Regulating food quality & standards

A few weeks ago, much to the utter joy of packaged food industry, the provinces agreed to a uniform standard of food and other consumer products as set by the Pakistan Standard and Quality Control Authority, which is an attached department of the federal Ministry of Science and Technology.

On the face of it this looks like a good move, because it will allow food players to meet single set of standards instead of following different standards for different provinces, which previously led to higher cost of production and management. But at this point there are some important aspects that are not very clear and demand public deliberation.

For instance, the license and inspection functions were and still are solely the domain of provinces. The constitutional standing of this matter has already been settled by the Supreme Court in its suo moto case of 2018. Accordingly, this implies that the provinces will have to own each other’s licensing and inspection policy and practice. In turn, this assumes that provincial food authorities will meet each other’s expectations in terms of technical capacity, financial resources, and lack of corruption in their licensing and inspection functions. In the absence of a strong coordination framework, this is a tall assumption to hold at this point.

Similarly, the question of halal food bodies also require deliberation. So far, Punjab already has a certain Punjab Halal Development Agency, which is separate from Punjab Food Authority. Sindh is also in the process of setting up a separate Halal food body. Must four provinces have different halal standards? And if so, then which platform is to ensure coordination between those bodies.

The issue of halal does not seem very urgent and important to some constituents. But for one, halal certified food is a big global market, and growing. And while the concept of halal is intuitively understood in the case of slaughtered goats and cows, it is not yet a part of public imagination that even bottled water has to be halal certified because food manufacturing processes and facilities often use certain products (filters in the case of bottled water) that ought to have halal properties.

A related problem revolves around the subject of food quality and prices. Speaking at an event organized by Korangi Association of Trade and Industry (KATI), Amjad Laghari, Director General of Sindh Food Authority said last week that they have no coordination with the local government officials who set the prices of unpackaged open-market (or ‘khula’) milk and meat.

Laghari’s views echo those expressed by Aijaz Mahesar, Secretary Livestock and Fisheries, Sindh, in his recent interview published by this newspaper. Responding to a question by BR Research, he agreed that price regulation of meat is a disincentive for growth in livestock industry but that his office can only provide feedback to price regulators. (See Brief Recording section Feb, 3, 2020)

This begs the question whether the subject of quality can ever be divorced from prices. Regulating, licensing and monitoring the quality of unpackaged, loose milk and meat is the domain of food authorities. But when (regulated) price prohibits quality at production, processing, distribution and retailing stages, then it is not a workable system. It will only lead to a system where food inspectors will take ‘chai-pani’ to look the other way.

Also missing from the discourse is the coordination between the food authorities and the civil society. So far, food authorities are working in collaboration with businesses associations. For instance, Sindh Food Authority (SFA) agreed to join hands with KATI last week, where KATI is to provide focal persons and food scientists to assist SFA in its various regulatory and monitoring efforts.

To some degree this is understandable and may even be appreciated. SFA is a new organization; it needs all the technical support, and it also needs to increase awareness and gain confidence of food industry players that it is not out there to strangulate businesses. A soft approach is often advised when a new regulatory body is set up. But food authorities must avoid falling into the trap of regulatory capture, the risks of which were all too evident at the KATI moot last Thursday.

At that moot, KATI officials requested SFA to work in close liaison with the former’s focal persons on a few regulatory aspects. The SFA publicly agreed to do so. But when Imtiaz Abro, Deputy Director of SFA requested KATI to appoint a focal person to streamline the regulation of kitchens for workers within factories and other industrial units, KATI’s President Umer Rehan completely ignored that request by saying that SFA should work on other priority areas instead of licensing workers’ kitchens because “obviously industrialists feed their workers good quality food”. That is a telltale sign of emerging risks of regulatory capture.

A bigger problem in this regard and the most important missing link in civil society is the absence of an effective food and nutrition think tank of sorts that mediates between the government, the producers and the consumers. This is both strange and unfortunate considering that food is not just Pakistan’s national pastime; food is also Pakistan’s recreation, its cinema, concerts, hobby and even sports.

Yet the society has failed to come together to periodically assess food quality and standards. Or to address the question of how to ensure basic hygiene and quality of food at roadside shacks, ‘dhabbas’ and carts. These informal economy players (aka street food) is a big attraction for growing number of foreign tourists. The regulations must not strangulate street food actors and kill their income streams. But it must not be too laxed either that it risks international headlines stating ’13 foreign tourists get hepatitis C in Pakistan’. Or even to assess nutritional aspects.

Regulating food isn’t only about rotten or adulterated food. It is a rather technical affair inseparable from the subject of nutrition and preventive health care – the benefits of both go far beyond the taste buds and the election cycle, and the requirements of which differ from one natural region and climate conditions to another. And this is why the idea of having one single national food standard for a diverse country may not be a good decision in the long term, not at least without public debate and deliberation.