PATNA: Food safety is a matter of concern, thanks to a nationwide row over Maggi. Bihar’s food safety wing has, however, only 14 officers to man its 38 districts. In contrast, the food safety officers number 554 in Tamil Nadu, 273 in UP, 178 in Gujarat, 169 in Madhya Pradesh and 87 in Jammu & Kashmir, according to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) website.
Bihar food safety commissioner Anand Kishor candidly admits this wing is understaffed. “But the health department has accepted a proposal to create 625 posts of food safety officers. The finance department will soon give its nod to it,” he said.
The state food safety wing has been functioning with skeletal staff for long, and this has hit the department’s functioning adversely. According to an official report for 2014-15, there are at least 1.5 lakh food business operators in the state. But only 23,435 are registered and 8,678 are licensed. That is, only 32,000 or so are on the radar.
This is in contravention of the FSSAI guidelines according to which any food unit having an annual turnover of up to Rs 12 lakh has to be registered. Those having a turnover of more than Rs 12 lakh have to be licensed. The mandate to register or license such units lies with the food safety officers.
Collection of samples for safety checks has also been poor in Bihar – for obvious reasons. In 2014-15, only 1,763 samples could be collected from across the state. Now that the state has banned all smokeless tobacco products other than raw ‘khaini’, the workload of the already-overworked 14 officers has upped.
Worse, Bihar does not have a functional food safety lab. The food safety wing’s lab at Aghamkuan in Patna has been defunct for four years. The lab does not have a food analyst to conduct tests on samples.
Food safety wing lab not functional
“We advertised the post twice, but we could not get anyone who fulfilled the eligibility criteria. We cannot change the criteria because they are prescribed by the Centre,” Kishor says.
The state food safety wing for now relies on a private Kolkata lab which is accredited by National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories. However, this arrangement has its own drawbacks. As the Maggi saga unfolded, Bihar sent the first lot samples on May 23. But till May 6, the test reports did not come, the state food safety wing’s repeated requests for expediting the tests notwithstanding.
“Though test reports usually come within 14 days; at times they don’t,” one official disclosed.
Pendency of cases in courts adds to the woes of food safety wing which does not have a lawyer of its own. The officers have to coordinate with government counsel concerned to pursue the cases. Official records reveal no one was convicted in 2014-15 though penalties in five cases worth Rs 38,000 were realized and 16 cases were filed.