Weak consumer rights movement need activation.

Sudan-I dye in Indian chillies creates a scare all over the world about India’s food safety standards.
World Consumers Day was duly celebrated. Unsafe foods, GM foods, potato, soya, maize based foods with no labels flood our super stores. Food eating out is growing even faster. So, there is a legtimate fear over the food saftety and the dangers to health from the new foods. Foreign foods are also flooding the food stores in all metros. So safety of food products, the health hazards from fast foods ares assuming critical importance. Just now the raging controversy in UK over Indian export of chilli with cancer-causing Sudan I dye was exported in 2002. That led to a food recall in UK and 14 other countries.

The loss : Rs.126 crores. It had been used in 350 odd foods sold across Europe. Indians have a poor image as a reliable exporters of quality food products. The series of adulteration charges, from adulterated spices, coconut oil and seafoods and now the chillis scandal… There is no end. Indian trade class is notorious for quick money and they cared a damn always for any other concerns. Even now, the officialdom dismisses charges! 73 per cent export of spices go outside EU. So, the public health sfatey and the image of India as a reliable exporter of food items. Indian’s competitive strength in the emerging WTO-bound trade regime calls for a more stringent food saftey law, not less. As in all other instances, here the actual implementing mechanism is critical. We have to bring in the many Consumer Councils, the consumer bodies, the NGOs and the public-private partnership concept must be allowed to play a role. Like Lok Adalats, we have to have a citizens jury to make a summary enquiry and punish the guilty traders and the purveyors of adulterated and dangerous food items.

The Food Safety and Standard Bill 2005 is before Parliament and this is to make food safety a major target. This new law weill replace some 17 odd old Acts that deal with food safety issues so far and update our food safety concerns up-to-date.

Indians have no reputation for their business ethics! There are series of scandals from coconut oil to spices to seafood. India’s image abroad as a reliable supplier of food items is very poor, if not plainly suspect. Always!

The context cant be more timely when a major scandal had broken out with the Sudan-I dye in chilli powder. Even now, Indian retail market is flooded with loose masalas, those in transparent wrapping without any labels. Only Maharashtra FDA has been pro-active. What about other states? Who asks? Who bothers! The Commerce Minister Mr.Kamalnath had promised that the new law would deal with such great challenges to the new WTO-context Indian export regime. Indians have to strive hard to earn a brand image for honest trade practices. One hopes Kamalnath’s promise is translated in the act. We as a people quite shameless, we do anything to gain petty profits, that is the state of affairs in our food saftety issues. Already, as consumer groups have pointed out the new law is heavily favoured on the side of the industry. The consumer interests are not centre stage in the new law.

First, which ministry will the nodal agency to implement the law. It should be the consumers affairs ministry. This is not yet decided? So, the government must make its position here very clear. There can’t be too many cooks! The consumers ministry has already been entrusrted with the weights and measures act, essential commodities act and India has BIS too. Date of manufacture, expiry date, Agmark, ISI marks have to be rigorously enforced. Why one more body as proposed in the new law for new standards here?

Food safety issues are becoming quite challenging with the international companies in the infant foods and with the Infant Milk Substitute Act provisions we have to retain them. The Consumers Voice, editor has pointed out that the new act must effectively introduce a food product recalls sytem as consumers need complete information via labelling. Misleading food ads and labelling one of the effective ways in which MNCs can easily fool the gullible people! New foods and food supplements are coming into the market everyday. Nutraceuticals, nanotechnology, smart breeding, genetically modified crops etc. would bring with them a host of food safety issues.

Much more important is the food industry and our ehtnic food cuisinies and habits. Regional cuisine is India’s great strengths and we have to come out with citizens group surveys, opinions and suggestions about to enforce new standards of hygeine. Hygeine is one of Indian food industry’s weak points.Certainly, we have to enforce some classification of restaurants all over India. Given Indians’ track record for business ethics it is an uphill task but there is no way to move forward unless we arrest the wrong doers. A stringent enforcement machinery with arrest powers for those who commit the wrongs is a must. Heavy fines and even a jail term for food adulterators is very important. Given our history of spurious liquor tragedies and other such tragedies, our fast food food culture already is threatening the child obsesity that is killing people in large numbers, we can have a law.

Let the Consumers Courts be activated. A shame considering in many States the Consumers Courts are left with no staff or enough judges!

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