How safe is your food will now be determined by the food industry. PepsiCo, Coca Cola, Nestle, ITC and Hindustan Unilever are some of the food giants that will approve the food that you eat. Now don't be surprised. The newly constituted Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has actually packed various scientific panels with industry representatives. Jai Ho !
In a front page report in the Mail Today (Aug 7, 2009) intrepid science journalist Dinesh C Sharma says: In an apparent case of the regulated becoming the regulators themselves, the array of scientific panels is packed with industry representatives who will provide 'scientific opinion' to the food authority on a range of critical issues like labelling, food additives, pesticide residues, genetically modified food and even decide methods of sampling and analysis.
Let us first look at the list of industry representatives on various scientific committees/panels:
Functional foods, Nutraceuticals: Hindustan Unilever, PepsiCo India, Marico, Food safety Solutions Internationals.
Sampling and Analysis: Coca Cola, Hindustan Unilever, Vimta laboratories, Micro Chem
Food additives and Flavourings: Marico, Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Excelsior Food and Chemicals
Contaminants in Food Chain: Ranbaxy, Hind Agro Industries
Pesticides and Antibiotic Residues: Brittania, ITC, Hindustan Unilever
Labelling, Advertisements/Claims: GSK Consumer Healthcare, Britannia, Nestle, IADFAC laboratories, Hindustan Unilever, Confederation of Indian Industry.
Section 13 of the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 under which the Authority has been set up says: "the food authority shall establish scientific panels, which shall consist of independent scientific experts." I wonder since when has the Ministry of Food Processing began to treat industry representatives as 'independent' scientific experts. On the contrary, the Authority has, as expected, turned out to be an industry affair. Like Mahatma Gandhi's three monkeys, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has now ensured that it will see no evil, talk no evil and hear no evil. By making the regulated the new regulators, it has very conveniently pushed all consumer concerns away from public glare.
V N Gaur, an IAS officer, who doubles as the chief executive officer of the Authority unabashedly defends the inclusion of the industry in the scientific panels: "Scientific knowledge is not the prerogative of government organisations alone. Transparency, high level of scientific integrity, and rigorous conflict of interest procedures are the best safeguards for science-based food standards and food safety," he told the newspaper. I would like to ask Mr Gaur that if it was true, there is no reason why processed food (mostly produced by top ten food companies in the world) should now emerge as the biggest killer even in the United States. Junk food (as it is often called) and the sedentary lifestyle is acknowledged worldover as the main reason behind the health crisis the world is faced with today.
Scientific knowledge is not only the prerogative of the government institutions and the private industry alone Mr Gaur. There are various non-government bodies and individuals in this country whose credibility in scientific issues is much above the official and private industry domains. Why not invite them on the panels? Why are you afraid of having them sit in these committess to decide the safety parameters that the food industry must adhere to?
And this reminds me of what Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd US President, had once said: "If people let governments decide what food they eat, their bodies will soon be in a sorry state as are the soul of those who live under tyranny." If only Jefferson had visualised that in the 21st century, what food the people should eat would be decided by the private food industry, I am sure he would have reframed his statement to say that such a society would be virtually enslaved.