By Dr.Suseelendra Desai*
Sufficient nutritious and safe food is the basic element for good health and sustained life. Food security, nutritional security and Food safety are central to human and animal health. From production through processing and consumption, food journey is prone to several health hazard risks. Food safety science is a systemic scheme that spans across multiple disciplines in a holistic way to monitor and manage the risks when the food is produced, processed, stored, and marketed. To ensure food safety globally governments have developed regulatory systems as well as guidelines and awareness programs for Food Business Operators (FBO) and consumers.
Consequences of unsafe food
Unsafe food could be a source for deleterious micro- and macro-organisms and chemical substances such as Salmonella, Listeria, Escherichia, entamoeba, Giardia, and toxins. Major food-borne diseases are fever, headache, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhoea. As per WHO, every 10th person succumbs to food-borne illness and results in 4.2 lakh deaths annually and children below 5 years of age are more vulnerable. A study by Bisht et al (2021) showed that mean food borne outbreaks in West Bengal and Karnataka were to the tune of about 30%. An estimated 100 million foodborne diseases and 1.2 lakh foodborne illness-related fatalities occur each year in India (Panwar et al., 2022). According to the World Bank report (2019), unsafe food still costs in India was $15 billion annually and India and China together contribute about 49% of total economic burden on this account. While SDG3 directly targets good health and well-being, other SDGs like 1,2, 12 and 17 also indirectly aim to address food safety related issues.
Food safety in globalized setting
Food regulation started when food production shifted from home to manufacturing. Though, the earliest food safety law dates back to 1202 when The Assize of Bread and Ale was proclaimed in Great Britain to define the quantity and quality of bread and beer, only by the 1900s, proactive efforts were made to streamline food safety laws. Regulatory agencies like FDA, EFSA, CDC, etc were established. Considering prevention as a better measure, the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system was established in 1960 to identify exact critical stages where the system could go wrong so that it could be tackled effectively.
Over time, food safety guarantee has evolved through a multi-pronged approach of regulatory framework, guidance and awareness building. Good agricultural Practices (GAP), Good manufacturing practices (GMP) and HACCP form the basis of ensuring food safety. The dynamic food safety standards are set based on scientific principles for risk assessment, risk communication, risk management, and traceability and revised from time to time based on contemporary scientific advancements.
Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), an arm of FAO with a mandate of consumer health, is the international food standard body that develops guidelines and codes of practice contributing to the safety, quality and fairness of international food trade. As of today, 189 countries are members of CAC. Most of the countries have Food Safety mechanisms in place and are constantly developing scientifically sound regulatory framework to ensure public health. Some of the leading agencies include US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA); European Food Safety Authority (EFSA); Food Sanitation Act, Japan; Canadian Food Inspection Agency; and Food Standards Australia and New Zealand etc. Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) under Ministry of Health & Family Welfare governs food safety in India.
GFSI Foundation was established in 2005 under Belgian Law with a mission of continuous improvement in food safety management systems to ensure confidence in the delivery of safe food to consumers. The Foundation focuses on convergence of global food experts, cost efficiency and provides an international platform.
India has demonstrated better health and commercial outcomes by involving public agencies, businesses, and consumers in food safety. Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) was established by an act of Parliament in 2008 to streamline the food safety standards and also harmonize with international standards by consolidating and repealing standalone acts and orders pertaining to food, fruits, meat, milk, and edible oils. The Authority has an overarching mission of setting food standards, developing safe food practices; license food businesses; ensure compliance and test; capacity building and awareness building. With the help of 21 Scientific panels and Scientific Committee, FSSAI constantly develops and updates the food standards. The Food Safety Appellate Tribunal and the Registrar of the Appellate Tribunal, for adjudication of food safety cases.
As per recent data from FSSAI, there are 227 primary food laboratories out of which licenses of 27 labs have expired; 20 referral laboratories; 11 national reference laboratories and 2 ancillary reference laboratories in India. Under three central sector schemes, financial assistance is provided to establish/upgrade food testing laboratories.
With a target of about 30% enhanced food valorization by processing about 20% of perishables to capture about 3% of global food market share consumer safety and brand equity are of paramount importance in India. Non-compliance to food safety standards could not only impact the profitability of the FBOs but also could lead to food recalls thereby affecting reputation. As one of the largest food producers of the world, India faces the challenge to sustain increased scrutiny of food safety.
Food wastage and Food Safety nexus:
Food safety is one of the major reasons for food waste. Food safety hazards at farm level such as mycotoxin contamination of feed, overuse of antimicrobials in livestock disease control etc., may lead to food unfit for human consumption. Appropriate management of risks coupled with balanced food safety regulations along the supply chain can reduce food loss and waste. This requires i) balancing the scientific evidence and the precautionary principle; ii) periodic review of food safety regulations to minimize avoidable waste; iii) provision of tailored information on linkages between food safety and waste; iv) investments to accurately assess the edibility of food; and v) harmonization of policies and practices of food labelling and packaging to avoid unintended food waste. The losses due to perceived rather than actual food safety issues, or simply for cosmetic concerns could be avoided through proper awareness building.
To conclude, a balanced food safety law should ensure availability, access, proper utilization and stability of the food chain so that the human and animal health is not jeopardized.
*Dean of School of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, NMIMS Shirpur