Food has been much in the news lately.

Last month, the Registrar General of India released results of a 2014 survey on household habits—including vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism. The survey produced some startling results. Seventy-one percent of Indians over 15 years of age are non-vegetarian—a four percentage points fall from the previous baseline survey done in 2004. It is a common myth that Indians are substantially vegetarian. The results of the survey at the state level are even more interesting. Rajasthan is the most vegetarian state in India with approximately 75% vegetarians, and Telangana the least with only 1% vegetarians. Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana are among the most vegetarian states with Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal among the least. The five southern states taken together have a median vegetarian population of 2.3%.

While the survey asks other questions of the households surveyed (including the type of contraceptive method used) it does not investigate vegetarianism. Counter-intuitively, even as India’s per capita income rises, the country has become more vegetarian rather than less. Received economic wisdom has it that as a country becomes prosperous more meat, poultry and eggs per capita will be consumed. While India is indeed the most vegetarian country in the world, most countries have a sizeable number of vegetarians (for ease, I am making no distinction between vegetarian and vegan diets). Surprisingly, China at 5% of its population is estimated to have more vegetarians than the US at about 3% (though rising fast). Israel, Germany and Brazil have reasonably significant vegetarian populations. Religion-based vegetarianism in China and Taiwan falls into two buckets: Daoist vegetarians refrain merely from eating meat and Su vegetarians who refrain from meat and fetid vegetables like garlic and shallots. Given the centrality of milk and milk products, India’s religious vegetarianism is significantly lacto-vegetarianism.

There is a gradual increase in vegetarianism around the world. Google reported a sharp increase in searches around the world over the last few years for the word “vegan".

The increased consciousness against the use of animal ingredients has prompted a dramatic new focus on food labelling around the world. In the US and UK, vegetarian and vegan foods currently follow guidance issued by their respective food standard agencies. These protocols require full disclosure of ingredients and self-certifications that follow guidelines. Grocery retailers like Sainsbury and Waitrose in the UK now label many of their own products as “vegan". India has taken a lead in this area and requires a green dot for vegetarian food and a brown dot for non-vegetarian food in addition to a full list of ingredients. Soon there may be a blue dot for diabetes-friendly food in India.

Food labelling and safety in India falls under the purview of the Food Standard and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) established in 2006 by consolidating various food standard and safety regulations in one agency. FSSAI has eight regional offices, four referral laboratories and 72 local laboratories located around India. The Lucknow regional office was the one that issued a show cause notice to Nestle India Ltd about the presence of excess lead contaminant and incorrect food labelling for its Maggi product. According to a recent Right to Information response received by The Times of India, the Lucknow office had also issued notices to Mother Dairy for Fruit Added Lassi being sold without a licence, to Hindustan Unilever Ltd for producing sub-standard bread and to the Lulu Group for illegal slaughter at its Barabanki facility.

In a surprise move in March, FSSAI shut down the Lucknow and Chandigarh regional offices and has said it is moving towards a deregulation and self-compliance regime. The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) has withdrawn its earlier commitment of greater funding for FSSAI and encouraged the regulator to decentralize its enforcement activities to the states, and outsource some of its food testing to certified external laboratories.

FSSAI’s role is in flux. What should the right policy be?

At a time when the consumer is seeking greater truth in labelling and greater trust in the product she is consuming, FSSAI should indeed focus its role on regulation, licensing and standards. It is a good idea to outsource testing. However, the states have a very inconsistent capacity to enforce the standards. This is the area that will need the most work. States will need help with a greater number of accredited laboratories, more technically trained manpower and a general institutional capacity to be fair, but firm in their enforcement activities. The focus of enforcement should change from output and adulteration to certifying input and manufacturing processes.

The need for a greater selection of food types, including vegan food, will continue apace. Regulators will not be able to enforce standards on a rapidly expanding range of output foods. The focus must rightly shift towards regulation, standards and self-governance. Enforcement will be the (sugarless) icing on the cake.

P.S.: “The vegetarian manner of living, by its purely physical effect on the human temperament, would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind," said Albert Einstein. That’s a relative view, of course.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs.

Comments are welcome at narayan@livemint.com. To read Narayan Ramachandran’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

Close