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Tuesday, Apr 25, 2006

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No wholesome fare, this

The Food Safety Bill must undergo scrutiny of agricultural and animal scientists, health professionals, nutritionists and food technologist without any further delay.

The controversy around the Ayurvedic preparations and the `bird flu' episode have focussed attention on what appears to be an exploitative model of food supply chain. The key lies with the science and technology community which has been marginalised by the adjudicative prowess of the bureaucracy.

The Food Safety and Standards Bill 2005, for example, is overassertive on the "public interest" plaint. At the same time it facilitates for the control mechanism to be in the hands of a centralised food safety authority, understandably, to rein-in the unregulated food processors. This is also accompanied by an ill-advised move to repeal laws where mention of food is made.

Producers' or consumers' welfare?

Food safety issues indeed have wide ramifications. A sanitised separation between primary producers and consumers is certainly very difficult in the billion-plus population. Given the distinct dietary patterns across the country, both producers as well as consumers are in direct engagement either with the small-time local processor or the local retailer of the agribusiness supply chain.

Yet, in the supply chain models the citizen's face is invisible. The private supply chain is a one-way street from the producers to the consumers determining the bottomline of the agribusiness conglomerates. The reverse flow of the value chain determines welfare gains of consumers and producers. The Food Safety Bill has, unfortunately, ignored these concerns.

Seized of this state of affairs, the Ministry of Health and Consumer Affairs constituted a high-power Working Group on Food Safety in October 2003. The Ministry, in all fairness, brought about relevant changes in the standards to be in contention with the competitive world.

But how does the Food Safety Bill mitigate the purported `multiplicity of laws' problem? By constituting a humongous Central authority (Chapter II, Section 5). The `economies of scale' argument is made to stand on its head. In the US five statutory bodies look after food safety issues. So also in Australia, the EU and most of the OECD countries.

French Model

The Food Safety Authority of the EU is modelled on the French system of Agence Française de Sécurité Sanitaire des Aliments. Separating the risk assessment agency from the implementation and surveillance mechanism improved consumer confidence in the country.

The Food Safety Bill should adopt this pattern. This can be done easily by re-engineering the existing structures. It is a well-documented fact that concentration of power leads to cost inefficiencies, transferred to producers or consumers depending on the pliability of the Authority. The myth of large wastage and being world's highest producers in core primary commodities is dished out to make the economic competitiveness case for the new law. Two principal features explode fallacy of this myth. These are the dietary pattern of an average Indian and the biodegradable nature as well as micronutrients-enhancing characteristics of the primary raw material.

An integrated food law, though desirable, must be in the interest of the common man. The Food Safety Bill fails on many counts and therefore deserves a close re-look by agricultural and animal scientists, health professionals, nutritionists and food technologist.

(The author is an independent Trade Related Capacity Building Specialist based in Gurgaon. These are his personal views.)

J. George

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