Venkatesh Ganapathy

India is the largest producer of oilseeds in the world. During 2020-21, India’s estimated production of nine cultivated oil seeds was 36.56 million tons. Different agro climatic zones contribute to the variety of oilseeds crops grown in India. Though Groundnut, mustard, sesame, safflower, linseed, castor are the major traditionally cultivated oilseeds, in recent years soybean, rice bran oil, cottonseed oil and sunflower have gained lot of market prominence. Import of edible oils addresses the issues of mismatch between demand and supply. 60% of demand for cooking oil is met through imports.

The production of oilseeds was 324.79 lakh tons in 2010-11 – it grew to 332.19 lakh tons in 2019-20.  For the year 2020-21, it is estimated to be 365.65 lakh tons. Imports of edible oil increased from 72.42 lakh tons (2010-11) to 134.16 lakh tons (2019-20). The total availability of edible oils increased to 240.71 lakh tons (2019-20) from 170.24 lakh tons (2010-11).

Regional preferences for edible oil characterise the Indian market. Groundnut oil is preferred in West and South. Mustard oil is preferred in East and North. South Indian demand for edible oils is also skewed towards coconut and sesame oil. 56 % of domestic demand of edible oils is met through imports out of which palm oil/palmolein constitutes about 54%.

The Technology Mission on Oilseeds set up in 1986 was converted into a National Mission on Oilseeds and Oil Palm (NMOOP) in 2014 giving an impetus to Government’s efforts to increase the production of oilseeds in the country. Relaxation in controls and regulations in the last few years has led to increased competition in the market.

Blending in edible oils was allowed in 1990. But in 1998, northern states witnessed dropsy epidemic. Consumption of mustard oil that was adulterated with Argemone (a kind of toxic weed) was cited as the reason for the outbreak. But this could not be proven scientifically. The US FDA has declared in its website that erucic acid in mustard oil can cause cardiovascular diseases. Experts have termed the blending of mustard oil as dangerous to health. In 2006, FSSAI laid down regulations.

Adulteration in edible oils was mainly due to blending with mustard oil which could camouflage poor quality blended oils due to its dark colour and pungent smell. Mustard oil blends were sold in market where the proportion of mustard oil was low. The Agriculture Produce (Grading and Marking) Act (AGMARK) regularised producers involved in blending of oils. Opinions about blending other oils with mustard oils continued to be mixed but mustard farmers faced a dip in their profits. This led to increased imports of edible oils from India. The FSSAI step to ban blending of mustard oil was undertaken to eliminate adulteration of mustard oil. The FSSAI decided to operationalise the Draft Food Safety and Standards (Prohibition and Restriction on Sales) Amendment Regulations, 2020 from 1st of October 2020. FSSAI has also advised food commissioners to test the presence of oryzanol content in mustard oil. This was done with a view to eliminate blending of rice bran oil with mustard oil.

Food regulator enforced its decision to ban blending of mustard oil with any other cooking oil for production of Multi-Sourced Edible Vegetable Oils since June 8, 2021. The regulations by FSSAI allow blending of two edible oils, provided the proportion by weight of any edible vegetable oil used in the blending process is not less than 20%. This is expected to encourage mustard growers to increase the sowing area under mustard crop. This might have a positive economic impact in terms of reduced imports of edible oil.

The 33rd meeting of the Food Authority changed the nomenclature of “Blended Edible Vegetable Oil” as “Multi Source Edible Oil”. FSSAI has stipulated that multi-source edible vegetable oil should not be sold in loose form. Such oils must be sold in sealed package not weighing more than 15 kg and must bear the AGMARK certification mark.

FSSAI had amended the Food Safety and Standards (Prohibition and Restriction on Sales) Regulations in December 2020. The regulation was applicable for edible refined oils, vanaspati (partially hydrogenated oils), margarine, bakery shortenings, and other mediums of cooking such as vegetable fat spreads and mixed fat spreads. Following a directive by World Health Organization to global elimination of trans-fats by 2023, FSSAI notified the edible oil industry to reduce trans-fat content in oils and fats. FSSAI had also mandated that amount of trans fatty acids in oils and fats must be pared to 3% from 5% but early in the year, the edible oil industry requested the regulator to postpone its implementation to 2022.

The regulator has also laid down regulations regarding consumption of reheated cooking oil. Repeated using and frying of edible oil leads to the formation of total polar compounds and free radicals and increases the percentage of trans-fats in it. The government has set the maximum permissible limit of Total Polar Compound (TPC) in cooking oil at 25 percent with the Food Authority creating testing protocols for testing TPC.

FSSAI’s triple E strategy focuses on education, empowerment and ecosystem to educate consumers on deleterious impact of consuming used cooking oil. The Government has encouraged conversion of used cooking oil to bio diesel.

The FSSAI has also made attempts to educate the public about the importance of refining oils and allowed the same using permitted food grade materials. Most of the nutritional components, like tocopherols, tocotrienols, phytosterols, oryzanol lignans, etc. are retained in the oil during refining. India consumes almost 87 per cent of the refined oil in various forms. Manufacturers are required to use the FSSAI-approved process and agents for refining.

Thus, the regulations on edible oils have been framed keeping consumer interests in mind. However, in many cities like Chennai and Bangalore, cold pressed oils are being sold by hyper-local manufacturing units. Regulation has been silent on the manufacture of such oils and awareness about the veracity of the quality claims made by such oils is limited. This is an area that needs immediate attention by the regulator.