This year’s theme for World Food Safety Day (WFSD), celebrated annually on June 7, is “Safe food today for a healthy tomorrow” and emphasizes the need to detect, prevent, and manage food-borne risks and illnesses. It also underlines the importance of food safety and security that is integral to human health and well-being and directly impacts a country’s economic prosperity and sustainable development. This is especially true in India, which is still known as an agrarian economy. The theme highlights the food industry’s evolution from a stand-alone industry to an interconnected network of industries that includes agriculture, manufacturing, supply chain and logistics, retail, and financial services. It also recognizes that the systemic connections between people’s health, animals, plants, the environment, and the economy will help us meet future needs by highlighting the associations between agriculture, industrial, government, and consumer activities.
While last year’s theme stressed the importance of involving all stakeholders in ensuring food safety, this year’s theme focuses on the role of food safety in ensuring the health and well-being of people, especially vulnerable groups. This idea resonates well with India’s current situation.
According to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, food-borne diseases in Southeast Asia, including India, are a leading cause of mortality, and more than 40% of the cases reported are among children younger than 5. This underlines the need for an all-around approach to ensure food safety—spanning health, sanitation, and food security—and the need for stakeholder participation.
The Indian food & beverage (F&B) industry, which includes agriculture and related activities, is witnessing a transformation. Due to COVID-19, the industry witnessed many shifts in the way the industry operates but also consumer preferences and purchasing behaviors. The pandemic has also highlighted the dichotomy of consumer choices. For example, the preference for home-cooked, healthy food is at an all-time high, and the number of “home-bakers” who are eager to try new recipes from the comfort of their homes has risen dramatically. Many well-known and established F&B companies also reported a rise in sales of pre-packaged and ready-to-eat foods. Despite contrasting trends, the underlying need for food safety remains constant, especially with continued lockdowns and restrictions.
There has also been a spike in several small and cottage enterprises offering half-cooked and easy-to-cook meals. Most of these enterprises are home-based facilities aiming to offer food for vulnerable groups and those who cannot cook for themselves, especially those under home quarantine and recovery. While these are considered a boon, it should also be noted that most of these enterprises are unregistered, and adherence to food safety protocols established by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) becomes challenging when the scale of operations is large. While these enterprises follow food safety protocols, the probability of cross-contamination is high, especially in home-based operations. The FSSAI is actively issuing registrations and licenses to these businesses to ensure food safety; however, the sheer number of home chefs makes it difficult to regulate.
The pandemic has also highlighted the continuing issues of food adulteration. FSSAI research found that on average in the past five years, one out of four food samples tested by the nodal agency is not conforming to standards. Food counterfeiting has also become an issue, especially during the past two years. These issues, along with persisting challenges related to the supply chain and infrastructure, make food safety practices implementation a Herculean task.
Despite the challenges due to COVID-19, the government’s efforts to establish recovery packages can create opportunities for the F&B industry to strengthen food safety measures. Consumer focus on health and safety is at an all-time high, making it an apt period for nodal agencies to establish and revamp policies and protocols.
The government’s move to grant more power to the FSSAI and increase its jurisdiction over animal feed, simplifying processes and imposing more stringent penalties for violations, is a step in the right direction. However, policies that focus on the food industry and extend to agriculture practices and retail units will go a long way in ensuring food safety from “farm to fork.” Supply chain integration can also help overcome issues related to food wastage due to a lack of storage facilities and minimize the incidence of cross-contamination and infestation.
The FSSAI, as a part of its COVID-19 response, is playing an active role in communicating the need for food safety, risks associated with lack of food safety, and ways to minimize these risks. This message needs to reach all stakeholders for implementation. More efforts to mandate certification programs such as FOSTAC (Food Safety Training and Certification) by FSSAI, closing the gap between food inspection, testing, and action against violations, will help ensure food safety. Guaranteeing food safety may also depend on developing and implementing an integrated risk monitoring, assessment, and implementation framework across the supply chain. While it might be a mammoth undertaking, considering the sheer magnitude of operations, such a tool can help reduce incidences of malpractice and encourage adherence to standards and protocols.
The pandemic emphasized the need for continued focus on food safety, security, and health. Ensuring good agricultural practices; adhering to food safety standards and protocols during manufacturing, processing, storage, and transportation; integrating infrastructure and supply chains; and educating stakeholders across the industry and consumers about food safety will go a long way in ensuring safe food for a healthy tomorrow.