Thursday, 31 July 2014

FORTUNE COOKIE: How the 'Food Safety' Circus is Denying Us Our Daily Pleasures

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

IT'S BEEN less than a month since the government made the ill-advised move to ban foie gras (goose liver) imports on the ground that the delicacy is injurious to the birds because of the way they are force-fed to fatten their liver.
Well, foie gras may not be the only sign of refined taste that may disappear from our plates because all hell has been let loose by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). Like the misdirected logic of the foie gras ban (name one animal product, starting with milk, that doesn't involve some form of cruelty or the other!), the rules being pushed by the FSSAI seem to have been conceived at Mad Hatter's Tea Party.
Thanks to new food safety standards that
are completely out of sync with the evolving
taste buds of post-liberalisation India, we
have a situation where Parmegiano Reggiano
(the original parmesan), above, is now
considered unsafe for the nation's health
and therefore unfit for import.
The Food Safety and Standards Act, without doubt, was legislated in 2006 with the good intention of bringing the provisions of seven-odd central acts, beginning with the antiquated Prevention of Food Adulteration (PFA) Act of 1955, under one comprehensive, contemporary legal umbrella. A brainchild of the previous government, it was welcomed by all as a salutary initiative, but the mood changed once the rules framed under the Act came into effect in 2011. It sent food importers running for protective cover, but none was forthcoming.
For starters, the new rules are based on the list of 355 edible food products recognised by the PFA Act of 1955, which is surprising because the Codex Alimentarius, the Bible of food standards prepared jointly, and updated continually, by the World Health Organisation and the Food & Agriculture Organisation, lists more than 3,500 categories (not items!) of edible food products. In what could be a scene straight out of Catch 22, or Comedy Nights with Kapil, the new rules, for instance, allow green olives to be imported, but bar the ones that are black, because it regards black olives as green olives gone bad.
The new rules don't recognise the existence of mayonnaise, or of sausages, unless they carry a 'cooked meat' label. They are OK with cheese made with pasteurised milk, but they don't allow Parmegiano Reggiano (the original parmesan) access to the Indian market because it is made with milk that is not pasteurised. Nor do they accept that there's something called 'canola oil', leading to a piquant situation where the FSSAI wants canola oil shipments to carry labels describing the product as 'rapeseed oil', which their Canadian importers are refusing to do.
Labelling, of course, is another parallel circus act. Not only is the FSSAI making absurd demands (like insisting that all wine labels must mention expiry dates!), it is asking for all food labels to be translated into English. Try as hard as you may, you cannot get a Japanese sushi rice producer, or a Thai manufacturer of condiments, to invest in a machine dedicated to printing labels in English for the Indian market. The world uses their products without blinking an eye, so why should they make an investment for a market that, anyway, is quite small! I believe the Japanese had an apoplectic fit when they were asked by FSSAI to produce a health certificate and a certificate of provenance (both in impeccable English!) for each container of fish that arrived from their country.
I foresee two serious consequences of this legal mayhem. One, the unmet demand for imports will increasingly be met by airline and shipping crew 'hand-carrying' food items at exorbitant prices. This would hurt the government because of the loss of revenue involved. A food importer was saying to me that in the days, pre-liberalisation, when the hand-carrying trade was all that was happening, imported salmon cost Rs 4,000 a kilo in the grey market and the government got nothing out of the business. The price has dropped today to Rs 1,100 a kilo and the government is getting its share because salmon is being imported via legitimate channels.
The FSSAI, however, has been able throw a monkey wrench into this business as well. It insists now on checking each consignment of imported fish. The process takes five days, on average, and frozen fish have a maximum shelf life of seven days. There's therefore a scramble to sell fish, hurting legitimate importers by squeezing their margins, whenever stocks are freed by the FSSAI.
There could be another, more serious, consequence of this moronic reading of the laws. What if the rest of the world starts viewing the FSSAI's actions as non-tariff barriers and starts retaliating? Indian agricultural exports then will suffer more than the imports that are getting blocked because of the food safety circus.

JOOST THE WAY WE LIKE IT! RIVOLI SINHA'S FRESH FRUIT JUICE DREAM

Rivoli Sinha, who has tied up with
Australia's Boost chain of fresh
fruit juice stores, ensured that
her company broke even within
a year of launching operations. 
PEOPLE in the food business love to joke that no one ever pays to go out and have a healthy meal. An alumna of Switzerland's prestigious Les Roches Hotel Management School, Rivoli Sinha set out to prove this long-held theory wrong, although she had the more comfortable option of taking up a position in the Rs 2,500-crore security services company founded and owned by her father, R.K. Sinha, the BJP's newly elected Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar.
Rivoli, who's barely 30 and was given her unusual name by the godman Mrityunjay Maharaj (it is the Spanish word for 'revolution'), came across Boost, an Australian chain of fresh fruit juice stores, on a visit Down Under coinciding with the takeover of a local company by her father. She brought the brand home, but realised soon that she would have to find a new name because Boost was already a popular milk supplement brand. She zeroed in on Joost, opened her first outlet at a South Delhi fitness centre, and broke even within seven months.
"Profitability is the only reason why I got into this business," Rivoli said over a sampler from her juice menu at Joost's Cyber Hub outlet, one of her eight stores. She made it clear she was looking for PE funding to finance her expansion plans.
Rivoli has tapped a market waiting for an alternative to canned juices made from concentrates and fresh juices produced at roadside stalls in the most unhygienic conditions. And she has managed to raise the bar by literally travelling the extra mile. She visits Maharashtra's Ratnagiri district every February for the annual auction of hapoos (Alphonso) mangoes -- this year, she picked up five quintals. She insists on only late-harvest Sweet Charlie strawberries from Mahabaleshwar because their natural sugar content rules out the need for additional sugar. She sources her blueberries and raspberries from New Zealand, but she has found a supplier for blueberries in Himachal Pradesh. And she gets her wheatgrass from a grower in Sonepat who uses the hydroponic growing system to stop bugs from thriving on the grass. This attention to detail is getting her the footfalls -- Joost's 8ftx7ft outlet at the Medanta Medicity serves 400-500 people a day. That must be keeping the cash registers ringing.

PIZZA EXPRESS OPENS AT AMBIENCE MALL, VASANT KUNJ, ON AUG. 25

Pizza Express, which has had a fairly
successful run in Mumbai, is famous
for its dough balls and garlic butter dip.
AMBIENCE MALL in Vasant Kunj, long dismissed as the poor cousin of its upscale neighbours (DLF Emporio and Promenade), is fast becoming a gourmet magnet. Its transformation started with the arrival of Yauatcha, the dim sum restaurant from London that opened here after a successful launch in Mumbai, then Starbucks, and finally, Indigo Deli, Rahul Akerkar's restaurant franchise designed for the malls. Yauatcha has had mixed luck, Starbucks has returned to normal life after those early headline-grabbing queues, and Indigo Deli, having seen a great opening, ran into a kerfuffle over table reservations, but none seems to be struggling to survive.
Come August 25, and they'll be joined by Pizza Express, the international chain of Italian restaurants born in the UK, famous for its invention, dough balls served with garlic butter dip, reaching Delhi via Mumbai. A floor above, Mistral, the restaurant run by  PVR Cinemas, has turned around its menu under the supervision of Mayank Tiwari, who has worked with both the Olive and the Smoke House franchises. There's also talk of Jamie's Kitchen opening -- it'll be the country's first Jamie Oliver restaurant -- some time later this year on the other side of Indigo Deli and Pizza Express. The mall, it seems, has finally come of age.

HAVE YOU HAD YOUR WHEATGRASS FIX?

WHEATGRASS juice is the new must-have for the city's fadwallahs, who are forever looking for a manna from heaven that would make them immune to all forms of illness and aging. Grown from cotyledons of regular wheat plants in trays filled with water, and harvested every seven days, chlorophyll-rich wheatgrass had its share of glory when, thanks to the publicity attracted by Anne Wigmore of the Hippocrates Health Institute, it was touted as the remedy to cancer. The American Cancer Society dismissed these claims after a host of scientific studies rejected the theory that wheatgrass juice, which is bitter and needs some getting used to, reverses the progress of cancer. All it does is pump you up with dietary fibre, which is good to have in plenty.

This column first appeared in Mail Today on July 31, 2014.
Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers