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Food safety: Need of the hour

An outdoor eatery in Pushkar. The Food Safety and Standards of India will now make it mandatory for food vendors to display food hygiene ratings. Image credit: Pierre-jean DURIEU / 123rf
An outdoor eatery in Pushkar. Image credit: Pierre-jean DURIEU / 123rf

Narendra Singh Tomar has issued a call for food safety on the occasion of World Food Safety Day.

Tomar, the Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Food Processing Industries in the Union Cabinet, highlighted that “the current global pandemic has drawn our attention to issues related to food security such as sanitation, antimicrobial resistance, climate change, etc.” As reported by the Press Trust of India, “the minister also said that it has become more important for every citizen to understand and create awareness about [the] impact of nutritious and safe food on the immune system. Stating that there are concerns about climate change not only in India but across the world because of its impact on agriculture, the minister said an absence of a holistic-balanced specific policy on food security can have a negative impact on the economy of any society or country” in remarks delivered to a virtual event organised by the PHD Chambers of Commerce. 

Food safety is, indeed, an issue with far-reaching importance. As the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a tweet, “production and consumption of safe food offers immediate & long-term benefits for people, the planet, and the economy.” According to the WHO, safe food is imperative to facilitate a “healthy tomorrow.” Globally, the WHO states, “more than 600 million people fall ill every year from eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins or chemicals.”

Food safety has been in the crosshairs in India for some time. As Health Issues India reported on the occasion of World Food Day last year, India is home to one-quarter of the world’s undernourished people. The 2019 Global Hunger Index ranked India 102nd out of 117 countries – a dismal ranking for one of the largest countries on Earth.

Ensuring food safety is a vital component of addressing India’s nutrition woes – especially when it comes to fostering access to safe food. As Health Issues India noted in 2018, food poisoning accounts for the second-most common infectious disease outbreak in India. “Data from the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP) suggests incidence of food poisoning is far higher in places where food is prepared in bulk quantities,” we reported at the time. “Outbreaks were traced to places such as canteens, hostels and wedding venues. In cases where contaminated food is prepared in large quantities, it is consumed by far more people and so can cause a severe outbreak.” 

assorted fast food,junk food. Image credit: margouillat / 123rf. Caption: Trans fat levels in India's foods are to drop dramatically by 2022 as part of a plan to eliminate them from Indians' diets.
Image credit: margouillat / 123rf

However, as World Food Safety Day reminds us, food safety is a multifaceted issue. Tomar reminds us that it has bearings on sanitation, antimicrobial resistance, and our environment. For example, poultry farms in the past have been pinpointed as a breeding ground for antimicrobial resistance. Food hygiene is an essential component of ensuring food is fresh, reducing the risk of diseases such as salmonella. Such diseases are also becoming antimicrobially resistant, enhancing the message that improved food safety needs to be factored in when countering antibiotic resistance. 

In the context of the environment, agriculture and the food industry is widely recognised as a contributing factor to climate change, leading to a snowball effect where unsafe and/or unsustainable food production practices in the most vulnerable countries will leave them the most food-insecure. As the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future writes, “a rapidly changing climate is making agriculture an even more vulnerable enterprise. In some regions, warmer temperatures may increase crop yields. The overall impact of climate change on agriculture, however, is expected to be negative—reducing food supplies and raising food prices. 

“Many regions already suffering from high rates of hunger and food insecurity, including parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, are predicted to experience the greatest declines in food production. Elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) are also expected to lower levels of zinc, iron, and other important nutrients in crops.” 

For India, a country whose economy – particularly in rural areas – hinges on agriculture (it accounts for seventeen percent of total gross domestic product), this is worrisome – especially given the country’s unique vulnerability to the effects of climate change. The food system in India and globally does drive the climate crisis. As Health Issues India reported last year, “more than one-third of food produced globally goes to waste. The amount of food waste we generate is worth US$1 trillion, weighing 1.3 billion tonnes. 

“Were food waste to be a nation, it would be responsible for the third-largest number of emissions of greenhouse gases (drivers of climate change) behind only the United States and China…In India, approximately forty percent of food is wasted to the tune of Rs 92,000 crore (US$12.48 billion). This is in a country where hundreds of millions starve – and where vulnerable populations stand to lose much more if the climate fight is not executed effectively.” 

Flooding in Mumbai. Extreme floods and other natural disasters will increase due to climate change – and improved food safety can mitigate environmental damage. Image credit: Michael Kohli [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]
Fundamentally, World Food Safety Day serves a similar purpose as many other observance days as it carries the same reminder. We have a lot to do. This includes responsible and sustainable food production and agricultural practices, raising awareness of the importance of nutrition, building our sanitation infrastructure, and working to combat the antimicrobial resistance and climate crises. Considering what we eat ought to form a crux of these efforts and they must be multisectoral and interconnected. 

To its credit, India has made steps. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has worked towards a sharp reduction in unsafe food, with then-FSSAI chairman Pawan Agarwal in 2019 urging the percentage of unsafe food in the country to be reduced to one percent or lower. The country is taking a stand against trans fats, seeking to cap the amount of trans fats in Indians’ food to two percent by next year. 

On sanitation, the country launched a blockbuster campaign – Swachh Bharat Abhiyan – to clean up the country in literal terms. This campaign has enjoyed many successes, with the construction of tens of thousands of latrines and making 35 states and union territories open-defecation free in its first five years (though the programme has not been without its shortcomings). On nutrition, the country has launched campaigns such as Eat Right India, designed to combat its dual burden of malnutrition, foster a more nutritious society, and reduce the risk of conditions such as stunting, wasting, and noncommunicable diseases directly linked to poor diets.

Yet the work is far from over. As Dr Charu Grover writes for Telangana Today, “outdated laws, lack of infrastructure and awareness are holding India back from applying stringent food safety measures…India needs to revise its food safety standards by addressing supply chain issues such as better risk assessment for certain commodities, improved detection methods and the potential for new economically motivated adulteration. Government agencies should develop a rapid alert system on food-borne hazards and future problems.” Such work cannot come sooner enough – and World Food Safety Day is the occasion to underscore this and the necessity of a food sustainable future and raising public awareness of the many benefits we will yield if we eat more nutritiously, more sustainably, and more mindfully. 

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