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Foes to Friends? Nestlé and FSSAI's fishy collaboration over Nestlé Food Safety Institute

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This is a Petition to investigate the nexus between country’s primary food safety and standards regulator FSSAI and the multinational giant Nestle as they set up a 250 crore Nestle Food Research Institute in Manesar, Haryana because the whole collaboration reeks of bureaucratic corruption and is a brazen conflict of interest between the said private and public entity. This collaboration is all the more diabolical and surprising when seen in the context of the famous Maggi ban that hit the multinational Company hard in 2015. This collaboration between FSSAI and Nestle is not only unethical and a death knell to public accountability but also an extension of the shady continuum that seems to be developing between many Government and Private entities in India nowdays. The initiative is said to be first taken when the CEO of FSSAI Mr.Pawan Aggarwal and Nestle India’s Chairman Mr.Suresh Narayan were in search of ways to “engage” on issues of food safety in India.

This is not the first time FSSAI’s intergrity as the country’s single food regulator is under fire. In October 2015, the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), the All India Food Processors Association and the Indian Drugs Manufacturers Association formed a joint action committee to press for enquiry by the CBI Into functioning of FSSAI with one going as far as to call the regulator a “den of corruption”. The CAIT secretary general pointed out that “the food safety authority has succumbed to pressure from multinational companies and wants to promote the sale of packed food in India. If a trader wants to follow all the safety standards he can’t do so. The environment in FSSAI is like that of a private limited company. It has become autocratic; there is no actual representation of consumer organisations or business organisations on its committees.” Even Nestle’s reputation in the international market is not bereft of allegations of corruption with the company going on record last year admitting to forced labour and human rights abuse in its supply chain. Even if it is assumed that the FSSAI started the NFSI with Nestle as a part of its Corporate Social Responsibility activities, this is a prima facie conflict of interest, more so as the Nestle v. FSSAI matter is still pending in the Supreme Court.

Food safety is a one of the biggest and most overlooked public health concern in India. With a geographically dispersed population of 1.3 billion, the majority of which are live in abject poverty, hunger and illiteracy; combined with lack of political will and clear food regulatory policy, result in a fertile ground for bureaucratic bungling and food scandals. One such incident brought the issue of public food safety to limelight when a top ramen noodle brand Maggi was banned in India in 2015.

It is imperative to understand the legal tussle between FSSAI and the leading multinational player in the FMCG sector i.e. Nestle in order to fully appreciate the extent of corruption exposed by setting up NFSI, Manesar. On 10 March 2014 , one Mr.VK Pandey, an Uttar Pradesh Food Safety and Drug Administration who has a previous history of activism against targets as diverse as Britannia and a Lucknow based biryani house — sampled Maggi packs from Barabanki for MSG. the samples were sent for examination to a Kolkata based referral lab, where it was discovered that the Maggi samples representing 165 million Maggi packets in india, contained dangerous lead(Pb) levels above permissible limits and Monosodium Glutamate(MSG). The growing consumer confusion led to Nestle temporarily withdrawing Maggi from the market and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) issuing an order to Nestlé India which included, among other orders, the:
• Recall of all nine variants of MAGGI Noodles from the market
• Halt of commercial activities related to the product, including sale and production
• Removal of the "No Added MSG" claim from product packs
• Withdrawal / recall of MAGGI oats Noodles as it did not have 'Product Approval'

This order was followed by a long drawn court battle. The stakes were high. The Indian government filed a class action suit against the Swiss manufacturer of Maggi noodles, seeking about Rs 640 crore in damages for alleged unfair trade practices, false labelling and misleading advertisements. This was also the first time that the Consumer Affairs Ministry dragged a company to the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) using a provision in the nearly three decade old Consumer Protection Act. The Bombay High Court overturned the ban which led to FSSAI filing a Civil Appeal in the Supreme Court. The matter is still pending in the Supreme Court.

During the pendency of the litigation, the CEO of FSSAI Mr. Yudhvir Singh Malik, who is believed to be the man behind the ban on Maggi was surprisingly shifted to the Niti Aayog and in his place Mr. Pawan Kumar Agarwal was inducted into the FSSAI who is also the person responsible for giving a nod to this collaboration with Nestle.
At the inaugural ceremony of the Nestle Food Safety Institute (NFSI), at a cost of Rs 250 crore at Manesar in Haryana, which includes Rs 7 crore on latest testing equipment, the Nestle India Chairman Mr.Suresh Narayan was quick to defend this obviously questionable venture by saying that NFSI is not funded directly by Nestle India but is part of Nestle Research Center in Lausanne, Switzerland. Mr. Pawan Agarwal further tried to dodge the questions about conflict of interest by saying that “FSSAI is not like USFDA which has many years of experience, has huge staff and latest technology. It is an independent initiative that will help the consumers get safe and quality food.” He further added that “This partnership is very well thought strategy. Nestle Food Safety Institute will conduct training programmes, on food safety management systems, testing methods and regulatory standards. Partnerships with private parties on food safety and standards are an imperative for FSSAI. This is our effort to implement a first world regulatory ecosystem in India,”. His response begs the question- If FSSAI is so under-prepared and under-equipped, why did it not first ask the government for funds? Especially since FSSSAI is the single point reference related to all food safety and food standard matters in the country. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasized on the issue of Food Safety on World Health Day and ensured the public that the Government is working tirelessly to ensure the same. Infact, for a country so over-populated, India has only 148 food-testing laboratories. In other words, each laboratory serves 8.8 million people. This calls for a complete overhaul of the testing and analytical capabilities of FSSAI and not a private entity intervention whose main business is manufacture of food products. The solution for the FSSAI is more effective appropriation of resources to regulatory units, institutional strengthening and capacity building, tighter strategic and operational coordination among agencies.

Nestle’s website states out the objective of the NFSI as:
• Ensure that the broad competences and knowledge within Nestlé are fully leveraged in India and the Region.
• Create scientific knowledge to enable the formulation of effective and implementable risk reduction strategies.
• Engage with concerned stakeholders to share knowledge and information on emerging food safety issues and support a science based policy framework.
• Support knowledge dissemination and conduct training programs
NFSI India will be an integral part of the global network (NQAC and R&D) of food safety experts within Nestlé. NFSI India will serve as a local interface of Nestlé’s global food safety capabilities & research, and as such, leverage our expertise in food safety science as an incentive for new research collaboration & partnerships in the country. NFSI will partner with reputable academics, government agencies and research institutes.

It is ironical that a Company whose most famous product Maggi (which till 2015 enjoyed the 70% of the market share in the relevant field, accounted for 30% of the Company’s 9000 crore annual turnover) was found to be unsafe for consumption is now spearheading the movement for “food safety” in collaboration with the very organisation which found Maggi unsafe for consumption. The whole collaboration reeks of corruption and needs to be thoroughly investigated in order to salvage whatever little is left in India in the name of Food Safety and Standards.

 I, as a citizen, am deeply concerned about public health and food safety, and demand an enquiry into this Institute and the abovementioned collaboration.

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