Creating a food safety culture

My article was published in the Handbook released to commemorate 10th anniversary of FSSAI on 22 Aug 2016. You can see articles from other professionals at this LINK. Publisher is MM Activ Sci-Tech Communications Pvt. Ltd.

I am of the view that ‘food safety’ is not a law which needs implementation; it is a culture (or a lifestyle) which needs to be nurtured and inculcated in society. Since the inception of FSSAI in 2006, we have seen huge development in the perception of food safety and food laws among the food industries. The concept of food safety is well established. Now I can confidently say that after 10 years of system implementation, we are ready to convert this concept into practice and practice into culture. The moment we think of inculcating a food safety culture, our policies and plans become more result oriented rather than target-oriented. The culture of consuming safe food is a collaborative effort, where all food processors, vendors and even consumers have to play a crucial role under the scientific and regulatory guidance of FSSAI.

What is the Theory of System Inculcation?

I have been critically observing several global and local programmes, policies introduced by the authorities, initiatives taken by NGOs and systems implemented in industries. Most of them are visionary, theoretically brilliant and financially well supported. But on the ground, the outcome is far removed from the expected result. The activity data is perfectly fine; but the results are not representative of the efforts made. The results also start deteriorating once the programme ends and the funds are exhausted. What goes wrong with such programmes? Why don’t they sustain? My view is that since the programmes were only implemented, they never became a practice or a culture. Had they been transformed into a culture, they would have sustained better. Therefore, my theory of system inculcation states: for effectiveness and self-sustainability, a programme/policy/system should be inculcated and not implemented.

How Can We Inculcate a Safe Food Culture?

Consumption of foods that are not contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins, and chemical and physical contaminants is the basic objective of a safe food culture. Spreading this awareness and making consumers believe that consumption of safe food is essential for their health is the first step towards building this culture. Once the demand for a safe food rises, the food manufacturers and sellers will be forced to follow hygienic practices during manufacturing of food products. After the formation and implementation of consolidated and science-based food regulations and law, following systematic and result oriented approaches can help us to create a safe food culture in our society.

Increase awareness among consumers and FBOs

Presently, most awareness programs are aimed at FBOs (Food Business Operators). If we simultaneously increase the awareness among consumers, this will increase demand for safe food and eventually create a pressure on FBOs to manufacture and serve food of the standard demanded by the consumer. A national level awareness drive to explain the importance of safe and hygienic food is required. This drive can be in the form of workshops, advertisement in print and electronic media, short films, awareness camps in schools and villages etc.

Translating The Legal Terminologies into Common Language

The language of communication is of vital importance when it comes to convincing others. The concept of safe food should be taught to the consumers in a simple yet effective manner. This is currently managed very well. The issue arises when we communicate food laws to FBOs. The technical and legal capabilities of most FBOs are not robust enough to understand the language of the food laws and the rationale behind them. Therefore, the terms and requirements of food laws should also be presented to them in the simplest way possible. If we can set up food safety awareness centers at food parks or at district industrial hubs, these centers could not only communicate the latest notification to the FBOs, but also explain the legal requirements in simple language.

Building Confidence Among the Consumers and FBOs

We should aim at the acceptance of rules rather than impose the rule. Decreasing the gap between food regulators and its beneficiaries (consumers and FBOs) will ensure acceptance and help in building a safe food culture. This gap can be decreased by providing different mediums for bi-directional communication. Recently, FSSAI has taken a brilliant initiative by launching a mobile application where consumers can submit their complaints. We should think of ways to popularise this application among citizens. How their complaints are addressed and what improvement plans are put in place would help in increasing people’s confidence in this initiative. But while addressing this issue, we should take care not to create panic among the FBOs. Science and consumer based regulations, proper investigation based action and a strong action against those at fault would help build confidence of both consumers and FBOs.

Quantifying the Results of Efforts

All the efforts by the regulators, scientific bodies, NGOs and the FBOs in increasing the awareness of safe food should be quantified in terms of the result of these efforts. These results can be measured in terms a reduction in food safety incidents and consumer complaints. These scores should be used to rate FBOs and to motivate them, perhaps by introducing something like the National Food Safety Awards. We should all come together for the next 10 years, collaborate and co-create a safe food culture in India. We should understand that this is not only the responsibility of the food regulators, but also of each and every citizen of India.

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