Three of every four companies found guilty of misbranding or selling adulterated food products get away without any punishment, according to health ministry records, even as Nestle India and the instant-noodle industry continue to suffer what now appears to have been an exaggerated scare over contaminants.
Canada, UK, Hong Kong and Singapore, Australia and New Zealand have all found Maggi two-minute noodles to be safe, as have many Indian states, and while legal proceedings continue, the controversy is a reflection of how food-safety procedures unfold in India.
Over the past seven years, about 25% of 53,406 companies against whom prosecution was launched for violating food safety laws were convicted. As many as 72,861 companies were found guilty of misbranding and adulteration during the period.
As many as 72,200 samples of foodstuff, such as dal, ghee and sugar, were collected from across India last year. Of these, 13,571 (about 18%) were found adulterated and substandard.
Experts say that the low conviction rate is one of the primary reasons for the rise of adulterated food in market during the past five years. The percentage of adulterated food tested by government has risen from 8% in 2008 to about 18% in 2014.
Who will analyse suspect food?
Officials blame the low conviction rates on a shortage of food analysts. Last year, as thisTimes Of India report said, Rajasthan closed seven public-health laboratories because it could not find such analysts.
“There are only about 200 food analysts in the country, so it becomes really difficult to prove charges in the court,” an official with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) told IndiaSpend. He spoke on condition of anonymity, since he is not authorised to speak to the media.
There are many states that are yet to establish appellate tribunals, as mandated in the Food Safety and Standards Act (2006), to quickly conclude cases where the adjudicating officer has already passed orders, thus leading to trial delays, said the official. Indeed, the 45% conviction rate in 2014-15 is an improvement from 16% in 2008-09. The spike in conviction rate is mainly because of the establishment of the FSSAI in August 2011.
Stiff punishment, lax enforcement
Punishments for mislabeling, adulterating or sale of unsafe food can range from six months in jail to life imprisonment, and fines up to Rs 10 lakh. Over the past three years, the government has collects about Rs 17 crore in fines.
State food-safety officers pick random samples and send them to government laboratories for testing, a process monitored and regulated by the FSSAI. A scrutiny of the past three years’ records show that except for a few state authorities, such as Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jammu & Kashmir, none of them have convicted offenders. Bihar, Rajasthan and Haryana are among the worst performers. Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh were among the states where every third sample tested was found below standards.
(Gangadhar S Patil is a New Delhi-based freelance journalist. He has worked with The Economic Times,DNA and The New Indian Express.)