Who has framed the Food Safety and Standards Bill, the government or the industry?

When Parliament convenes for the monsoon session, the government plans to introduce the Food Safety and Standards Bill, 2005. I am sure the government will hope there is enough mayhem to distract the attention of legislators from the bill, which has been crafted carefully to weaken consumer protection in the face of the power of the growing business of food.

Food we know is a sunshine industry. And industry tells government that the regulatory regime is cumbersome and corrupt. This, it adds, strangles the industry. These arguments are correct.

But, we must note, food is not only about business. Food is about people who grow it, and small producers and manufacturers who source and supply it to our tables. Food, most importantly, is about health and livelihoods.

This is a crucial time for us to weigh the trade-off between health and nutrition on the one hand, and profit on the other. Industry has discovered that reaching for our stomachs is a lucrative business. The food on our table is changing — it is less natural and more manufactured — mirroring the situation in the ‘developed’ world. This is a consequence of what is known as value-addition: industries source raw material, process, mix and manufacture it, and, most importantly, package it.

It is said farmers will benefit. But the fact is big business squeezes prices in the name of reliability and quality, and the inevitable losers are those who grow the raw material for the food we eat.

This is part of the logic of subjecting nutrition and health to the mercies of the market. In this paradigm, food becomes a matter of marketing rather than nutrition, health or consumer rights. Industry is winning because Indians are beginning to crave packaged goodies — urban Indians spend 20 per cent of their household income on buying processed food and even rural India spends 10 per cent. We now spend more on buying manufactured food than on buying fruit and vegetables. We spend more on beverages than on milk.

The irony is we are taking the path of the rich world, which has learnt that food as business is bad for health, because lifestyle diseases are linked to bad food. It is also learning new definitions for safe food as bacteria are being replaced by tiny toxins — from chemical additives and preservatives to contaminants like pesticides, dioxins, hormones and other harmful things. It is responding by turning to organic food — what we don’t want anymore.

The experience of the rich world should show us that food legislation has a dual purpose — to provide conditions for the growth of the food sector and to provide incentives and regulations so that it can produce safe food.

But the piece of legislation our government is pushing through, will do nothing of the kind. If you read between the legalese you find that the name Food Safety and Standards Bill is a misnomer, because: one, it deliberately dilutes the already weak protection that consumers have; and, two, it helps large producers by tightening the screws on small manufacturers, vendors and distributors.

How does it do this? It obfuscates the definition of what constitutes safe or unsafe food. For example, we know there are ‘contaminants’ in food — substances not added deliberately, which make our food unsafe. This bill does not think so. It introduces the concept of ‘extraneous matter’. This is a contaminant, but it is not unsafe. Meaning, the onus will be on the consumer to prove whether pesticide in food is a contaminant, thus unsafe, or extraneous matter, which companies will say is safe.

To compound your pain, it makes the definition of ‘unsafe’ equally convoluted. In the current Prevention of Food Adulteration (pfa) Act, as in most food laws across the world, it is accepted that food is unsafe if it does not meet stipulated standards set by regulators. But this bill does not contain this provision. It does not consider food with contaminants unsafe, nor provide penalty for food with contaminants or food that does not meet stipulated standards.

The industry’s justification for this law has been that the current regime is draconian because it puts the onus for holding companies and individuals liable for adulterated food on corrupt officials. It was argued that small industries and processors were particularly harmed by these provisions. But in the current legislation, trickery prevails. While the paraphernalia of the pfa Act remains intact for small manufacturers, big companies are given escape routes.

How? Firstly, the bill brings into its ambit primary food, so that all problems of quality are blamed on the raw material used in the manufacture and not on processed food. Secondly, by imposing penalties on food retailers, hawkers and temporary stallholders, it enshrines the long-standing demands of big companies, which argue that the real problem of quality is because of these small players. Thirdly, it tightens penalties on small producers by introducing a draconian clause allowing food inspectors to impose fines of Rs 1 lakh on these petty manufacturers on the basis of “reasonable belief” that an offence has been committed. But to help the big companies, it dilutes all provisions of liability. It also provides for equal penalties for all sizes of companies. The fines range from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 10 lakh depending on the nature of the offence. While this will be a deterrent for the small, it is peanuts for large companies. This is why in countries like Japan, where the business of food is multi-layered, governments provide for graded penalties based on turnover.

This bill does not protect consumers, farmers or small producers. It is difficult to say who drafted the bill: the government or big business? Or are the two the same by now?

— Sunita Narain