Batch of the Indian Administrative Service and joined FSSAI as the CEO on 1st June 2020. Earlier, as Additional Secretary, MoHFW, I have been fortunate enough to work in the area of Drugs & Food Regulation, medical education, implementation of Pradhan Mantri Swasthya Suraksha Yojana (PMSSY) under which new AIIMS are being set up in the country, along with supervision of administration and expansion of Institutes of National Importance like AIIMS Delhi, PGI Chandigarh and JIPMER Puducherry. I have also been associated with the National Medical Commission Act from the drafting to final stage and with processing of the National Commission for allied and Healthcare Profession Bill.
Now, food touches the lives of everyone and hence, being the CEO of Food Authority, it becomes even more challenging to ensure that everyone gets access to safe and healthy diets. The prime objective is to contribute towards transforming the food safety ecosystem in the country to ensure a healthy future for our citizens.
‘Eat Right India’ is seen as a national movement in India. What is your vision for the Eat Right India movement to transform the food ecosystem in the country?
FSSAI has also taken up a large-scale citizen centric campaign through its flagship initiative ‘Eat Right India’ for social and behavioural change; as well as awareness generation efforts so that everyone has access to safe, healthy and sustainable diets. The tagline – ‘SahiBhojan, BehtarJeevan’, thus, forms the foundation of this movement. Eat Right India envisions safe and nourishing food for all Indians produced in an environmentally sustainable system.
The movement focuses on both supply and demand side initiatives. For the supply side, several benchmarking and certification programs have been introduced to ensure compliances at the FBO level that facilitate or induce changes in manufacturing practices, retail and storage facilities through capacity building and training efforts, followed by third party inspections and audits. Similarly, to target unorganised businesses like local dhabas, petty food vendors, fruits and vegetable sellers and street food vendors, programs like clean street food hubs, clean and fresh fruits and vegetable markets have been initiated. This ensures training and capacity building of fruit sellers, vegetable hawkers and local food handlers about safe and hygienic food handling practices.
To ensure behaviour change in a settings approach, programs like Eat Right Campus and Eat Right School are designed to target people wherever they are, to inculcate safe and healthy food habits.
As we move forward, we plan to expand the reach of these initiatives in every corner of the country and nudge people’s behaviour towards right eating practices. There is a need to align with all Ministries/Departments associated with food for the purpose of creating convergence and a coherent messaging to consumers and creating safety and hygiene protocols across the food chain.
There is a need to accelerate the progress towards attaining a more robust, holistic and healthy food system in order to enhance the health of our citizens, environment as well as economy. FSSAI will continue to ensure provision of safe food and healthy diets to the consumers through Eat Right India.
How can the food businesses support FSSAI under various programmes and take efforts to converge their actions towards a ‘Healthy India’?
FSSAI is following a ‘graded’ approach to address the entire spectrum of Food Business Operators (FBOs). For large food businesses, the approach is focused around traditional regulatory instruments and tools such as third-party audits. For small and medium food businesses, the focus is largely on capacity building and improving hygienic conditions, especially at the manufacturer’s level. With micro food businesses, we are using a cluster approach, a systematic way not only to ensure compliance with food safety standards but also to organise/register hawkers and local food vendors in a cluster model. Many such initiatives have been adopted that include creating and recognising clusters of street vending markets, fruits and vegetables markets, railways stations and places of worship to ensure availability of safe and hygienic food to consumers.
Since Food Safety is a shared responsibility, FSSAI is encouraging a ‘self-compliance’ model as its approach and is moving towards a ‘prevention-based’ system. Scaling-up availability of fortified foods in both Government safety net programmes along with the open market; encouraging food options with lower levels of fat, salt, and sugar content; reducing level of trans fats in various food items as well as fats and oils and improving the quality of information to consumers are some of the noteworthy efforts for transforming the food environment.
The aim is to encourage food companies to become joint stakeholders in assuring that Indians get access to safe and nutritious food. With this graded approach, we hope to promote a culture of self-compliance by the organised food businesses, and support the informal food sector to develop their capabilities through training and audits, thus developing a more mature private sector food ecosystem for the country.