“Stuck with Ghiya-Tori Again? Make the 1+1 Combo you love'; so read an advertisement by McDonald's in several newspapers in northern India in early November. Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (Fssai) served notice on the company on 21 November against the advert, with the charge that the advert violated the orders issued by Fssai in 2018 regarding food advertisements.
As per Fssai orders, advertisements should not undermine the importance of healthy lifestyles or promote food or beverages as a meal replacement unless specifically permitted by the authority. One of the most vibrant sectors of India's fast-expanding e-commerce universe is the online food and beverage chain. For that very reason, Fssai's notice has sent ripples around circles connected with the business. And the issue has opened the gates of new debates on the country's online restaurant food market itself.
India's first law addressing issues related to food substances is the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954. Later several orders and notifications have been issued by the Central government governing production and marketing of food products, which include Fruit Products Order (1955), Meat Products Order (1973), The Solvent Extracted Oil, Deoiled Meal and Edible Flour (Control) Order (1967), Edible Oils Packaging (Regulation) Order (1988), Milk and Milk Products Order (1992). In 2006, all these acts and rules were brought under a single umbrella law, i.e. Food Safty and Standards Act passed by parliament in 2006. In line with this law, in 2011 Fssai was also formed. The 2006 legislation covers most of the regulations covering the safety and standards aspects of the food sector. And Fssai has made its mark already as an authentic institution in the food sector. In other words, we have well-developed laws, regulations and the enforcing machinery related to the standards and safety of food substances, and Fssai has by now become a prestigious institution of the country.
However, online food distribution chains have become widespread now, which was not the case when the FSSAI Act was passed in 2006. For this reason, absence of laws and regulations that can regulate the operation of such chains has emerged as a new hurdle now. The online restaurants segment has so far grown into a huge business sector with a turnover of Rs 10,000 crore. And this is estimated to grow three times before long. Given this, steps will be needed to bring the online food chains under the jurisdiction and regulations of the food safety norms provided in law.
India does have laws covering e-commerce, and they come under the Information Technology Act. At the same time, the regulatory regime governing food substances will not be adequately covered by the normal e-commerce laws alone. Therefore, there shold be either amendments or new orders to interlink the two streams of law. True, Fssai issued a guideline in this connection in December 2018. The main provision in it is that the food item distributed should have a minimum shelf life of 30 per cent duration when it is supplied. These guidelines also stipulate that, the items shold be subject to inspection at any time, the packets should carry an indicative image of the food inside, and that the packet should display the legal information about the food item packed specified by the Food Safety Act.
What happens in the online restaurant business is that food prepared by a restaurant is delivered to the consumer by a different distribution agency. This works through the mutual relations between the two entities, making and distributing. There is still lack of clarity on whether the obligation about the safety and quality of the food distributed rests with the distributor or the restaurant that made the item. Very often, when faced with complaints, there has been a trend of both parties washing off their hands. And there is also some vagueness about the criteria applied in determining the shelf-life of the food. The licence for online distribution agency is issued by the central government. But then, the state governments do not have any information about the online food distribution chains that operate within the respective state. And it will often be after the distributor has left the scene that the consumer finds the nice packet he received containing substandard food. The distributor will pass the buck on to the restraurant. It may even be that the very food supplied may not be made by the restaurant stated in the order.
As the online food distribution chains become more widespread in Kerala, complaints too have been on the rise. But the state food safety department is often seen to be groping in the dark in the matter. There is no doubt that the online food sector is one with high growth potential and at the same time convenient for the consumers. As such, there is no case for catching such an industry by the horns and expelling it entirely. On the other hand, it should be examined whether our robust food safety criteria are being applied here also. And if there is a deficit of laws and regulations on that score, that lacuna has to be plugged.