FSSAI-Nestle partnership: A telltale business affair?

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The FSSAI’s corporate functioning style, partnering with private multinationals has come under the scanner raising serious questions on food safety regulations in India. 

The legal tussle between FSSAI and the leading multinational player in the FMCG sector, Nestle, in 2015 is not one that can be forgotten easily. It was a case that brought the issue of public food safety and all its malaises to the limelight, exposing the lack of political will and unclear food regulatory policy setting the stage for rampant bureaucratic bungling and scandals in the sector.

The country’s apex food regulatory authority FSSAI issued an immediate ban on the sale and manufacture of the most loved and widely cooked instant noodles after Maggi samples representing 165 million Maggi packets in India were found to contain lead (Pb) and Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), above permissible limits making it unsafe for human consumption.

So serious were the accusations against the Swiss company for indulging in unfair trade practices, false labeling and misleading advertisement that it cost them a class action suit by the Indian government seeking damages of about 640 crores. They were also dragged to the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) using a provision for the first time in the nearly three decade old Consumer Protection Act.

So, after all the hullabaloo, where currently the matter of such grave nature still remains pending in the Supreme Court, what caused the very same regulator that assumed the role of the messiah of public health and safety to turn around and engage in a partnership with the prosecuted company?

In a bid to mend fences and seek ways to engage with food multinationals to ensure marketed food safety, the new FSSAI CEO Pawan Kumar Agarwal inaugurated the 250 crore Nestle Food Safety Institute in Manesar to provide guidance and training on food safety, more than two years after the Maggi noodles controversy.

Many claimed it to be a brazen conflict of interest between the said private and public entity. Regulators are not known to be friendly with corporate entities as its primary job is to keep companies under its ambit in check. Many feared a trespass of public accountability in the hands of bureaucratic corruption. Well, it is not the first time FSSAI’s integrity is being questioned. In October 2015, the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), the All India Food Processors Association and the Indian Drugs Manufacturers Association formed a joint action committee to press for enquiry by the CBI into functioning of FSSAI with one going as far as to call the regulator a “den of corruption”.

 

“It is wrong that the food safety authority should align with any multinational companies and  promote the sale of packed food in India. This works in contrary to the interest of traditional and domestic practices in our country and reflects the bias that the government has towards the MNCs as well. The environment in FSSAI is like that of a private limited company. It has become autocratic; there is no actual representation of consumer organisations or business organisations on its committees.” Praveen Khandelwal, General Secretary, CAIT.

 

However, previously, FSSAI’s Mr Agarwal has defended his stance on conflict of interest by claiming that FSSAI lacks the staff strength and technology standards of USFDA making it an independent initiative to ensure consumer food safety. This having been said, it is important to observe that if FSSAI is in such dire need of adequate infrastructure to prepare themselves, why did they not ask for state funds?

 

On contacting Navdanya, an NGO which promotes biodiversity conservation, organic farming, the rights of farmers, and the process of seed saving, the spokesperson said,

“The FSSAI is solely focussed on implementing pseudo-scientific solutions to solve the nutritional problems in our country that favour the interests of the corporates. For the FSSAI to become able regulators they need to understand the communit, the people they work for, without community inclusion the process becomes dictatorial and unscientific. The solutions have to keep the public in mind, and not the interests of the corporates.”

 

If making the FSSAI adequate is what Mr. Agarwal aimed at, then what is needed is a complete overhaul of the testing and analytical capabilities of FSSAI where there is an effective appropriation of resources to regulatory units, institutional strengthening, capacity building and tighter strategic and operational coordination among agencies. Integrating this goal with the intervention of a private entity whose main business is manufacture of food is a dubious move indeed.

 

This questionably close partnership of Nestle and FSSAI does not end here. Recently, Swadeshi Jagran March, an RSS affiliate on economic issues questioned the credibility of FSSAI’s tie-ups with Nestle Nutrition and four other MNCs allowing imported infant speciality food for its Diet 4 Life scheme that aims to address the challenges faced by infants suffering from Inborn Errors of Metabolism (IEM).

 

When Dr. Arun Gupta,  a senior paediatrician and senior coordinator for Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India was contacted, he took a firm stand saying that his organization, BPNI condemns the efforts the FSSAI to keep foods for special medical purposes (FSMPs) out of the IMS Act.

“We believe the exemption to FSMPs is a flawed policy as we consider all baby foods should be under the purview of IMS Act. The exemption for FSMPs came out of the FSSAI steering committee at a time when a front organization of the baby food industry (which also manufactures FSMPs) IYNCI was part of this committee. Infant Young Child Nutrition Council of India (IYNCI) was formed by the four big baby food multinationals Nestle, Danone, Abbott and Mead-Johnson. FSSAI says its efforts are to make sure that parents of children with IEM can easily get these special foods in India. However, the focus of the efforts seemed to be more on keeping them out of out of purview of IMS Act than on resolving their availability issues”

 

After much media advocacy and civil society pressure, as an interim action, FSSAI heeded out cautionary advice regarding conflict of interest and removed IYNCI from the Steering Committee. FSSAI in its press release published on 28 February 2018, committed taking a long-term measure, where the Regulations of Foods for Infant Nutrition will be harmonized with IMS Act. It remains to be seen what comes of revision for BPNI has written to FSSAI on 10 April 2018.

 

The FSSAI is the primary agency that is responsible to ensure that the standards, quality and safety of what we consume are protected, in the light of such allegations of an underlying conspiracy it is important that a thorough investigation is undertaken to understand the real motives of these decisions. The consumers have a right to know that their safety is upheld by authorities with integrity and have nothing, but welfare of public in mind. It is pertinent that this body is steered clear of all allegations so it could perform its vital functions optimally.