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February 15, 2020

Empowering consumers

Opinion

February 15, 2020

In the existing bureaucratic food regulations to ensure access to quality food, a consumer cannot get a food sample tested from an accredited laboratory and, if found not in accord with the relevant standard, file a case in court for damages.

The multiple reasons include nonexistence of accredited laboratories in the public and private sectors, limited or no capacity to test food, non-availability of standards of all food items. If a private laboratory has the capacity to test, then it does not give its expert opinion on the result and put the condition that results will not be used in a court of law.

Last year, on the eve of taking over as federal minister for science and technology (MoST), Fawad Chaudhry asked the Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority (PSQCA) to liaison with consumer courts to entertain consumer complaints.

Fawad Chaudhry, who has a background in law, also instructed the national standards body to ensure transparency within its management and lab testing procedures, saying he was receiving complaints against the authority in this regard. Since then, however, no official effort was made to develop linkages between standardizations and federal and provincial consumer protection regulations.

Food regulation is not new in Pakistan. It has been there since 1960 under the pure food law. The PSQCA was established to set standards for food, licence the producers, mark the authority standard label on the product, and periodically test products in its labs to ensure that they keep complying with the standardsThe . PSQCA has international linkages as it is a member of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

The ISO prepares standards on test methods to assist stakeholders along the whole food chain to fulfill both the statutory and regulatory requirements, as well as the requirements of the consumers of these products.

Associated with this is the Codex system, which since its foundation in 1963, has evolved in an open, transparent, and inclusive way to meet emerging challenges. Developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Codex Alimentarius is a collection of international food standards covering all the main foods, whether processed, semi-processed or raw. Besides, the material used in the further processing of food products is included to the extent necessary for achieving the principal objectives of the code.

Codex provisions concern the hygienic and nutritional quality of food, including microbiological norms, food additives, pesticide and veterinary drug residues, contaminants, labeling and presentation, and methods of sampling and risk analysis.

International food trade is a 2,000 billion dollar a year industry, with billions of tonnes of food produced, marketed and transported. Codex texts are voluntary and do not have a binding effect on national food legislation.

However, the WTO Agreements on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement) and on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT Agreement) encouraged WTO members to harmonize national regulations with the international standards. Since the SPS Agreement specifically identifies Codex standards, guidelines and recommendations as the global benchmark for food safety, national regulations consistent with Codex standards are deemed to meet the requirement of the SPS Agreement. This whole process is consumer inclusive as consumer groups participate in the development of Codex standards.

In Pakistan, PSQCA standards are generally adapted from Codex. Under the pure food law, the responsibility to ensure that food items remain without adulteration was with the district governments. The 2010 devolution of power from the center to the provinces has brought the provinces to the fore. Since then, the provinces are at different stages of establishing their own respective food regulatory mechanisms.

This has ensued into a tug of war between the federal and provincial bureaucracies on the powers to set standards and periodically test them for compliance. This brought food regulation to a standstill for almost a decade.

It is only now that the federal and provincial governments have decided that the federal government's PSQCA will make standards, and the provincial food regulatory authorities will be responsible for their implementation and enforcement.

The decision was taken by the Council of Common Interests in December last year. All provinces agreed to have a uniform standard of food and other consumer products, set by the PSQCA, an attached department of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST). The PSQCA was also directed to surrender its four laboratories to the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR) working under the MoST for the promotion of the industrial sector.

However, the MoST still has the power to regulate laboratory testing. The Pakistan National Accreditation Council (PNAC) operating under it since 1998 has been strengthened in 2017 by establishing it under an act of the parliament.

Ironically, the PSQCA's performance is also not up to the mark. So far, it has evolved around 40 food standards that remain without full enforcement. Though it has many voluntary standards for the industry, it is not clear how standards become mandatory – through legislation or by subordinate legislation?

Consumers cannot assess the performance of the federal and provincial regulatory bodies because either they do not prepare mandatory annual reports or, if made, they remain inaccessible to the public.

Similarly, if a product is not up to the standard despite having a PSQCA mark, then should the consumer be filing a case against the PSQCA for negligence? This explains why consumers are officially barred from independently getting products tested.

The 1960 pure food law restricts a consumer's right to getting a product tested and in case of substandard getting judicial compensation. The law requires a consumer to make a request to the food inspector asking him/her to purchase a sample of such food from such person, as may be specified in the application and to submit such sample to the official public analyst for analysis. The complainant is to pay the cost of the sample purchased and of the analysis done. In case the sample is found by the public analyst to be adulterated, then the amount paid will be refunded to the consumer.

The same mechanism is retained by the provincial food regulatory authorities. It seems that the food regulatory bodies will extend their setup to the districts too. But instead of reinventing the wheel, they should develop linkages with the existing consumer councils that are provided for in the consumer protection laws.

In addition, the provincial food regulatory bodies have started establishing their own labs. Still, so far, none of them is accredited by the PNAC, which has extended recognition to around 150 labs in Pakistan. So any test reports from the provincial food authorities will not stand the court trial.

In the emerging scenario, the existing system of making the product with the official standard has become redundant. It is being replaced internationally with traffic lights with color-coding to visually show the nutritional value of food portions or a health star rating labeling system that scores the nutritional value of packaged foods.

Given the higher disease burden because of unhealthy food consumption patterns, it is imperative that an integrated food regulation system is evolved with the active participation of consumers in the decision-making process, and empowering them with legal tools.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Email: [email protected]