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India’s food regulators inspect fewer than one percent of products properly, auditor says

Only one percent of food approved or sale in India has been tested for pesticides according to a new government report. The Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) – the country’s top regulator of food quality and safety is under broader scrutiny for low standards and poor implementation.

Bowl of rice on Indian flag, malnutrition/poverty concept.A lack of adequate equipment and mass shortages of staff at the FSSAI have led to lapsed standards and little oversight in the testing of food quality, according to  an audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India that. These lapses could foster situations during food production and packaging that allow for diseases such as salmonella and E.coli to contaminate products, posing a significant risk to public health.

The records on food safety  are damning. An audit verification exercise of 4,895 food analysis reports taken from state food laboratories revealed that 4,866 (99 percent) of the samples had not been analysed for pesticides. In further tests 4,698 (96 percent) were not analysed for microbial contamination as required by food safety protocols.

These lapsed standards are widespread, the report says. Sixty-five  of the 72 statewide food laboratories were not accredited to the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories. As this is a required credential for the laboratories, many cannot guarantee that any testing performed is up to a set standard, calling into question any analysis performed within them.

Over fifty percent of licenses granted by the FSSAI were given on the basis of only partially complete documentation, the report found. This suggests that many food manufacturers may not even be fully inspected before being given permission to market and sell a food product.

Partially complete documentation permeated to many aspects of the FSSAI. Records were incomplete regarding the presence of qualified food analysts within many of their laboratories. Of all food testing laboratories operating under the FSSAI, only sixteen had any documentation regarding staff. Of these sixteen laboratories, fifteen were found to lack a qualified food analyst.

Lack of records and absences of qualified staff have left the laboratories with limited operational capacities. This may be the reason behind lagging decisions and drawn out investigations.

A case involving Nestlé SA’s instant noodle brand Maggi was brought to media attention in 2014. A food laboratory in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, declared the product to be unsafe, citing the presence of monosodium glutamate (MSG) in food samples. Nestlé SA disputed the claim.

The case of the Maggi noodles continued for a year, with several laboratories across India analysing samples of the product. After a year of analysis the Kolkata-based Central Food Laboratory discovered not only the presence of MSG, but also lead. Ingestion of lead can prove to be fatal, repeated consumption can cause a host of health issues, particularly in children.

If the laboratories were operating properly, with qualified food analysts present, it would not have taken a year to reveal the food to be dangerous. With so many samples being approved without testing for microbes or contaminants, there is no telling how many other food products currently on sale in India are endangering public health.

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