Customs Officers to Ensure Safety of Imported Food

Instead of appointing full-time technically qualified and trained food safety officials, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has made customs officials responsible for ensuring the safety of imported food across 125 points of import and clearance as an additional task. The move, which contradicts FSSAI’s own regulations, has been made as part of government’s push for ease of doing business.

In March 2016, these custom officials were designated as what the FSS Act calls “authorized officers”. Besides undertaking all other custom duty related tasks, they are now additionally in-charge of supervising, taking samples, sending these to labs, reviewing the lab results and approving the safety of all imported food products coming into India against the set standards for more than several thousand products and ingredients that FSSAI approves.

Imported Food - Equinox Labs

Contrast to FSSAI regulations

Their appointment comes in contrast to the regulations FSSAI passed this January. Under these norms the FSSAI mandated that the technical qualifications and training of those posted at customs to check safety of imported should match that of ‘food safety officers’ as prescribed by law.

Under the regulations, at the time of joining, Food Safety officers – a category of specialized officers enshrined in the law – are supposed to “have a degree in food technology or dairy technology or biotechnology or oil technology or agricultural science or veterinary sciences or bio-chemistry or microbiology or a Masters in chemistry or degree in medicine from a recognized university”. The officer can also have an equivalent/recognized qualification notified by the Centre, and he or she has to complete the mandated training before joining the post.

But the custom officials were not individually identified and checked against these qualifications before the additional charge of food safety was handed over to them. The examiners, superintendents, inspectors and appraisers at these 125 locations were appointed in their ex-officio positions instead. They were also not trained to handle import of food products under the law at the time of handing them this additional charge.

Ensuring safety of imported food

FSSAI responding to detailed queries sent to its Chief Executive Officer by Business Standard said, “The technical qualifications apply only where FSSAI appoints its own (full time) authorized officers at these locations. Obviously not for the custom officials.” It justified the move in entirety as essential for ensuring safety of imported food in India.

“Their appointment was decided in consultation with the department of customs. The basic idea and premise was to give the ease of doing business and facilitate the importer,” FSSAI added. Business Standard reviewed documents that show the discussion on these and other processes to ensure ease of business for food importers was held with the finance ministry through 2015.

The decision to appoint customs authorities as part time handling food safety instead of specialized full-time officers comes after years of having allowed custom officials to clear food imports in violation of the law, as the government had not appointed specialist safety officers on most of these locations.

Food adulteration-HC

Though the law came into place in 2011, by mid-2015 the FSSAI had appointed only five officers to manage 16 importing locations, its record show. In May 2015, the FSSAI admitted on record that custom officers were permitting import of food on their own, even where FSSAI had its specialists posted and at times even those consignments that had been barred by FSSAI.

But, when Business Standard asked FSSAI how much food products had been imported in the previous three years from locations that did not have trained and qualified food safety officials, the agency said that data was not available with them.

Documents show that in 2015 the finance ministry pursued the case for a single window clearance mechanism for food imports and simplifying the process. The FSSAI responded, “It appears that FSSAI may take some time to expand its presence at the major ports of import. Keeping in view that the imports cannot be blocked at all other locations all of a sudden, it is proposed that the names and designations of the officers of the Customs department may be made available to the FSSAI so that they are formally notified as the ‘authorized officers’ under the FSSAI Act, 2006.” In 2015, the intent to expand the network of trained officials was reflected. That changed in 2016.

A plan to expand the FSSAI’s reach across the country was quietly shelved earlier this year when the government set aside its original draft cabinet note to have a Rs 1,750-crore centrally sponsored scheme for FSSAI and states to ensure food safety. The plan for FSSAI to move out of enforcement of the food safety law was instead set in motion. In January 2016, upon instructions, the chairman of FSSAI wrote in an internal note, “We need not provide personnel for import clearances since this work could be transferred to the customs department. We would, however, have to review whether appeals on import related issues would lie with us or with the designated customs authority and provide for the same in our regulations.”

FSSAI responded to Business Standard queries to say, “Custom officers were anyway drawing the samples (mandatory for all consignments of food imports). Now they shall have the legal force to ensure safety of all food that is imported under the FSSA.” Appointing trained specialists of FSSAI, the agency said, would become ‘cumbersome’.

The US, EU and many other developed and developing countries, including those in Africa have dedicated food safety officials across their importing points. In fact the US food safety officials carry out checks of food safety on their own as well as through third party certification even at the manufacturing units of the exporting countries. A hard application of sanitary and phyto-sanitary standards and conditions by developed countries has many times lead to disputes with exporters, including with India.

The appointment of unqualified custom officials for food safety comes as part of a larger package of the reform through the single window process. In January regulations for safety of imported foods were revised without mandatory public consultations. FSSAI is empowered to use emergency provisions to bypass consultations when there is an ‘urgency concerning food safety and public health’. But, the agency used the emergency provisions of the law for ease of food import business.

These new regulations also introduced eased norms for testing of imported food products through a ‘Risk based Import clearance System’. While the rules have been applied to ease testing, the system is still a work in progress, FSSAI noted in its April 2016 newsletter.

In contrast, the FSSAI had recorded some reservations against this risk-based system in 2015. The FSSAI had told the finance ministry, “It is clear from the above provisions, in particular section 47(5) that the FSSAI does not have the enabling powers to put in place a Risk-based Import clearance system.” But it also suggested that regulations subordinate to the law could be put in place to overcome the limitations of the law. It told the finance ministry, “As a regulator the FSSAI is as much concerned about facilitating the ease of imports, for which, it is proposed to frame ‘Import regulations’ and make enabling provisions in the regulations in this behalf.”

Food safety-Equinox Labs

FSSAI justified this move in its response. “We say that there is nothing provided in the act itself which denies us the right to introduce the risk based sampling. At that point we said that we shall have an enabling provision and that has been provided in the (new) import regulations.”

While FSSAI in one part of its response had said it did not have data on total volume of food products imported without its approval in previous years, in another part of the response it also claimed that almost 90% of the imports came in from two ports at Chennai and Mumbai that it has specialists deployed at.

This raises the questions of why government did not designate the rest of 10% imports to be also routed through these ports and instead deploy officials at 125 other custom locations. FSSAI claimed in its response that India had all kind of importers – big and small – and some of them preferred other locations.

Contradicting the FSSAI claim, the DG of Commercial Intelligence and Statistics data says that in February-March 2016 the total food item imports from across the country were worth Rs 20,198 crore while those coming through Chennai and Mumbai were only Rs 2,364 crore.

FSSAI’s April 2016 newsletter said FSSAI cleared food products worth only Rs 7,111.91 crores during the two month period.

FSSAI said it now has 21 of the key entry points for imported food covered by few officials. It also said that with the single window online clearance system in place it was anyway able to monitor all imports. But the task of taking samples from consignments and checking them physically for labelling, ingredients and safety through lab tests now lies with the custom officials doubling up as food safety officers at 125 custom points.

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Source: Business standard

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