The Food Testing Laboratories are the backbone of the food safety standards that India aims at maintaining. Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the regulator and supervisor of food safety is responsible for ensuring that the food items sold in the market are fit for consumption by the people. The working mechanism and quality analysis of labs under FSSAI are now put to question. With the recent Maggi controversy, food testing labs have come under scrutiny.
Data from the FSSAI shows that almost 13% of the 2.4 lakh product samples of various food items had failed laboratory tests since 2011. Thus, India takes the number one position in terms of unsafe food. Consumers do not know much about ingredients and nutritional facts of a food product due to inappropriate labelling.
Challenges Faced by Food Testing Labs
The the quality of testing has deteriorated in these labs across the India due to some inherent problems:
- Lack of adequate human resources
- Outdated infrastructure
- Shortage of chemicals to carry out tests
- Most of the state laboratories are not functional
- Financial constraints in most of the state laboratories
- Sample load is relatively high and most of the labs are not equipped to perform tests to check the presence of microbes, pesticides or metals.
- Most labs are capable of performing only chemical analysis and then the samples are sent to the private
- National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration (NABL)-accredited laboratories.
- Process of collecting samples is lengthy. It takes an officer at least two to three hours to collect samples in accordance with legal norms.
- It takes almost a year to get all documents in place for prosecution.
- There’s only one designated court to hear cases related to food safety. Hence, the backlog is huge.
FSSAI Notifies 82 Labs for Testing Food Samples
In the wake of Maggi controversy, Central food safety regulator FSSAI has notified 82 laboratories in India for testing food samples. This is a step taken to ensure products’ compliance with quality standards as set by the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. According to officials, the validity of these laboratories starts from the date of notification in the official gazette till further orders by the FSSAI.
Number of NABL-accredited labs in India
The Northern region has the highest number of NABL-accredited labs (28). While the western region has 25 labs, the southern region has 24.There are five labs in the eastern region.
To check adulteration and ensure food safety, in the past 2 years, the government has come up with a two-component scheme to help strengthen the testing facilities across states. The scheme was designed after conducting a detailed study of the deficiencies and gaps in labs across the country. The proposed scheme of 2014 has the following two components:
- Central sector scheme: Investment of Rs 850 crore was to be used for strengthening of FSSAI at regional field offices and headquarters. This amount will be used in e-governance, food safety surveillance, and strengthening central-level laboratories. The scheme also proposed to create a National Food Science and Risk Assessment Centre (NFSRAC).
- A centrally-sponsored scheme with an investment of Rs 900 crore: This was to be used for strengthening of food safety infrastructure at state level, improving state-level laboratories, creating awareness, training and providing educational programmes.
- As per the scheme, FFSAI would be implementing the funds only after the MoUs are signed between states and FSSAI.
Delhi’s Department of Food Safety
Delhi’s Food Safety Department has submitted a proposal to the Delhi government to improve the present facilities in their food laboratory and increase manpower. So far, Delhi has only the chemical wing for carrying out lab tests, out of the three mandatory wings: chemical, microbiology and the wing for carrying out tests on the presence of heavy metals. The laboratory needs to be upgraded so that all tests are done faster and results are more accurate. To achieve all this, a multipronged approach involving the Centre, the states and the food industry is needed.