UPSC Issue at a Glance | Food Safety : 5 Key Questions You Must Know for Prelims and Mains

By Indian Express

The recent controversies regarding Nestle, MDH, and Everest spice mix have raised concerns about food safety and standards. Here are five important Q&As that you shouldn’t miss for your exams. Also, consolidate the issue for prelims and mains through Points to Ponder, MCQs, and Key takeaways.

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What is the issue?

Recent controversies surrounding Nestle, MDH, and Everest spice mix have raised concerns about food safety and standards. This has brought India’s food regulator, FSSAI in news headlines. It’s worth noting that World Food Safety Day will be celebrated on June 7th, 2024, therefore it is important to understand the issue of food safety from a broader perspective.

MDH and Everest Issue — The government of Hong Kong has banned four products of Indian manufacturers MDH Pvt. and Everest Food Products Pvt. in the country. A press release by the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department said that “samples of several kinds of prepackaged spice mix products were found to contain a pesticide, ethylene oxide.”

Indian spice maker MDH said its products are safe for consumption, and the company has not received any communication from regulators and authorities in Hong Kong or Singapore about alleged contamination in its products.

Nestle Issue— The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) and the Switzerland-based investigating agency, Public Eye, alleged that Nestle added 2.7 g of sugar per serving to its baby food brand, Cerelac, destined for developing countries, including India. Nestle has defended itself and said that it has reduced added sugar in its baby food products in India by over 30 per cent over the past five years.

Question 1: What is food safety and why is it important?

Answer: Food is the third most basic human need after air and water. Unsafe food can lead to a large number of foodborne diseases.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO),“With an estimated 600 million cases of foodborne illnesses annually, unsafe food is a threat to human health and economies, disproportionally affecting vulnerable and marginalized people, especially women and children, populations affected by conflict, and migrants.”

— Food-borne illness has wider ramifications, it can not only result in mortality but can also impede economic growth by damaging trade and tourism, loss of earnings, and unemployment. In this context, it is important to ensure that food stays safe at every step of the food chain, from production to consumption. Also, emerging challenges of using high chemicals at different stages of food production make it crucial to maintain the safety of food and ensure that it is not harmful to people.

Is there any connection between food safety and food security?

According to World Health Organisation (WHO), Food safety, nutrition, and food security are closely linked. Unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition, particularly affecting infants, young children, elderly and the sick. In addition to contributing to food and nutrition security, a safe food supply also supports national economies, trade and tourism, stimulating sustainable development.

Question 2: What are the new and developing challenges related to food safety?

Answer: According to FAO- “One in ten people worldwide fall ill from contaminated food each year. It affects all countries.”

“Over 200 diseases are caused by eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances such as heavy metals.”

Food safety is a global concern that covers a variety of different areas of everyday life. Food contamination and food adulteration have emerged as a major challenge to the food safety. Here are some of the food safety challenges:

1. Effect of Climate Change on Food Safety: Climate change, which is characterized by an increase in Earth’s temperature and global changes in weather patterns, will have a significant impact on food safety. Climate change engenders climate variability. In this context, the food supply chain’s safety is believed to be threatened by both climate change and variability in several ways.

Ashok Gulati writes-“The challenge today is to develop technologies that supply the food and nutritional needs of the world while also addressing climate change imperatives. Today, there seems to be a lack of sync between policies and technologies.”

2. Chemical Contaminants in Food: Chemical contamination threatens food safety at all phases of production. The high concentration of chemicals such as pesticides, chemical residues, toxic metals, polychlorinated biphenyls, preservatives, food colors, and other additives in food poses a serious challenge to food safety and human health.

Health risks associated with pesticide residues in food!

According to WHO- “Pesticides are chemicals used in agriculture to protect crops against insects, fungi, weeds and other pests. In addition to their use in agriculture, pesticides are also used to protect public health in controlling the vectors of tropical diseases, such as mosquitoes. But pesticides are also potentially toxic to humans. They may induce adverse health effects including cancer, effects on reproduction, immune or nervous systems.”

3. Biological Hazards: Among the various hazards, biological hazards are an important cause of food-borne illnesses. Living organisms, including microbiological ones, constitute biological hazards. Despite all the efforts in the area of food safety, microbial food-borne pathogens are still a serious concern and new pathogens continue to emerge.

Owing to the above-written challenges, there is a growing concern for food safety.

Question 3: What are the global food standards?

Answer: According to WHO- Food standards are a mechanism for promoting food safety and quality among the general public. Food standards ensure that established food safety practices are followed. They provide guidance on hygienic food handling for farmers and processors. They define the maximum levels of additives, contaminants, residues of pesticides, and veterinary drugs that can safely be consumed by all.

— Furthermore, standards specify how the food should be measured, packaged, and transported to keep it safe. With the application of standards on things like nutrition and allergen labeling, consumers can know the quality of the food.

— Most governments and organizations adopt and enforce food standards that are based on scientific risk assessments, covering hazards that are biological, chemical, and physical in nature. Here are some important international food laws, regulations, and organizations:


1. Codex Alimentarius

The Codex Alimentarius or “Food Code” is a collection of standards, guidelines, and codes of practice adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission. The Codex Alimentarius Commission is a joint intergovernmental body of the FAO and WHO. Currently, it has 189 members and India is a member.

2. Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS)

Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures sets out the basic rules for food safety and animal and plant health standards. It allows countries to set their standards. SPS agreement entered into force with the establishment of the World Trade Organization on 1 January 1995.

3. International Plant Protection Convention (IPCC)

The IPCC aims to protect the world’s plants, agricultural products, and natural resources from plant pests. It is an intergovernmental treaty and has been ratified by 185 contracting parties. IPCC develops, adopts, and promotes the application of international phytosanitary measures as the main tool to safeguard global food safety and security and facilitate safe trade.

4. FAOLEX

FAOLEX is one of the world’s largest electronic collections of national laws and regulations on food, agriculture and renewable natural resources.

Question 4: What is the current status of food safety in India?

Answer: National legal frameworks are key to an effective food safety control system. In all countries, food is governed by different laws and regulations, which set out the standards to ensure food safety and quality. In India, the Food Safety and Standard Act, 2006, provides the legal framework for monitoring the status of food safety, and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is the main authority for ensuring food safety.

Food Standards and Regulations in India

Food Safety and Standard Act, 2006: It aims to establish a single reference point for all matters relating to food safety and standards, by moving from multi-level, multi-departmental control to a single line of command. The Act established FSSAI and the State Food Safety Authorities for each State.

—- FSSAI: It is an autonomous statutory body established under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of India is the administrative Ministry of FSSAI. Its headquarters is in Delhi. The main role of the authority is to regulate and monitor, the manufacture, processing, distribution, sale and import of food while ensuring safe and wholesome food to the consumers.

Food Safety and Standards Rule, 2011: It provides for the Food Safety Appellate Tribunal and the Registrar of the Appellate Tribunal, food safety standards for organic food, and regulates food advertising. It covers licensing and registration, packaging and labelling of food businesses, food product standards, and food additive regulations. It prohibits and restricts sales or approval of non-specified foods and food ingredients; such ingredients may cause harm to human health.

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Shortcomings of FSSAI

According to Express View: From MDH to Ceralac and Cadbury – where is the regulator?

— In the past few weeks, questions have been raised about India’s food safety regime in the wake of allegations against products as varied as infant food, “health drinks” and spices. Frequent controversies over food products in India show the country’s food business regulator, FSSAI, in poor light.

— The agency has had a chequered record. It has consistently been hamstrung by staff and infrastructure shortages. This has meant that a large section of the market views regulation as paperwork rather than regular inspections followed by expert guidance.

— The FSSAI is mandated to educate businesses and consumers on food safety. It is also tasked to “collect and collate data regarding food consumption, incidence and prevalence of biological risk, contaminants in food, residues of various contaminants in foods products, and identify risks”. The frequent controversies around food items indicate that the agency has done scarce justice to its remit.

— Thus, regulations must contend with scientific uncertainty and the variance in rules amongst nations. Food authorities must regularly update standards and handhold exporters. The FSSAI has fallen short on both counts. A country with a growing food market and an aspiration to increase its footprint in the global market needs a more proactive regulator.

Important initiatives for food safety in India

(i) Eat Right India Movement: To transform the country’s food system to ensure safe, healthy, and sustainable food for all Indians. It is aligned with the National Health Policy 2017 with its focus on preventive and promotive healthcare and flagship programmes like Ayushman Bharat, POSHAN Abhiyaan, Anemia Mukt Bharat, and Swachh Bharat Mission.

(ii) Eat Right Station Certification: It is awarded by FSSAI to railway stations that have set benchmarks (as per the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006) in providing safe and wholesome food to passengers.

(iii) State Food Safety Index (SFSI): Developed by the FSSAI, the index aims to measure the performance of states and Union Territories on selected “parameters” of food safety. The SFSI is released annually for a financial year. SFSI measures the performance of states on five parameters of food safety. The parameters include human resources and institutional data, compliance, food testing, infrastructure and surveillance, training and capacity building, and consumer empowerment.

Question 5: What should be the role of different stakeholders in food safety?

Answer: As per WHO, the roles of different stakeholders in food safety are:

1) Governments

— Encourage and engage in multi-sector collaboration at the local, national, regional and global levels.

— Public support programmes must focus on healthy and safe food.

— Design strong policies and practice good governance. Support policy measures and legal frameworks to strengthen the national food safety system and ensure it complies with food safety standards.

2) Food Businesses

— Comply with international food standards.

— Everyone involved in food production, processing, distribution, and retail – must ensure compliance with standards to identify, evaluate, and control food safety hazards.

— Engage employees, suppliers, and other stakeholders to grow and develop a food safety culture. Organize regular informational sessions, trainings or workshops on food safety.

3) Consumers

— Keep informed and promote food safety. Consumers have the power to drive change. By making safe and healthy dietary choices, you help reduce the global burden of disease and support sustainable food systems.