A delegation led by Amit Lohani, Founder and Director of the Forum of Indian Food Importers (FIFI), the apex body representing food importers across India, recently met Ashish Bahuguna, the newly appointed Chairman of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India.
As a forum for international foods importers, FIFI has been working very closely with FSSAI since its inception to evolve better understanding of food laws and create a healthy trade environment for compliance. Over the years, imported products have also encouraged the Indian food industry to develop and manufacture food products matching international standards.
“We brought before him various concerns of the trade and the ambiguity faced by FIFI members on some FSSAI norms,” informed Lohani about the purpose of the meeting, adding that the FIFI delegation sought Mr Bahuguna’s suggestions and comments on the issues raised at the meeting.
Apart from Mr Lohani, members of the delegation included Mr V.N. Dalmia of Dalmia Continental, Mr Rajneesh Bhasin of Borges International, Mr Rakesh Banga of Farmland Foods and Mr Uday Chugh of Vriddhi Specialty. The trade concerns flagged at the meeting related to:
Clarity on Food Code and CODEX: FIFI members expressed the view that since Product Approval process has been struck down by the Supreme Court recently, the norms and guidelines of the Indian Food Code should now be followed. With more than 4,000 categorizations of products, IFC norms are extensive enough to cover under its ambit almost all the products imported in India. Members impressed upon Mr Bahuguna to follow the IFC norms for import clearances. “This would come as a massive relief from the current ambiguity in trade after the PA clause was taken off by the Supreme Court,” was the collective view of the delegation.
According to the note released and circulated among all members by FIFI, Mr Bahuguna assured the delegation of resolving this issue and putting in place guidelines for a more transparent process to facilitate trade. Members said that they felt very positive about the early resolution of the matter.
Labeling concerns: FIFI members feel that the exisiting difficulties in obtaining the NOC from FSSAI should be looked into. “Minor errors and deficiencies in labeling should not derail the sampling process and FSSAI officials should treat such cases with more consideration. When sampling is not done, the consignment languishes, until clearance and NOC from FSSAI comes,” pointed out the delegation.
The suggestion put forward was that any minor deficiency should be viewed sympathetically and the importer should be given the permission to re-label the product. It was put forward that keeping in view the past approvals granted by the High Courts in several such cases, the order of destruction or re-export should only be used for products which fail the basic safety aspects for human consumption.
To this suggestion Mr Bahuguna is reported to have cited a few judgments in favour of relabeling. At the same time he observed that there has also been one judgment favouring the FSSAI’s point of view. “We are trying to understand the legal ramifications on the subject,” is what Mr Bahuguna told the delegation.
FBO Licence: Members expressed their anguish over the delay and red tape in obtaining the licence. “The whole process of granting licence harkens back to the days of License Raaj. Minor mistakes are blown out of proportion,” pointed out the delegation.
It was therefore suggested that the primary domain of FSSAI should be FBO registration and not licensing, which encourages abuse of power. The focus should be on traceability of the FBO and the safety of food article sold by him. It was also suggested to do away with the annual renewal of licence and instead initiate a one-time registration process.
The delegation, in its release, said that it was happy to note that the Chairman absolutely and unequivocally supported our concern. “He assured us that this would be resolved and that there is no reason why documents should be required for renewal of licences.
SOP of Import: It was pointed out by the delegation that customs duty before the withdrawal of samples at certain ports is at the discretion of officers. The minimum time taken for withdrawal of samples is two days, which sometime exceeds to more than five days. After the withdrawal of samples, getting receipt of the test results takes an average of 10-12 days from the date of sampling. Even the process of sample withdrawal in Delhi is different than that in Mumbai, resulting in delay in clearance. It was pointed out that whereas officers in Mumbai do not ask for the delivery order (received from shipping line post customs clearance) for sample withdrawal, delivery order is asked for in Delhi.
It was suggested that the FSSAI should maintain process parity at all ports. The total time frame for withdrawal of samples till the delivery of test results should not exceed five days. In the case of any delay, the importer should be allowed to take the shipment out on an indemnity bond. It was also brought to light that the cost of delay causes loss to the consumers to the tune of Rs 15,000 daily on account of demurrages and detentions, which is borne by foreign shipping lines.
The delegation was assured that FSSAI was aware of this concern and was in the process of issuing clarity on SOP of import clearances so as to bring more parity at different ports.
Another point of discussion was about setting a timeframe for product sampling and testing. It was suggested that the FSSAI should come up with a Citizen Charter, which should serve as a guidebook for food business operators on the repertiore of services offered by FSSAI and an indicative timeframe for the delivery of such services. This proposal too was affirmatively received by Mr Bahuguna and the mutual feeling on the matter was that “a charter would assist in more transparency in trade and bridge the gap between trade and the authority leading to a more conducive environment”.
Also on the wishlist of FIFI was the matter of reverting to the earlier 5%–20% regime for sampling routine. The current 100% sampling routine of FSSAI, FIFI members feel, is not cost-effective and is onerous for the authorised officers at the port. “The trade hopes that FSSAI implements a risk-based analysis and reverts to the old 5–20% regime for a more efficient and transparent methodology.”
The issue of having a negative ingredients list also came up. A negative list of ingredients or additives would assist importers in planning their products for the Indian Market. Quite often, it happens that the trade discovers an imported product is not permissible for entry only after it has landed at the port. Such instances keep occuring and sometimes products that have been imported for the last ten years are asked to be destroyed due for failing to conform to FSSAI standards.
The delegation felt that Mr Bahuguna understood their concern on having a negative list. Perhaps, there is a need for more discussion on the issue and members expect that FSSAI to take the matter forward. “We hope that these suggestions would assist in better compliance by trade and will help to bring more transparency along with a scientific risk-based analysis of products being imported in the country,” opined a member of the delegation.
FIFI member Rajneesh Bhasin raised concerns on the part of the Indian Olive Association on the issue of updation of standards of table olives. FSSAI does not recognise pasteurised olives and the PH levels mandated by CODEX. Concerns on blended oils and requirement of AGAMRK for such oil products were also aired by the memebers at the meeting.
Mr Bahuguna’s response to the table olives issue echoed the sentiments of the delegation although he said he would like to consult his team on the matter. He had some reservations about the AGMARK issue as the matter prima facie does not concern the FSSAI. But he said that he would look into the matter and accepted the representation of behalf of IOA.
Sharing their experience and thoughts about the meeting, members of the delegation said it was fruitful and productive. “This was one of the most positive meetings we have had in FSSAI since V.N. Gaur’s time. The Chairman listened, sought clarifications, shared our concerns and gave a positive feedback on issues raised by us,” said Lohani, hoping for a quick resolution of all the major concerns articulated by FIFI.