When what’s on your plate is unpalatable

Feeling compromised on food safety? Be on the front foot

Are the packaged food products we all buy off the shelf, true to their label? Do all products that call themselves ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ live up to their claim? Do hotels, caterers and other vendors adhere to standards set by the government for running food businesses? More often than not, we are never very sure of all the ingredients or the quality of the food products we consume. What if we are short-changed?

Knowledge of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, will come in handy in such situations.

The Act is a comprehensive legislation, and has brought together all earlier laws related to the food sector under one roof. It clearly lays down regulations for the ingredients to be used. For instance, it prohibits the use of food additives, processing aid, heavy metals, insecticides, pesticides, veterinary drugs or antibiotic residue unless they are in accordance with specified regulations.

Certain food items such as irradiated food, organic food or health supplements cannot be manufactured, processed or sold without adhering to regulations laid down under the Act.

Packaging and labelling regulations are drawn out, too, and regulations for advertisements and claims are on the cards. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) operates under the Act at the Central, State and tertiary levels to monitor compliance and resolve complaints.

Consumer-friendly

The Act provides for three important consumer-friendly measures. One, not only manufacturers, but also distributors and sellers are liable for food that does not meet the laid-out standards. So, if you find that a product is sold after the date of expiry or has lost its quality because it was kept in inappropriate conditions, a complaint against the seller will hold good as he has directly been responsible for the damage caused. He cannot take cover under the fact that it was a pre-packaged product.

Two, customers have the right to get any food item analysed by a food analyst appointed under the Act. In case the sample is found to have substances that are in contravention with the Act and its regulations, or certain ingredients in excess of the allowable limits, etc, the manufacturer can be prosecuted. In Chennai, for example, this analysis is done at Kings Institute.

Three, to protect the interest of consumers at large, the Act provides for ‘food recall’ by the manufacturer. If a food business operator considers that a food item is not in compliance with the specified standards, he has to initiate procedures to withdraw that food and inform the competent authorities. This, for example, happened with Nestle in early June 2015, when it recalled about 27,420 tonnes of Maggie noodles lying in/with its factories, distribution centres, distributors, wholesalers, retailers and customers.

Penal provisions

To oversee the implementation of the FSSAI regulations, a Commissioner of Food Safety is appointed at the Central and State levels, below whom district-level officers operate.

Food Safety Officers are also appointed for a specified local area for testing samples of food articles, seizing those that don’t match the standards and inspecting places of manufacture.

The Act lays down strict penalties amounting ₹1-10 lakh for various violations such as selling substandard/misbranded food or releasing misleading advertisements. Punishment for making, selling or importing unsafe food includes imprisonment and fine of various degrees, depending on the seriousness of the injury to the consumer. Another important aspect is the provision for compensation in case of death or injury of the consumer. Consumers (or their family) will get a compensation of not less than ₹5 lakh in case of death; not exceeding ₹3 lakh in case of grievous injury, and ₹1 lakh in all other cases of injury, within six months of the occurrence of the incident.

Grievance redressal

So, if you have a cause for complaint, you can approach the food authorities who operate in your district or State. A list of authorities at the State level and an online complaint window are available on the FSSAI website.

Whether it is on packaged food or a food business, you can enter the details of the product/business, details of the complaint and upload a photograph, if necessary, on the website. Your complaint will get registered once you confirm your location and identity. These options apart, there is also the National Consumer Helpline (toll free at 1800114000 or 14404) and the Consumer Forums at the district, State and national levels.

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