Fortune Cookie

Goodbye to Small Pleasures! FSSAI’s Food Standards Noose Tightens for Restaurants

Posted: July 31, 2015 at 3:29 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

WITH THE Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) spreading terror in the industry, so much so that even Food Processing Industries Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal has recently spoken up against what she describes as a “fear psychosis”, a nudge-nudge-wink-wink economy of products banned by the FSSAI had started thriving over the past year.

Hoteliers and restaurateurs keep complaining about the steep spike in prices of ingredients such as Japanese rice vinegar, about which the FSSAI “aren’t amused”, but they have no option but to buy these essentials from the grey market to keep themselves in business. Imagine sushi without rice vinegar!

The days of the underground party, though, seem to be numbered now, with the country’s food safety commissars issuing a diktat a couple of weeks ago making the person(s) or company running a food business operation liable for any lapse in compliance to FSSAI regulations. Hotels and restaurants, in other words, will soon have to set up departments devoted entirely to FSSAI matters and also chuck away all ingredients considered unpalatable by the agency. They can’t any longer get away by saying that they had bought their stocks in good faith from their suppliers. If that means making sushi without Japanese rice vinegar, so be it.

The stock answer of FSSAI bureaucrats to any question relating to the rationale behind a ban is that “no one will die because of it”. The issue here is not if a particular food product is essential to human survival. What is at stake here is the fundamental right of every human being to choose what he or she eats without being told what to do by state-appointed commissars. If Indians can eat the famous Italian cheese, Grana Padano, or savour slices of Parma ham in their pasta, or dig smoked salmon in their afternoon sandwich anywhere in the world, what makes these products so bad when they land on Indian shores? Why should we be denied the pleasure of eating with the rest of the world? If the FSSAI has its way, restaurants can kiss goodbye to artisanal cheeses and cold cuts – and many more little pleasures of life.

There’s absolutely no rationale dictating the FSSAI’s list of banned food products. In the aftermath of the Maggi episode, in fact, the agency has come under a cloud of allegations of malfeasance levelled against it by its own former directors, including the one who gave India’s favourite snack its FSSAI certification. Its sense of judgment is being questioned as well, now that nine countries, including the normally fastidious Canada and Singaproe, have tested Maggi noodles afresh and given it their regulatory green signals.

The man leading the charge against FSSAI as convener of the Forum of Indian Food Importers (FIFI), Amit Lohani, can cite example after example of the agency’s arbitrary standards. Take the instance of olives. FSSAI has a problem with the pH level of the brine in which olives are packaged. What it doesn’t realise is that the standards on which its objection is based are outdated because of the advances made in pasteurisation techniques around the world.

It is the same reliance on outdated standards that leads to anomalies such as FSSAI allowing imports of corned beef, but banning Parma ham. The import of corned beef was first okayed by the British administration in India during World War II for the nutrition of American and Australian soldiers stationed in the country. Standards for corned beef, as a result, exist in the statute books, but not for Parma ham.

The FSSAI’s vexatious standards are also responsible for a host of products that are consumed all over the world, from the popular sea salt and caramel sauce of Starbucks to Hershey’s Ice Breakers mouth-freshening mints, being denied to Indian consumers. And now, a new irritant is simmering down under in the form of wine standards. The FSSAI is setting the standards in consultation with a lobbying group for the alcohol industry, but the wine industry has been kept out of the process. Like everything the agency does, this too shall remain a mystery.

GETTING A HOLY HIGH IN NASHIK

KUMBH MELAS have traditionally been holy spectacles where the headlines are dominated by the masses of humanity that converge for the events and the stark images of sadhus, some flaunting their wealth and power, some their chillums, and the rest, their disconnect with any temporal temptation, including clothing of any kind. This year, a new twist has been added to the Kumbh Mela story.

In the 12 years that have lapsed since the Mela was last held in Nashik on the banks of the Godavari, the district has seen the efflorescence of a vibrant wine industry in the shadow of the Sahyadri ranges. And without doubt, Sula Vineyards has done better than the rest in putting the district on the world wine map and also becoming a tourist magnet. Sensing an opportunity in this vast convergence of people from across the country, Sula has been in the forefront of promoting the idea of a wine break for the devotees heading towards the Godavari.

The company’s founder-CEO Rajeev Samant has even successfully lobbied with the local administration not to declare the entire district dry during the days of the major holy baths between August 26 and September 25. Sula, meanwhile, is promoting its boutique hotel named Beyond, which is a 33-minute drive away from the pilgrim centre of Trimbakeshwar and 20 minutes from Ram Kund, as a stopover for devotees. To sweeten the deal, it is conducting guided tours to the holy places in the neighbourhood.

What’s in it for Sula? It gets not only business for its hotel, but also people dropping by its famous Tasting Room to chill with wines that are not always available in the market or heading to Soleil, the farm-to-fork restaurant set up by the couple who run the famous La Plage in Goa. This is wine tourism with an Indian touch. Sula has been in the forefront of this business with its annual wine, food and music festival, which sees 10,000 people drawn to it on each of the three days it is held annually in February. I just hope others get inspired by the example to do their own little bit. After wine, it’ll be the turn of wine tourism.

INDIAN WINES HAVE NEVER HAD IT BETTER

FLAG-BEARERS of the drink were understandably elated when the news about the 21 per cent rise in wine consumption across the country made it to the front pages of national dailies. How did it happen? Industry insiders say the growth has been powered almost entirely by Indian wines, which seem to be gaining faster acceptance even in Delhi-NCR, where consumers love their foreign labels.

Much of this shift has to do with Jacob’s Creek, the Australian brand that is way ahead of the competition in the market for imported brands, getting into trouble with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), which is unhappy with the tartaric acid found in the wine. The global conglomerate Pernod Ricard, which produces Jacob’s Creek, has taken FSSAI to the Bombay High Court, but it is a common practice, sanctioned by OIV, the wine world’s United Nations, of which India is a member, to add tartaric acid as an insurance against hot climates.

Another factor that’s helped is the decision of the Ministry of Commerce, taken after more than a decade, to reduce the value of its duty-free imports licence from 10 per cent of a beneficiary company’s foreign exchange earnings via credit card transactions to 3 per cent. Starred hotels and some restaurant chains were using this benefit to buy imported wines really cheap, but they no longer have that luxury.

WHY’S CHILE SHY OF PROMOTING ITS PISCO?

LAST WEEKEND, the Peruvian Embassy held a pisco promotion where Delhiites got to quaff the grape wine-based distilled liquor, which is very dear to the South American nation. Oddly, Chile is the world’s largest producer of pisco, which is used to make the cocktail pisco sour – it produces 10 times more of the spirit than Peru, but its neighbour exports three times more, its main market being the United States. Pervian pisco was also voted the world’s best liquor at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles 2011, which is the equivalent of getting the Oscar for best film. Not that Chilean pisco is inferior, but I suspect the country wants to promote its celebrated wines harder than it wants to talk about its pisco.

— This column first appeared in Mail Today on July 30, 2015. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers