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Interviews- Expert Speak

“India has to go a long way in food testing and certification”

India’s food testing and certification is in an emergent phase. Lab testing is one of the essential components in assuring food safety. There is also a need for a more robust system to check and validate the certification bodies, said Ramesh Agarwal, CEO, Food Safety Works, Bangalore – Mumbai – Delhi.

As a consultant in food testing and certification, how would you describe the current scene in India for the same?

Food testing and certification is in a nascent stage in the domestic market. Most of the food businesses are SMEs and micro enterprises who are neither clear about the requirements nor have the capacity/willingness to pay for the same. A lot of them just do the paper work to get a certification without actually implementing the systems, which is of no use.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is the government agency in charge of overseeing the country’s entire food and beverage sector. Lab testing is one of the essential components in assuring food safety. Businesses are expected to test their product for the specified parameters, based on the category of their product at least once in 6 months.

Coming to the infrastructure, Under Section 43 of the FSS Act of 2006, the FSSAI acknowledges and notifies NABL accredited food laboratories. There are 228 laboratories which are included as primary laboratories and 19 referral laboratory and 14 National laboratories (12NRLS & 2 ANRLS). With just 261 recognised laboratories and considering that there are at least 4 lakh FSSAI licence holders (assuming 50% of the 8 lakh numbers are registrations), ratio of FBOs to the number of labs, may also be inadequate.

Typically, how long does it take for food testing reports and certification in India?

It depends upon what type of testing being done. For example, if it is a microbial analysis, then the traditional testing methods take time in sample preparation, incubation, report writing. Using molecular methods can be faster a lot more accurate.  Physio chemical parameters can be tested quickly but pesticide residue and testing for heavy metals could take longer. Added to that is the time for the sample pickup. Overall one could expect to get the final reports within 10 days of the sample being picked up.

On the certification process, if one has to do it right, getting the processes implemented and having the people follow them can take anywhere from 4 to 6 months based on the knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment of the organisation.

In terms of technology, what are the key offerings that could enable transparency and quality of testing and certification process in the country?

Advancement in technologies such as spectrometry and chromatography techniques has been facilitated by the focus on reducing lead times, sample usage, testing costs, and limitations related to numerous technologies. These technologies offer higher sensitivity, accuracy in results, dependability, multi-contaminant and non-targeted screening with quick turnaround times, among other advantages, they present a chance for medium and small-scale laboratories to expand their service offerings and compete with major market players in the industry.

The need for “faster, better, cheaper” real-time test findings has grown as the industry’s reliance on food safety systems has grown in quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) programmes. E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes are a few of the major pathogens that the food industry is extremely concerned about. In many instances during the past five years, the quick techniques created to combat these microbes have replaced more conventional techniques.

On the certification, a more robust system to check and validate the certification bodies is key. NABCB is the overall accreditation body for certification bodies (CBs) in India. But it is not mandatory for the CBs to get accredited only by them. Hence some of the CBs get accredited by bodies that are outside India with no check or monitoring agencies here. But the key is for the FBOs to be aware of these and choose the right CBs for their certification.

Where does India stand globally in food testing and certification?

We still have a long way to go. Looking at the number of companies in India who have a FSSC22000 certification, which is a GFSI compliant standard, there are about 1900+ companies but considering the fact that the FBOs in India tend to be a lot smaller than their global counterparts, we could do much better. But as we start looking at exports as a market, we should see increase in the amount of testing and certifications of the Indian companies.

Could you enlist some of the food testing labs and certification agencies in the country?

We work with most of the reputed certification bodies like SGS, TUV and DNV who provide certification services. For the lab, we work with reliable partners like Fogiene science in Bangalore, Testtex in Mumbai, Chennai Mettex and other regional labs around the country. Our preference is to work with labs which have a presence where our customers are located. This ensures better handling of samples and quicker testing cycles.

What are Food Safety Works’ efforts in testing and certification?

We provide total regulatory and compliance solution and testing is an integral part of it. We have an in-house lab which is predominantly used for shelf-life study, doing root cause analysis and product R&D while developing new products. For the other tests like the pesticide residue tests, or nutritional values and test mandated by FSSAI/importing countries, we work with our partner labs to get them done.

On the certification side, we work with our clients helping them implement systems and processes to make them ready for a certification. The certifications could be around any standard, starting from Schedule 4 or FSSAI, HACCP, ISO22000, FSSC22000, BRC, IFS or FSMA. HACCP is at the core of all Food Safety Management Systems and it is important to do it right. Added to that are the threat and vulnerability assessment, also called TACCP and VACCP. All of these together make for a robust Food Safety Management System.

In terms of infrastructure and equipment, is India adequately invested in this space and what are the areas it needs to improve to bring in efficiency and transparency?

There is a lot that is left desired. The private labs are trying to improve their infrastructure but the price that the customers are willing to pay is really the limiting factor. The government can really step in to help out on this. There is also testing infrastructure which remain locked within the educational institutes which can be made more accessible by incentivising the colleges and educational institutions for the same.

For the certifications, FSSAI is doing a good job of digitising the application process, the training process, the audit process and the next step would be to connect them all into a single place so that FBOs have a single dashboard of all these aspects. Some of this data, like the test reports, should also be made available to the consumers so that they can verify this information for themselves. Same with the voluntary certifications where QCI/NABCB could look at creating a single repository for consumers/partner businesses to check and verify.

In terms of manpower, how difficult is to get the required qualified workforce for the same?

While the number of graduates are not as much of an issue as the quality of graduates is a point of concern.  Testing and certifications are not a career of choice for a lot of the graduates, and that reduces the quality of manpower that chooses this stream. Also there is very little hands-on experience that they come with. This means companies have to further invest in their training before they can become productive. Also not all the work requires graduates and can be done by technicians but most of the lab technician courses are focused around medical testing and not food testing.

What are the kind of regulations that govern this space?

In India, FSSAI is a dedicated body to ensuring science-based standards for food products. Food testing becomes a crucial component of food safety enforcement and regulation. State Food Testing Labs and Referral Labs, a nationwide network of food testing facilities, have been formed. For improving this lab network in India, FSSAI have a scheme Strengthening of Food Testing Laboratories (SOFTel) which includes 6 initiatives like strengthening  Referral Food Testing Laboratories, including the State Food Testing infrastructure, support Mobile Food Labs, capacity Building of Food Testing Personnel, incentivise States to use facilities available in FSSAI notified private Labs and develop food testing culture in schools / colleges.

Beyond the border, every country has its own regulating and governing body, like USFDA in the USA, EFSA in the EU, FSANZ in Australia and so on. But all of them have the same basic principles and try to create standardised regulations through Codex Alimentarius, a commission housed under FAO and WHO to which India is also a member.

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