Nestle India is the Swiss Multinational that has been doing business in India for over 32 years without a hint of any problem. Suddenly, the FSSAI discovered that the noodles failed the safety norms based on the tests conducted by its accredited labs and banned the marketing of the noodles pan India overnight.
According to the company statement, all the 90 samples covering six variants, tested by the laboratories had lead much below the permissible limits. The company said it conducted more than 3,500 tests representing over 200 million packs in both national as well as international accredited laboratories and all reports were clear. These are the same Maggi lots that failed to clear tests at FSSAI labs, it said. The results are not surprising. After the storm that was kicked up, several countries importing the noodles banned it too but conducted their own stringent tests objectively. One after the other, the Food Standard Authorities in Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, UK, Canada and US have found the noodles well within the safe limits.
According to ET, the social commentator Santosh Desai writes, "This speaks volumes about the regulatory apparatus of the country, and even its anti-business stance in this case," "It’s about a global foods giant with well-established credentials being targeted."
Similarly in the case of Pernod Ricard where the presence of tartaric acid was the reason for rejection, the company had reportedly met and represented their case to FSSAI in several meetings. The importer reportedly gave sufficient information about the wines –same are also being exported to around 100 countries without any problems. The rejection and with no respite made the company file petition in the Honourable High Court in Mumbai.
While giving the judgement, the Honourable Bombay High Court agreed with the view given by Pernod Ricard that Tartaric acid is not a prohibited additive under the regulations. They have been importing the Jacobs Creek label for the last ten years and it is the biggest selling foreign wine in India today. The wine has always been imported without a hitch and the company says tartaric acid is found even in fruit juice. Reportedly, Indian wines also use tartaric acid.
Fortunately, we have one of the most fair-minded and objective system of justice in India albeit tardy and once the FSSAI becomes more pragmatic, the working will be much smoother. What we need perhaps is having people with deeper knowledge of the food, wine and spirits processing in the organisation. What we have are the seemingly power-hungry decision makers, who play the role of both the prosecutor and judge without any procedure for appeal. Nobody-whether it’s Nestle or Pernod Ricard deny that we must get safe foods to eat and drink and the law has been made to ensure that. But there also must be transparency and logic in the implementation, apart from the need to have a buffer to diffuse the situation before they come to pass.
Unfortunately, the industry is always at the receiving end so far as FSSAI is concerned. People in Pernod Ricard have become even more defensive, cautious and anxious about the possibility of a perverse stance being taken by the authorities at any time. One cannot conduct business if one has to run to the court for every small matter. In a manner of speaking, one is forced to sleep with the enemy.
There must be the possibility of dialogue between the producers, importers and the FSSAI. We need to stop looking at each other with suspicion and like enemies. The staff members at FSSAI possibly feel they are mightier than the almighty. But the recent transfer of the Chairman with only a 2-hour notice does show the other side of the coin. A dialogue helps express the viewpoint of both sides, given that the producers and importers are comfortable and amenable to the Act or the stringency of the law to make the products safe and healthy.
It’s very awkward and difficult to explain to foreign producers how such a high level government body can ban the import simply because of tartaric acid when it is routinely used worldwide in the process and is also present in juices. It is uncomfortable to explain the government’s stand when they wonder how it is possible that the same labs the rejected the samples have now accepted and how they rejected in the first place when all the other international labs with strict standards have found the product to be conforming the safety standards. Were they lax earlier or was there any hidden motive? Did the government have some sinister design? As ordinary citizen it is not easy to look at the inside working and so the speculation are rife about ulterior motives.
Buffer Appellate body needed
There is an urgent need of an independent appellate body that would be a buffer/ arbitrator between FSSAI and the importer/producer. This body will be independent and unaffected by the governmental influence. It could be on the lines of Income Tax Appellate Authority/Tribunal but much more responsive and well qualified in the food and beverage industry, laws and international practices.
In the case of FSSAO there is no such mechanism. According to media, there have been branding erosion of over Rs. 1200 crores (Rs. 12 billion) for Maggi noodles. Who will bear the loss? The law won’t allow FSSAI to be sued. In case of Pernod Ricard, there has been only a sales loss of the tune of around 5-10,000 cases.
There will be more such cases in future; hopefully FSSAI and the government have learnt something positive from these episodes.
Technical Staff and training
In both these cases the technical knowledge and training have been perhaps an important cause of the problem. A hasty decision and almost Baba Ramdev’s style of annihilating any corporate that has something foreign, is against our Directive Principles and the government needs to address the issue immediately before there is a permanent damage. Already, we have become a laughing stock overseas about the arbitrariness-especially in the case of Pernod Ricard.
After several efforts some of the small and medium producers who claim to represent 60% of the wine import business have finally got this new organisation registered. According to one of the members, the Association tried to meet the former Chairman to brief him on the problems they were facing because of the arbitrariness by the department. They felt it might have been easier to have an appointment with the Prime Minister! Mercifully, they feel that the things are relatively quiet on that front right now.
Totally committed to following the FSSAI diktat so long as it follows the Act (as if the importers or producers had a choice!) they would gladly follow the guidelines and procedures if there were no ambiguities and they were specified and ‘guaranteed’ to remain the same for say, 5 years. They would also like to have an open communication channel to express their problems and a situation that could make it easier for dealing with the FSSAI.
They raise a very valid point as they refer to the UK enforcing their food safety laws, where they went in steps-picking up one area at a time according to the priority of safety and the risks generated by that category of the food. The authorities also set up a time-frame during which they actually helped producers fall in line or understand the law. They also feel it strange that while people in India are suffering from ailments due to milk, oil and the street food and FSSAI is concerned about the tartaric acid or allowing (or not) the stickers to be posted on the labels-the biggest problem has been labelling and ingredients where there is a lot of confusion.
Industry has to work with FSSAI-there is no doubt about that. But FSSAI should not be thought of as an enemy that they are forced to sleep with. There seems to be peace at the moment and we hope things are on the move for the better.
FSSAI Fever: Judgment at Bombay 2015
Victory for Common Sense in PRFJC vs. FSSAI