The story of 25,000 crores worth of food lying unused across the ports of India is one waiting to be told. We got in touch with people from the food industry to understand the current scenario regarding packaging and labeling of imported food products.
Over 200 tonnes of chocolates, olives, alcoholic beverages, cured meat, cheese and other food products are catching dust in warehouses across the country as The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has banned imported goods from coming through due to incorrect labeling. Products with a short shelf life are being pulled back and others are just sticking it out.
There's plenty of ambiguity, lack of dialogue and absence of a well-articulated framework when it comes to rules and regulations regarding the food industry. FSSAI is responsible for laying down science-based standards for manufacturing, processing, distribution, sale and import of all food products. This regulatory body is the one point contact for all food manufacturers. We also tried to get in touch with the FSSAI over a number of days but did not receive a response.
At first glance, everything appears to be in line. What could go wrong with a regulatory body trying to ensure that food imports meet Indian safety standards? For starters, the guidelines or regulations that the FSSAI follow are not up to date. Mr. Amit Lohani, National Convenor for Forum of Indian Food Importers (FIFI) says, "The problem isn't that there are rules, but that these rules are old and irrelevant. The document that's being referred to is as old as 1954 and 1956. It's simply been rehashed to look new."
Makers of Lindt, the popular Swiss chocolate recently decided to pull out of the Indian market after a series of bruising losses. They saw six years of roaring success in the Indian market till they were struck by the FSSAI who asked them to comply with the labeling guidelines under the 'Food Safety and Standards Act, 2011'. In August 2013, three of their containers worth Rs.750 - 1000 crore (one third of which was chocolates) were held back. The FSSAI asked them to list down ingredients in descending order of composition by weight or volume. The company complied with the request and sent a fresh batch in January 2014 which also didn't make it past the ports because of a modified regulation which stated that chocolates with vegetable oil or fat could not be imported.
The food industry is already heavily regulated - and if an importer does not meet the labeling and packaging requirements, it's choked right at the point of entry. Food importers are growing tired of the exhaustive list of rules and regulations. This has set off an avalanche of lawsuits giving a bad name to the FSSAI, especially amongst those in the food industry. In April 2014, a Starbucks shipment with two containers of flavoured-syrup was held back at the Mumbai port as the FSSAI felt that the product did not meet their basic requirements. A Starbucks spokesperson was quoted saying that the product in question met the requirements of over 64 countries and has been in supply for almost 40 years. Starbucks appealed to the Mumbai High Court which was quick in handing down its decision. The court asked FSSAI to release the shipment and also pointed out that they acted in an 'arbitrary and capricious manner.' A Starbucks' spokesperson refused to comment, on account of the matter being currently sub judice.
Mr. Amit Lohani from FIFI adds, "The dynamics and workings of the food industry have changed drastically. There are thousands of product categories and product sub-categories, each with its own unique manufacturing method. The FSSAI regulations aren't equipped to handle these which is what makes them regressive, not progressive."
An importer of black olives who wishes to remain anonymous has been in business for over 20 years and tells us how his shipment of pasteurized olives was held back over the issue of salt content. "The minimum salt content in pasteurized olives needs to be between 1 to 1.5 % but the products were tested against treated olives which are supposed to have a salt content of almost 5 %. The FSSAI was then informed that the salt content in pasteurized olives applies to international standards and is being tested against the wrong product. The FSSAI acknowledged this fact and released the consignment in question. But this problem can be repeated in the future with other importers because the rules are still the same. India is too small a market for big importers and this kind of hogwash approach will definitely drive away the big guns."
Another interesting case is that of Canola oil. In April, large shipments of canola oil were held back for incorrect labeling. The labeling rules say that products need to use their 'scientific name' and not their 'trade name.' Canola oil happens to be the trade name and the scientific name is 'Rapeseed Oil'. Mr. Lohani said "A rule as vague as this suddenly wipes away years of marketing efforts that positioned the product as canola oil amongst consumers."
While food importers seem to be going through a world of trouble, so are restaurant owners. Chef Manu Chandra, Executive Chef and Partner at Monkey Bar said "Cured meats, ham, cheese and other products have disappeared from the market. We're being forced to look at alternatives which might mean we'll have to compromise on the taste, flavour and quality we've been offering so far. For many, this is a deal breaker."
It is understandable that with increased awareness consumers want to know more about what's in their food. Nobody wants to stand in way of such kind of transparency. But current rules and regulations seem to be crippling the food industry instead of helping them deliver safe products.