New Delhi: India will establish a food safety agency by the end of the year that will set stricter standards and institute recall procedures in a country where many now fear their food is not fit to eat.
The country jump-started the process of overhauling its food laws -- at least 10 by one count -- after an environmental group found pesticides in Coca-Cola and Pepsi soft drinks bottled in India four years ago.
The findings prompted worries about wider food contamination and saw the Indian parliament pass a new overarching food safety law last year to create an agency along the lines of the US Food and Drug Administration.
“It will be a kind of a regulatory body that will ensure human health and safety and a level playing field for trade practices,” Debasish Panda, an Indian health official handling food safety, told AFP. “We expect this by the end of calendar year in functional form,” he added.
The agency will set standards for pesticides, additives, supplements, organic food and hygiene for locally produced and imported food.
The group behind the Coke and Pepsi study views the new law as a victory for its efforts, which saw the global soft drink makers singled out in 2003 in order to show the widespread prevalence of pesticides in Indian water.
“The study took the bull by the horns,” said Chandra Bhushan, associate director of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment.
“Since the 1980s we have talked about the pesticide problem. We looked at the track record of the studies done and everyone looked at commodities for which there was no political mileage.”
The organization followed up the 2003 study with fresh testing of drinks last year, and found that Coca-Cola and Pepsi drinks made in India still contained higher than acceptable pesticide traces.
The fact that “even the biggest and best brand has pesticides” said Bhushan, was a worrying commentary on the state of India’s $100-billion food market, about a third of which is processed foods.
How contaminated is our food?
India uses about 30,000 tons of pesticides a year, more than 60% of it on food crops. Environmentalists say the excessive use of pesticides has affected soil, water and food in India.
But no one knows for sure the truth of the claims or counter-claims, while both Coke and Pepsi have said their Indian products are safe to drink.
Food testing is minimal, with even labs in New Delhi collecting less than half the number of samples that they are required to test each month. Also many samples are thrown out without testing because of spoilage.
Pesticide residue data from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, showed that until about 2000, 20% of all fruit, vegetables and milk had levels that exceeded current standards.
An official with the agricultural agency warned that their research had limited bearing on the national food market, but added that more recent testing found reduced residues.
Food sellers and producers said having a single law in place of a dozen was a good idea in theory, but worried it would be hard for them to meet stricter standards.
“It’s not yet clear,” said Tushar Mehra, 26, who runs popular New Delhi bakery chain Angels in My Kitchen.
“I have to bake particular things and I know the ingredients and if according to the act those ingredients should not be used any more, that will affect the product which in turn will affect my sales.”
Farmers beyond control?
Some of the more stringent requirements for example, using clean water are not entirely within the control of food processors, said an industry body.
“If you have contamination in the water in your product, the processor is to blame. But he’s not the one putting pesticides into the water. So how can they ensure clean water?”
Most strangely, for fresh foods like fruit and vegetables, the law’s standards only take effect once they have left the farm and entered the marketplace.
“Contamination of all natural resources with chemical pesticide residues because of faulty and hazardous agricultural technologies at the farming level is often ignored,” said a recent German-funded study by the south India-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.
“Without solving the basic problem, no amount of standard setting at the consumption level is going to solve the problem.”