JPC report sets serious reform agenda on food safety, water security and public health

-- The report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on pesticide residues in and safety standards for soft drinks, fruit juices and other beverages is out. It agrees there were pesticide residues in soft drinks the Centre for Science and Environment had tested, so clearly posing a health hazard. But more importantly, it goes on to make path-breaking recommendations on food safety, water security and public health in India. What JPC wants done is no less than outright reform. Clean water must be ensured; if water is used as raw material, it must be fairly paid for. The report desires a health-based pesticide policy; also, the current mess in regulations due to multiple authorities must be sorted out. The Committee has also pulled up Cola majors for "misleading" the common person by claiming that their products were safe.

In setting this agenda, the Committee has set India on the road to a way of policy-making that ensures safe food and water would be available to the common person. Most of all, it endorses that commitment to public health be central to public policy in future. The soft drinks sector and the final product standards The report says it all: "The Committee notes with deep concern that the soft drink (Carbonated water/ Sweetened Aerated water) industry in India with an annual turnover of Rs 6,000 crore is unregulated". It starkly differentiates 'soft drinks' and 'fruit juices' on the basis of nutritional content: "Carbonated beverages cannot be clubbed with fruit juices, because these are different products with different specifications and the existing law already differentiates between these products. Moreover, the soft drinks do not form part of the nutritious diet". By so doing, the JPC called the bluff of the Cola companies, who in various fora had consistently demanded the two be clubbed together for regulatory purposes, and had been advocating lax regulations. Now, the companies have to follow the new Indian packaged drinking water norms for input water "so that the consumers are not deprived of the best standards".

In what is surely a radical recommendation, the JPC wants a final product standard for soft drinks. So far, soft drink companies had been fighting hard to avoid such a norm; it didn't exist anywhere in the world, they had reasoned, and were thus needless. The JPC does not agree: "The Committee therefore recommends that standards for carbonated beverages, which are best suited for the Indian conditions need to be fixed in the overall perspective of public health. These standards should also be stringent enough. The reason that the other countries have not fixed such limits, should not dissuade our law makers in attempting to do so, particularly when a vulnerable section of our population who are young and constitute a vast national asset are consuming the soft drinks". Moreover, "it is prudent to seek complete freedom from pesticide residues in sweetened aerated waters," reads the report. "'Unsafe even if trace' should be the eventual goal".
Use of water as raw material In the light of the recent controversy in Plachimada, Kerala (where local people have been fighting against Hindustan Coca Cola Limited for so extracting groundwater that the area's water table has plummeted, leaving villages parched), the Committee says "...Since ground water belongs to the public, its commercial use has to be adequately restricted and even in the absence of any law governing ground water, the Panchayat and State are bound to protect ground water from excessive exploitation". In this context, the JPC has endorsed the December 16, 2003 decision of the Kerala High Court. And how can companies use groundwater as raw material without paying for the same? "The other area of concern...is the use of ground water by the soft drink manufacturing companies as well as bottled water manufacturing companies. Though these companies are extracting huge amount of ground water but they are not being charged anything for using this water...Taking into account that the water level in many parts of the country is getting depleted alarmingly, the Committee desires that this requires to be properly regulated so that at least on account of indiscriminate use of water for commercial purposes the level does not go down further". The JPC directs the Central Ground Water Authority as well as state governments to "take immediate steps in this regard and...to do so without further loss of time". In addition, "the Ministry of Water Resources must pursue the matter vigorously with the States and impress upon them the need to regulate water particularly for commercial purposes and also fix the price for water". Finally, companies using groundwater must recharge it. "The Committee strongly recommends that provision in this regard needs to be incorporated in the relevant Act making it mandatory for those who use the water for commercial purposes to recharge ground water to the maximum extent possible."

On caffeine
Cola giants have been hauled up for following double standards: " Soft drink companies are selling non-caffeinated soft drinks in every country besides the caffeinated ones including the Untied States and all countries in Europe. In India their production of non-caffeinated soft drinks is very little...".

The report brushes aside the companies' argument that non-caffeinated beverages could be made available in India if there was a market demand for these. " At least option should be made available to the consumers to choose between the two," the report opines. "It is therefore desirable that all brands should include caffeinated and non-caffeinated drinks...there should be no difference in the quality of products being marketed in India as compared to those which are being sold in the USA or other European countries".

Further, JPC has recommended that government must "consider bringing down the present limit of 200 parts per million (ppm) [of caffeine] in carbonated beverages as prescribed under PFA". Many countries allow only up to 150 ppm of caffeine, that too only in 'brown' colas. In India, Pepsico adds caffeine to Mountain Dew, a non-cola type of soft drink. If it carries on doing that, the JPC wants that the "label on the caffeinated beverage must include advisory statements to the effect that the beverage contains caffeine and the same is not recommended for children, pregnant or lactating women and individuals sensitive to caffeine".

On right to clean water
"It is most disconcerting to note," says the report, "that even after fifty years of the enactment of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954, the necessity of including it [water] under the definition of 'Food' has not been felt...It is, therefore, not surprising that no legal standards for monitoring the quality of ordinary drinking water have so far been prescribed under the Act". JPC wants urgent action in this respect: "Section 2(v) of the PFA Act which defines 'Food' should be amended without further loss of time".

This means a lot. Once water is defined as 'Food', and drinking water standards "are made legally enforceable", municipalities can be held accountable for not supplying clean drinking water. A common person will get clean drinking water from taps.

The Committee also stressed the need to regularly monitor pesticides in ground water. "The Committee also fail to understand as to what is the rationale for BIS to monitor 32 pesticides. Many other pesticides which are otherwise found in the ground water do not appear among these, while those which are unlikely are included. The Committee recommend[s] that this list needs to be reviewed with a view to including all relevant pesticides which are actually found in water sources in the country".

On multiplicity of authorities
JPC has taken strict note that "there are multiplicity of laws and regulations dealing with the food safety standards in our country". This is evident "from the fact that there are about eight ministries which are dealing with food laws". What has deeply concerned JPC is "that very often these bodies are working independent of each other and there is hardly any co-ordination among these". So JPC logically concludes that "such a situation has obviously resulted in loose administration and enforcement of the various laws, with the result that the consumer is the ultimate sufferer".

In this area, JPC wants nothing less than a "modern integrated food law". "The Ministry of Food Processing Industries are already seized with the problem," the report notes. " The entire issue of an integrated food law and a single Authority is being looked into by a Group of Ministers. The Ministry of Food Processing Industries...has already drafted a Bill on the Modern Integrated Food Law. The Bill provides a framework for integration of the existing food laws to bring harmony and convergence in their areas of operation. It also provides for the establishment of an independent Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, which shall be responsible for ensuring availability of safe and wholesome food for human consumption by fostering the use of science in the food industry".

Having noted this, JPC takes a radical step: "expeditious steps be taken in this regard to finalize the Bill, without further loss of time by giving it top priority, as it concerns public health and food safety in India".

End to sub-standard food
JPC has also recommended setting up a mandatory food recall system. This is significant. If a food product is found to be harmful or sub-standard -- say, pesticide residues in soft drinks -- it will have to be recalled from the market and destroyed. "A mandatory food recall system should be established and companies should be made accountable for selling sub-standard and harmful products in the market which must be destroyed in the presence of authorities". Moreover, " Withdrawal notices must be issued in media to inform citizens so that they should be made aware about the unsafe products. In order to check adulteration in the food items, the Government should not hesitate in taking help of NGOs".

"Misleading the public"
This is an area where the Cola companies have been hauled over the coals. "Despite the detection of pesticides in the samples of soft drinks by CSE, CFTRI and CFL, Kolkata," the report admonishes, "Cola Companies have been giving wide publicity in the electronic media stating that their products do not contain any pesticides and are fully safe for human consumption". Then the report's language gets stronger. " c laims made by the Cola companies in their advertisement are tantamount to misleading the public as their products do contain pesticides which have ill effect on human health in the long run". JPC felt it was "the responsibility of the Ministry of Health to ensure that no misinformation is spread by any company with regard to their products".

"Complete revamp of pesticide policy"
JPC has accepted that "...India has more problem of pesticide residues vis-a-vis other countries and these have entered into food products and underground water". In the context of an overall pesticides policy, it has strongly recommended a health and safety-based approach. It has pointed out the major shortfalls in the current regulatory regime and called for a major revamp in the way India regulates pesticides.

On fixing maximum residue levels (MRLs) for pesticides, JPC has asked for critical changes. "At present 181 pesticides are registered in the country. The Committee, notes with dismay that out of 181 pesticides, MRLs for 71 pesticides only have been fixed under the PFA Act, 1954." JPC has recommended MRLs for the remaining pesticides should be fixed "without any further delay".

"Anguished" by the fact that in India today, "pesticides were being registered by the Registration Committee even when no MRLs had been fixed", JPC recommends that the "Insecticide Act 1968 should be suitably amended by inserting a suitable clause in this regard".

Most importantly, the JPC wants a regular review of existing regulations by taking into account new scientific knowledge, and the safety-based approach of using acceptable daily intake (ADI). "There is scope to exceed acceptable daily intake if high MRLs have been set because ADI is a safety milestone and should not be allowed to be breached and the basic purpose of setting realistic MRLs is to ensure that we remain well within allocated ADI for that pesticide".

Moreover, the report voices grave concern about the fact that "residues of certain pesticides like DDT, Lindane, which are totally banned for use in Agriculture and permitted for restricted use in health programmes only, have been found in food and vegetable products. Also due to aerial spray of Endosulphan in Kasaragode area in Kerala, the inhabitants suffered health problems. The Committee have been informed that use of Endosulphan has since been banned in that area". In this context, the report pulls up both the Union ministry of agriculture and Union ministry of health and family welfare. "Neither have any data about the usage of banned pesticides in the States since inception. The Committee wonders as to how the Ministry of Agriculture which has made tall claims before the Committee towards Integrated Pest Control Programme is monitoring the very use of pesticides in the absence of such vital data. It does speak volumes about the apathetic attitude of the various functionaries".

To rectify the situation the JPC has asked for regular monitoring of pesticides residues in food and water, and for total diet studies, lacking till date. "No agency regularly monitors pesticide residues in market samples or undertakes diet basket surveys to assess actual exposure of consumers from pesticide residues in food or water and project health risk, if any," the report says. "Such activity comes under the purview of Ministry of Health but no comprehensive regular monitoring programme is being conducted in the country. The Committee feel that such monitoring of food commodities requires to be done extensively and on yearly basis".

In all these ways, the JPC report outlines a comprehensive agenda for change in the areas of pesticide policy, water security and public health. Since the report has also been tabled, the ball is literally now in the government's court. The question is: is government brave enough to create a new world?

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :
Scroll To Top