The recent update by FSSAI on its website, revealing statistics on lab testing of food samples carried out across the country by state authorities from the period 2012-13 to 2014-15, shows that consistent efforts have been made to collect samples,get them tested and take action against erring food business operators (FBOs). However, it seems to be silent on the manpower crunch that has been hampering collecting and testing of samples in proportion to the number of FBOs ever since the implementation of the Food Safety and Standards Regulations, 2011.
The key issue related to manpower crunch that the enforcement authorities face pertains to paucity of FSOs (food safety officers) as those in service are lesser than the numbers sanctioned, hence, additional charges have been given to them. Mobility in the interiors of a state and assistance in collection of samples are the other major issues that are being faced.
Further, though the model says every development block in the country should have one FSO, currently most states have FSOs till tehsil level (a tehsil consists of many blocks covering several villages).
Collection is tough
For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, the largest of Indian states with close to 20 crore population, currently 620 FSOs are deployed against the sanctioned 660, serving different zones divided in municipalities and tehsils.
A senior official with UPFDA explains, “The toughest task is sample collection. Single person finds it difficult to collect multiple samples. There is also unavailability of vehicle. And therefore the process becomes time-consuming.”
He however points out that to work in such a situation, the state department has made a risk assessment plan based on the least vulnerable commodities. It depends on season, product demand and consumption pattern. Further certain commodities like milk are always on radar and part of sample collection process sometimes focusses only on milk and its products.
Similar opinion was expressed by an official from Food and Drugs Control Administration (FDCA), Gujarat. He stated, “There are 280 food safety officers with FDCA while there are 53 food safety officers with municipality and municipal corporations. There is a requirement of more FSOs in the regulation infrastructure. But Gujarat state has been involved in other activities like mobile awareness vans equipped with testing facility and such mobile vans are helpful in regulating areas where there are less number of FSOs. If we look at the parameters of per region FSOs it is a1so for rural area with population of 1 lakh and 1 FSO for urban area with population of 50,000. Other allied infrastructure includes means of transport of FSOs which are not upto the mark. There is a need to improve these facilities for FSOs.”
3-tier system of control
Gujarat has a typical problem that there is a 3-tier system of control units over FSOs. “Rather it should be one single state authority controlling all the FSOs. This makes it difficult to keep areas under regulation,” he added.
Similarly in Maharashtra, there are 265 FSOs with the state, of which 87 posts are vacant while 178 are endowed upon responsibility. To regulate with vacant posts is a difficult task says a senior official with Maha FDA. “Sampling is the challenge today but shortage of staff is making it difficult now. In this regard, out of 87 vacant posts we are about to fill 48 posts soon to bring down additional pressure on the FSOs,” he stated.
Steps to utilise resources
However, the situation is improving with FSSAI taking steps to appropriately utilise the available resources. Partnerships with private entities, mobile apps and surveillance-based risk assessment have been introduced.
“To get the work done, FSOs are looking after additional regions for samples. Also recently developed mobile app is a helping hand to regulate the enforcement activities based upon consumer reviews and complaints,” said another officer from FDA Maharashtra.
In Kerala, four regional food safety labs in the state are being upgraded for the NABL accreditation process and its 95 per cent of the work is over. A sum of Rs 6.15 crore has been allocated for strengthening these laboratories.
Another senior food safety department official in UPFDA states that mobile app would certainly be helpful for their enforcement activities. He however added that it would take some time to create necessary infrastructure and database for this system.
Meanwhile, according to lab test reports released by FSSAI for the year 2015-16, Rs 10,93,87,214 were collected from 2,795 penalties with 1,402 convictions in the country. More than 83,265 samples were collected out of which around 74,000 samples were analysed and 14,599 samples were found misbranded or adulterated.
In Andhra Pradesh, 290 samples were found not upto the mark, in Gujarat 1,243 samples were at fault, in Himachal more than 400 samples failed. In Madhya Pradesh 1,412 out of 9131, in Maharashtra 1,162 out of 6985, in Punjab 1458 out of 7860, in Tamil Nadu 1,047 out of 2873, and in Uttar Pradesh 4,119 out of 9605 samples failed lab testing.