THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Kerala witnessed some early signs of change in 2016. Some welcome changes, some fraught with repercussions. Society will be watching if these signals become a trend in days ahead. It can be a boon or bane depending on how state tackles them
Six years have passed since the Food Safety Act came into force in the state but the shortage of staff and infrastructure continues to plague enforcement activities.
Even packaged drinking water available in the market is contaminated. Lab tests of samples taken from drinking water bottles of prominent brands in the state recently were found to have e-coli. The presence was as high as 40 CFU in 100 ml of water which also indicated faecal contamination.
Kerala State Pollution Control Board had also found the presence of coli-form bacteria in samples collected from drinking water bottles of prominent brands.
There are also no reliable reports about the quality of newest neutraceuticals hitting the market.
The absence of labs at the district-level is a major handicap in ensuring enforcement and penal action. A lab each in districts, capable of testing water contamination, food and edible oils, has been mooted by authorities. The urban-rural divide is thin, proving testing of food remaining a major challenge.
The State has just one lab, accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories and two other designated labs in Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode.
The food safety offices functioning in each circle (Legislative Assembly Segment) are understaffed and have no vehicle facilities. Experts say food safety is unending process. It is no secret that the outlook, growth and experiments of the food industry are a dozen times more than the government regulators. To be on par with advances made by food industry is almost next to impossible.
What developed countries like the US, Europe and Japan had achieved in food safety standards 16 years ago, is now being implemented here. Food products are pouring in from across the globe. Safety standards of many products coming from China are unknown.
Registration and licensing of shops, including hotels and restaurants continues to remain a big task for the food safety department. More than 1.5 establishments have been registered under provisions of the Food Safety Act and about 50,000 issued licenses. But the biggest problem is with establishments in semi-urban areas where more than 1 lakh units are yet to be registered.
Experts say the penal action prescribed under the existing Act is deficient. The apex court had recently directed the Centre to make punishment more stringent, even asking the Centre to consider life imprisonment for food adulteration. It had also called for the review of existing Food Safety Act.
Under the present law, those guilty of mixing life-threatening additives in food products or diluting the quality of food products are liable for a penalty which is up to a maximum of Rs 10 lakh. In order to try the cases under Act, special courts need to be set up in the state. Designated magistrate courts are already under huge work pressure.
Over 500 truckloads of fruits and vegetables enter the state daily and it goes without saying that a large quantity of the same is laden with pesticides. According to food safety officials, pesticides are being used extensively to increase the shelf life of the produce.
Food Safety Standards (contaminants, toxins and residues) Regulations came into being in 2011. Its strict enforcement is still a far cry though efforts have been made in bits and pieces over the past five years.
The state spends a huge amount on chicken and bulk of the supply comes from the neighbouring states, particularly Tamil Nadu. While the total consumption of meat, including beef, mutton and chicken is more than 5,000 tonnes per day, the domestic production of these is only about 300 tonnes.
Experts say antibiotics like neomycin, found effective in controlling bacterial disease of poultry, and terramycin, are used widely in poultries. Even though low dosage is used for growth promotion, it poses serious health hazards. There are many antibiotics used both in animals and humans and the possibility of developing resistance to such antibiotics is considerably high.
Kerala Hotel (Price Standardisation) Bill 2015, which was approved by the Cabinet last year, has not taken off. The bill sought to set up regulatory authority in each district to regulate prices of food items.
The main responsibility of the authority was to register all hotels in the district and control the prices of food items sold through such outlets. District judge or an official of equivalent rank was to be appointed as chairman. Government had also proposed to nominate six unofficial members.
There were plans to slap fines up to Rs 5000 on hotels functioning without registration and charging excess rates. The decisions of the district authorities cannot be challenged in civil courts but one can appeal before Food Safety Commissioner.
25-point guidelines issued for regulating juice bars and ice cream parlours have also not been implemented effectively. Raids carried out in juice shops from time to time had revealed that rotten fruits, ice containing traces of formalin and ammonium meant for preserving fish, poor quality water and milk being was being used for preparing juice and shakes.
The decision to bring in price standardization for bakeries, thattukadas and fast food centres is yet be implemented effectively. However, five star hotels, heritage hotels, canteen and mess run by government and semi-government establishment had been kept out.
Committed to food safety: Navjot Khosa, Food Safety Commissioner
The concept of food safety still remains abstract. One of the priorities of the fledgling State Commissionerate of Food Safety, born on July 4, 2016, has been to catch ’em young. In the last two years, the commissionerate covered more than 400 schools.
The department consists of Enforcement wing and an Analytical wing. On the enforcement side, the entire state is covered with a network of zonal intelligence offices, 14 district offices and constituency-level food safety circle offices. Under the Food Safety Act, officials are engaged in granting licence and registration, compounding, adjudication and launching prosecution.
The department has initiated declaring 100 per cent food safety gram panchayats. It started with Aruvikkara being declared 100 per cent food safe panchayt, this year. The department has a target to cover at least 50 panchayats.
Under Operation Ruchi, a wide-ranging awareness campaign has been set off across the state focusing mainly on licensing and registration of business establishments, collection and analysis of samples from hotels and restaurants.
Special drives were launched for inspecting canteens, cafeteria and messes in schools, colleges and special homes from December 1 to December 15. A total of 700 places were inspected and notices served on 350 institutions. A follow-up drive will be launched after two months.
The contamination of fish reported from various quarters, the department launched the unique “Operation Sagar Rani” on December 23. Inspections and raids were carried out on establishments during which samples of fish and ice were seized. Samples are being tested for chemicals and preservatives. As per law, no chemical is allowed in unpocessed fish. So far 190 samples have been collected and sent for analysis in food safety laboratories.
The food safety department has three full-fledged analytical government laboratories in Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam and Kozhikode. The Ernakulam laboratory got NABL accreditation in December and the other two are close behind. Once Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode get the accreditation, Kerala will become the first state to have all its labs NABL accreditation.
Food Safety and Standards Authority of India had shown keen interest in giving a grant of approximately Rs 10 crore to Kozhikode lab for facility upgrading.
Sabarimala pilgrimage is the major season when the food safety department works in full scale to ensure safe and quality food and water for lakhs of pilgrims.
Not only in Sabarimala and Pampa, across all places that Ayyappa devotees visit, the department plays a crucial role by ensuring food safety standards in hotels, restaurants, annadanam and water supply. Stringent action taken up by Food Safety Department has been appreciated by the High Court, which directly monitors the pilgrim season.
Two mobile testing laboratories, handed over to the department during Onam festival, are now being effectively used for Sabarimala season. Apart from the recently launched Operation Sagar Rani, the department is gearing up to make enforcement more effective in other areas.
As part of Information Education Communication (IEC) campaign, an exhaustive handbook is under preparation for both Food Business Operators (FBOs) and consumers on simple food safety habits and standards.
The commissionerate is partnering Nutrition Bureau to determine nutritional value of commonly ordered items from hotels, restaurants and bakeries. A major thrust area is tourism destination.
Ensuring food safety standards in hotels, restaurants and other establishment in various tourist destinations round the year is another focus. The department is in the process of increasing its knowledge base by partnering centres of excellence in food technology.