Loopholes in food safety legislation
as parliament gets ready to reconvene for the monsoon session, included in its list of business is a bill that is supposed to protect the health of the entire nation. The Food Safety and Standards Bill (fssb), 2005, is set to be tabled for a second time. It was first introduced in August last year and referred to a parliamentary committee after protests and controversy came along with the bill. Though the bill has now been tinkered with, it is still far from being a health-based regulation that will protect consumers.
The legislation has a basic problem: its aim to be a science-based regulation. In doing so it serves the cause of no one but industry. Industry has always aimed to use the controversies and uncertainties of scientific findings as an excuse to stymie tough regulatory standards. This enshrining in this bill of a science-based paradigm will give them a fresh lease of life.
The process of formulating this new legislation has taken almost a decade. The most proactive role has been played by the food industry. The initial draft came as a rude shock to farmers' organisations, and consumer and civil society groups. Not only were the definitions of even basic terms like food convoluted, but the entire legislation seemed to be heavily lopsided. The ones who stand to lose out most are consumers, small farmers and small producers and vendors. The message was clear: safeguarding public health was secondary to trade and industrial interests. But this was not unexpected when the ministry of food processing industry, and not the ministry of health, played a key role in writing the bill.
It was not merely that the food-processing industry played a major role in drafting the bill. There was, and still is, an attempt to make this ministry responsible for implementing the food safety regime envisaged by the bill. It is an established practice all over the world that subjects like food safety and public health are overseen by the ministry responsible for health issues. Here a ministry mandated to promote the interests of the food processing industry is seeking to hijack the food and health issues, creating conflicts of interest.
Moreover, since this law seeks to subsume all central and state laws that today regulate food, it was the duty of the drafters to use it to plug existing regulatory loopholes and make a significant improvement over the existing regime. fssb sadly has not.