Sunday July 03, 2022

Setting national standards

April 27, 2021

After a long haul, this month’s (April 7) decision by the Council of Common Interest (CCI) to have uniform food standards in the whole country might be a step in the right direction to evolve internationally competitive regulations.

But for developing a vertical consumer-friendly safe food regulatory regime, the provincial governments have to surrender the power of making standards back to the federal government by amending their food laws, and the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) has to have new legislation altogether. The provincial food regulatory bodies will only have the authority to enforce the federal government standards.

The official CCI announcement, made in the context of growing trans-border e-food trade, said: "In order to further improve ease of doing business and harmonization of quality and standards across the country, it was decided that provinces will notify harmonized standards set by Pakistan Standard & Quality Control Authority (PSQCA) by repealing their standards."

"It was also agreed that harmonization of standards, standardized labelling and certification marks logo would remain the exclusive domain of PSQCA," the statement added. The CCI also decided to establish the much awaited permanent secretariat for the Council in Islamabad.

Since the constitutional devolution in 2010, provinces, Punjab in the lead, have claimed food and its standards as their exclusive domain. Punjab had been arguing that food had never been a federal subject before and after the 18th Amendment. The Punjab government, as per the Pure Food Ordinance 1960, was monitoring the food products. However, after the 18th Amendment, the Pure Food Ordinance was repealed and replaced with the Punjab Food Authority Act.

All four assemblies enacted laws to establish food regulatory mechanisms – the Punjab Food Authority 2011, Balochistan Food Authority 2014, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Food Safety & Halal Food Authority 2014 and Sindh Food Authority 2017 – in their respective jurisdictions.

But the Islamabad Capital Territory, which is the exclusive domain of the federal government, can set an example by developing an efficient safe food regulation for the provinces to follow; there is no food regulatory body to provide safe food to the capital’s residents.

What looks like a comedy of errors, the bill for establishing a safe food authority in ICT was introduced in the Senate in 2018 by the ruling PTI’s Senator Azam Khan Swati as a private member bill. After he was upgraded as a minister, the buck was passed to Senator Sajjad Hussain Turi. After being vetted by the Senate Committee on Interior, the bill got passed by the Senate in 2020 and landed in the National Assembly for passage before becoming an Act.

Simultaneously, a similar bill was introduced in the National Assembly by SAPM Ali Nawaz. This bill also dabbled through the National Assembly's parliamentary Committee on Interior and, after passage from the lower house, reached the Senate for further proceedings.

However, both the bills have lapsed before being taken up by either house. In a classic case of back to square one, last month, a new bill was presented in the Senate by the newly elected PTI Senator Fozia Arshad.

Ironically, these bills are being presented by ruling party lawmakers as private member bills instead of government moved legislation, though there are no objections from the opposition as the Senate bill was approved by the Committee headed by a senator belonging to the opposition party.

Unlike provinces, where provincial food departments manage the food authorities, in a unique example, the ICT's will fall in the purview of the federal interior ministry (that has no mandate to regulate food), a parent ministry of ICT administration.

The CCI, a constitutional body under the 1973 constitution, also has the mandate to resolve disputes among the federation and the federating units. The 18th Amendment, while making holding the meetings of CCI mandatory after every 90 days, also placed important subjects relating to the federation in the Federal Legislative List (Part-II) for the consideration of and decision by the Council. Standards in institutions for scientific and technical institutions are also in the Federal Legislative List (Part-II).

Once the provincial food bodies formed, the issue of harmonizing the quality standards across the country cropped up and landed in the CCI in 2018. The CCI formed a committee under the chairmanship of the secretary, Law and Justice Division to resolve constitutional and legal ambiguities, review provincial food authorities acts, and suggest a mechanism for enforcement of applicable Technical Regulations within one month. The terms of reference of the Committee included formulation and enforcement of standards, registration and licensing of manufacturers, and revamping of the PSQCA.

The Committee submitted its Report to the Prime Minister's Office and Ministry of Inter-Provincial Coordination (IPC) in June 2019 for further deliberations in the CCI. Likewise, in 2019, a consensus was made in the CCI meeting that there should be uniform standards at a national level and that provinces and local authorities will enforce the standards, but no decision was taken.

The CCI, however, is silent on revamping the PSQCA, which operates under the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology and provides national regulations pathways to the global food regulations.

The PSQCA, being a national standards body, represents Pakistan at different international organisations relevant to standardization activities, including the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO), Codex Alimentarius Commission, International Electro-technical Commission (IEC), Standards and Metrology Institute for the Islamic Countries (SMIIC), South Asian Regional Standards Organisation (SARSO) and focal point for World Trade Organisation (WTO) to TBT. Some of the other vital roles of the PSQCA include framing, publishing, amending, revising, or withdrawal of the Pakistan Standards concerning any article, product, process, and certification of mandatory articles products and procedure under the Certification Marks Scheme.

To stop manufacturing, storage and sale of such products which do not conform to the Pakistan Standards; inspection and testing of products for their quality specification and characteristics for manufacturing and import/export purpose; and registration of inspection agencies are also part of the PSQCA’s powers.

But the PSQCA’s performance has not been up to mark since its inception in 1996, it has only developed mandatory standards of 42 food products, and there are question marks on their implementation.

Food Standards are to be aligned with Codex Alimentarius, or the international ‘Food Code’, a collection of standards, guidelines, and codes of practice adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission. The Commission is the central part of the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme and was established by the FAO and WHO to protect consumer health and promote fair practices in food trade. However, there are muted concerns by healthy food activists that the corporate sector influences the whole process at the cost of consumers’ health.

The international food code advocates for evolving standards and their monitoring based on scientific evidence. Here as MOST’s PNAC (Pakistan National Accreditation Council) is established to accredit conformity assessment bodies such as laboratories and certification bodies. The PNAC’s activities ensure that accredited certificates and test results produced here are acceptable throughout the world.

Given the slow pace observed in the past to bring clarity to food regulation, one wonders whether there will be a lapse of more years in bringing forth well-coordinated, vertical and internationally harmonized safe food regulation to benefit consumers and food producers equally.

The writer is a freelance contributor.