Food standards: Safeguarding lives and securing a
sustainable future

Economic Times, June 07, 2023

By Pradeep S Mehta and Simi TB

An estimated 823 million people in the world endure chronic hunger, and 149 million children under the age of five suffer from stunted growth. The economic burden of malnutrition stands at a staggering US$3.5tn annually, while four million lives are lost each year due to overweight and obesity. Moreover, approximately 14 percent ($400bn worth) of global food is lost between harvest and retail, with an additional 17 percent wasted at the retail and consumer levels. Shockingly, contaminated food poses a grave threat, affecting roughly 600 million individuals and leading to illness in almost 1 in 10 people worldwide, ultimately claiming the lives of 420,000 individuals every year. These staggering statistics by various UN bodies underscore the significance of advocating for food standards in protecting public health, ensuring the safety of food, and confronting the diverse obstacles presented by the global food system.

Hopefully, the health working group under the G20 leaders has taken on board the issues of food safety and standards in its deliberations and will come forward with recommendations to address the problems. Undoubtedly, availability, affordability and nutrition are equally important collateral issues that also need a thorough discussion.

Today, the 7th June, with the global population surpassing eight billion and projected to continue rising in the coming years, the world observes World Food Safety Day under the theme ‘Food Standards Save Lives.’ This significant day emphasises the crucial role of established food safety practices and standards in guaranteeing the safety and quality of food.

Advancing Food Standards Globally

While international standardisation bodies like Codex contribute significantly to food system transformation and sustainability, the role of bilateral and multilateral collaborations and alliances cannot be overstated. The ongoing G20 summit with India at its helm serves as an unparalleled platform for achieving this objective. With its representation of both developed and developing countries, the G20 offers a unique opportunity for collaboration and consensus-building on critical matters concerning food standards. By leveraging this platform, countries can work together to enhance international market access and foster economic growth.

The member countries can share best practices, exchange information, and develop common approaches to address challenges related to food standards. Such a collaboration has the potential to lead to harmonisation of regulations and development of global guidelines that can enhance transparency and improve consumer confidence in the safety and quality of food products across the entire food value system.

Besides, the G20 could also help mobilise resources and encourage investment in infrastructure, research, and capacitybuilding initiatives to strengthen food standards globally. By advancing food standards, the G20 can contribute to sustainable development by encouraging responsible agricultural practices, minimising food waste, and mitigating the environmental consequences associated with food production. This multifaceted approach not only safeguards public health but also supports economic growth, ensures food security, and fosters sustainability.

Improving Food Standards in India

While India has made efforts to align its food standards with international norms, it is important to acknowledge that improvements are still necessary in several areas. The most prominent concern revolves around the inconsistent enforcement and implementation of food standards throughout the country. Adherence and compliance levels vary among different states and food businesses, raising questions about the effectiveness of the regulatory framework in ensuring consistent food safety and quality. Another issue is the need for more comprehensive and up-to-date regulations that can effectively address emerging challenges. Given the rapidly evolving food landscape and changing consumer demands, proactive measures are required to regulate new food products, technologies, and production processes. However, the pace of updating and revising food standards in India has often been sluggish, resulting in outdated regulations that do not adequately address current food safety issues.

For example, the insistence on displaying a ‘trans-fat free’ logo when trans-fat has already been banned in all foods, oils, and fats since January 1st, 2022, in India is outdated and perplexing. Requiring food business operators to howcase a trans-fat free logo suggests a lack of complete compliance and highlights a failure on the part of the food regulator to ensure 100 percent adherence to the ban. Likewise, front of pack labelling (FOPL), a tool to inform and guide consumers towards healthier food choices, has been under FSSAI’s consideration since 2014. In spite of these many years, the country is yet to have a regulation on FOPL. This lethargy in enacting such vital regulation is disconcerting, especially considering the rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the country. The prevalence of NCDs has increased in India from 37.9 percent in 1990 to 61.8 percent in 2016. Furthermore, a study conducted by AIIMS in India revealed that as much as 68 percent of food and beverage products currently available in the market contain excessive amounts of at least one ingredient of concern, such as salt, sugar, or saturated fats.

The complex food supply chain in India also poses challenges in ensuring compliance with standards at every stage. Monitoring and enforcing standards across this vast system, from small-scale farmers to large-scale processing and distribution, is daunting. Strengthening oversight and surveillance mechanisms therefore becomes essential to address the potential gaps in compliance. Furthermore, consumer awareness and education about food standards need attention, as many consumers lack understanding of labelling, nutrition, and their rights as a consumer.

To address these challenges, India must prioritise the enhancement of its food standards system. This requires investments in infrastructure to enable regular inspection, monitoring, and proper testing facilities for effective implementation. Regular updates of food regulations and standards are necessary to tackle emerging challenges and align with global best practices. Moreover, strengthening training programmes and capacity building for food inspectors and businesses will further improve compliance and foster a better understanding of food standards.

Food Standards Key to Sustainability

The importance of food standards should never be underestimated, it helps meet food and nutrition goals under the Sustainable Development Goals agenda and also contribute to broader sustainability objectives. While failure to comply with international standards is an ongoing challenge for developing countries, climate change is making compliance even harder. Rising temperatures are increasing food safety risks and expanding the spread of animal diseases and plant pests. Therefore, it is high time for countries to adopt a standard-driven culture across all sectors and promote responsible agricultural practices. By doing so, we can pave the way for a resilient and thriving global food system that supports both people and the planet.

(The authors work for CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group.)

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