INDIA – The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is strictly implementing its labelling regulations for all packaged foods from domestic suppliers and importers, even as imported packaged foods continue to lie in Indian ports and airports.
“The law of the land is valid for everyone — for domestic suppliers as well as importers — and all are expected to follow it. A regulator’s duty is to implement the law and not violate it…Food is so sensitive and there is no question of relaxing the requirements for pre-packaged food products,” said FSSAI’s chief executive officer, Dillip Kumar Samantaray.
According to the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006, packaged food products must displayed printed product and nutritional information on the packaging. In particular for imported foods, the previous practice of sticking information labels on the packages will no longer suffice. Stickers can only be used to identify vegetarian versus non-vegetarian products, and to display the name and address of the importer.
While the Act took effect in 2011, FSSAI has only really started strictly enforcing the regulations in the last three months, leaving large consignments of chocolate, snacks, gourmet cheese, olive oil, biscuits, noodles, pasta, jams, honey, oats, sauces, etc. stuck at Indian ports and airports.
When asked by local newspapers why FSSAI was only now coming down heavily on food imports, Samantaray insisted that products had been barred from entry in the past two years as well.
“If domestic manufacturers export products to other countries, they are required to abide by the law of that country. Then why should India not ensure the health of its citizens?” he said, adding, "The regulations are for safety of consumers. There are stickers in languages including Japanese and Chinese, which Indian consumers can't understand. We are responsible for stopping such products until they comply with the law."
Indian importers hit hard by regulations
Samantray confirmed FSSAI had received representations from various companies as well as industry bodies. Local media reports some countries backing the importers have also approached the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Health.
According to Amit Lohani, convenor, Forum of Indian Food Importers (FIFI) – an association of food importers in India – said FIFI has already made numerous representations to FSSAI in a bid to resolve the issue. One of the areas where FSSAI has relaxed its regulations is allowing the food safety logo to be displayed on a sticker instead of printed on packaging.
However, the overall labelling regulations are still a concern. In addition, the issue of container sampling is worrying importers, said Lohani: "Earlier sampling was to the extent of 5-10%, not more. This was to give an idea of what the consignment was made up of. With 100% sampling of each and every container now, this is obviously leading to a huge delay. Containers are hardly getting cleared."
According to Lohani, slower product approvals are also affecting importers, with almost 11,000 applications still pending approval from FSSAI. Lohani said the agency is clearing only about eight to ten applications each day: “At this rate, the regulator will take about two to three years to clear the backlog.”
Support for food labelling regulations
Not everyone is unhappy with FSSAI’s stricter implementation of the Food Safety and Standards Act.
Local consulting firm Technopak Advisors’ president Saloni Nangia said, "The FSSAI's move to enforce labelling standards is a step in the right direction. India for long has been a dumping ground for products that are well past their sell-by-date. At least now there will be some accountability.
“Product quality is compromised with the use of stickers. FSSAI is attempting to stop that."
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