Quantum Leap

How Maggi is causing food wars within government

Minister for food processing industries Harsimrat Kaur Badal has chosen to side with 'Big Food' and not with Indian consumers.

 |  Quantum Leap  |  3-minute read |   09-07-2015
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As millions of packets of instant noodle brand Maggi continue to be pulped in different parts of the country, the "Big Food" lobby has got into damage control mode. Its first target is the food regulator, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), which blew the whistle on Maggi and other processed food products using provisions of the food safety law in order to protect consumer interests.

In the normal course of governance, one would have expected all wings of the central government to stand solidly behind the food regulator and support its drive to ensure food safety and health of Indian consumers. But, it seems, anything that has to do with multi-billion dollar food industry can't be just normal. That's why minister for food processing industries Harsimrat Kaur Badal has chosen to side with "Big Food" and not with Indian consumers.

Badal feels that by discharging its duties as laid down in the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006 in the case of Maggi, the food regulator has created and an "environment of fear" in food industry. And this is hampering innovation too, she says. No explanation has been offered on how food safety regulations approved by the Parliament can prevent food companies from so-called innovation.

On the other hand, a conference convened by Badal's cabinet colleague, consumer affairs minister Ramvilas Paswan, wants more power to FSSAI and wants the food regulator to be under administrative control of the ministry of consumers affairs, food and public distribution, for better protection of consumer rights. At present, FSSAI is an autonomous body with ministry of health as its administrative ministry.

The ministry of food processing industries - which doles out subsidies worth several hundred crore of rupees every year for makers of cookies, namkeens and sugary drinks - has always been wary of a tough food safety law. When the law was being framed and FSSAI constituted in 2005-2006, the food processing ministry wanted the regulator to be under its control. The cabinet voted otherwise, and the Act passed by the Parliament in 2006 placed FSSAI under purview of ministry of health. The food processing ministry then successfully manoeuvered to grab power in FSSAI by getting its top posts filled with former food processing officials, who in turn, nominated industry representatives - Nestle included - to key scientific committees of FSSAI.

Badal's statement in support of "Big Food" and her tirade against FSSAI come in the wake of reports of processed food sales declining in the country, and high-pitched campaign by industry chambers in favour of processed food. The recall of Maggi, according to Assocham, "has shaken the confidence of industry" and put at risk "investments of over Rs 90,000 crore and export of over US$40 billion". By issuing huge ads in newspapers, the industry chamber is also batting for MSG as if it an essential nutrient. Separately, industry has hired former director of National Institute of Nutrition, a government lab, to clear the air about MSG.

For now, both the camps are taking their arguments to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Badal says a task force has been set up, with consent of the PM, to deal with issues concerning FSSAI. The state food ministers - including from BJP-ruled states - have decided to appeal to the PM to bring FSSAI under the ministry of food and consumer affairs. Industry bodies like Assocham too have written to the PM to intervene in this case to "save packaged food industry".

Who will win this food war is an open question. If FSSAI, which has just come into own and started flexing its regulatory muscles, is clipped, it will be a sad end of the story for Indian consumer.

Writer

Dinesh C Sharma Dinesh C Sharma @dineshcsharma

Journalist, columnist and author based in New Delhi.

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