Food Safety & Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has decided to designate officials of the customs department to act as food safety officials at seaports and airports, key points from where imported food gets into the country.
The decision has attracted criticism from many quarters, as the two departments have different job profiles. Further, it has brought to the fore issues plaguing the apex food regulator such as shortage of qualified manpower resulting in shutting down of two regional offices in Lucknow and Chandigarh. More than anything else, it is being felt that the move is likely to put the health of the people in the country at risk. But FSSAI does not seem to have much choice.
While Amit Khurana, programme manager, food safety, CSE, insists, “There may be a checklist for the customs officers to do as food import is a sensitive issue. And whatever FSSAI decides to do, it should have the food safety of domestic consumers a top priority,” FSSAI insiders maintain that this is part of a larger roadmap for food safety in which a surveillance-based risk management plan is being charted by the apex food regulator. They point out that in a past instance, faced with a situation of lack of enough staff to check the quality of wine and liquor, a similar decision was taken and states were allowed to use services of excise officers, duly qualified, to act as food safety officers.
The current situation seems no different. There are 125 entry points for importing food in the country and the staff strength is not enough to monitor it. Hence, customs officials will be acting as FSOs and supervising the food imports, taking samples for lab testing and after that approving the consignment for clearance.
Further, in the recent past, there has had been criticism on the kind of food imported in India and many a times it has been said that India was a dumping ground for food. FSSAI officials themselves have questioned the quality of a number of food commodities like canola oil, chocolate, seafood, and sauces and the claims made on their labels.
Thus it is no surprise that in the present scenario, an order dated March 29 states that in terms of provisions contained in Section 25 read with 45(5) of the FSS Act, the superintendent, appraiser, inspector or examiner of the concerned port listed by FSSAI were notified as authorised officer for food clearance. But it is also being said that the decision of the appointment of customs officials is in contradiction with FSSAI’s decision that the qualification should be equal when it comes to food safety checks. And, it has been decided to give the officials at ports, training on the subject of food safety.
Making the picture clear, a senior level officer from JNPT, Navi Mumbai, states, “The FSSAI has endowed a responsibility on us due to lack of manpower and also several other reasons like delay which takes place with regards to the imported consignments. Now the customs officers are receiving training sessions through the apex food regulator. Even in terms of any queries raised, we are open to connect with the nearby FDA offices.”
He adds, “Customs officers are always present at the point of entry. So, earlier an officer from food safety department selected products for regular sampling laboratory tests but now all these powers are endowed upon the customs officer.”
Primarily, FSOs should possess a degree in food technology or dairy technology or biotechnology or oil technology or agricultural science or veterinary sciences or bio-chemistry or microbiology or a masters in chemistry or degree in medicine from a recognised university. The officer can also have an equivalent or recognised qualification notified by the Centre, and he or she has to complete the mandated training before joining the post. But during the exercise of the comprehensive review last year it was proposed that the training could be imparted after recruitment.
Interestingly, though the move has not gone down well with those expressing concern over the country’s food safety, officials responsible for ensuring compliance to norms are happy about it. For instance, a senior officer from FDA Maharashtra, observes, “This move will cut down the delay which usually takes place when an imported consignment as it went for regular sampling or is sent to the laboratory inspection. All these powers regarding the imported product for regular sampling or sending products to laboratory inspections were only given to the food safety officers. But now as per the new amendment customs officer can ask for laboratory inspections of the imported products from the consignments.”
He adds, “This will help us for regulating in a better way avoiding the delay caused at the points of entry,” added.
Also since last year’s ministry of health’s proposed Rs 1,950 crore plan for strengthening of food safety infrastructure in states and at the Centre was put on the backburner, the government was not left with much option.