Food Testing Infrastructure Need Impetus

A critical factor responsible for the growth of the food test market is the growing cases of food borne disease across the country. Thus, it is of utmost importance to have an understanding of the existing infrastructure available for food testing in the country in terms of capacity, provision of equipment, technical manpower, geographical spread and testing capabilities. The Indian food consumption basket has diversified from cereals towards higher value and more perishable products, such as fruits and vegetables, dairy, meat and fish. Factors like economie development, growing urbanization coupled with increasing middle class population, and rising personal disposable income of the consumers has led to increased consumption of processed food, and are also in turn influencing the food pathogen testing market. Another critical factor responsible for the growth of the food test market is the growing cases of food-borne diseases across the country. Thus, it is of utmost importance to have an understanding of the existing infrastructure available for food testing in the country in terms of capacity, provision of equipment, technical manpower, geographical spread and testing capabilities. According to a meta study conducted by Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) in February 2019, around 915 food and water testing labs exist at present in India which includes NABL (National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories) accredited labs, FSSAI notified Labs, States labs, Institutional labs, Referrai labs etc. Under the FSSAI network, approximately 265 labs are operational where 35 are EIC (Export Inspection Council) approved, 40 are APEDA (Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority) recognized while 72 had received assistance from Ministry of Food Processing Industries. There are around 600 food testing laboratories in India, many of which can also test for water. Additionally, there are around 300 laboratories (NABL accredited) who can test water, packaged drinking water and/or water used for food processing, taking the total number of food and water testing labs to more than 900 laboratories. Other than these labs, there is another pool of food testing laboratories which exist within the ecosystem which largely includes small players operating in the food testing space and a larger pool of food testing labs which exist with the Food Business Operators (FBOs) to carry out their regular/routine tests for raw material as well as finished goods. However,the number of such laboratories existing in the ecosystem is difficult to determine. In total, these small laboratories along with the labs existing with FBOs are likely to exceed 1,000 in number, taking the total number of food testing laboratories in India to more than 2,000″, reveals Pawan Kumar Agarwal, CEO, FSSAI. The FBOs form a very significant part of the overall food testing ecosystem. Being the end consumers of the Services, they are the ones driving the demand for food testing and allied Services. There are around 50 NABL accredited laboratories owned and operated by various FBOs. Of these, 52 per cent laboratories are open to others for testing, 38 per cent cater only to in-house requirements while 10 per cent are partially open to others for testing. Some of the key companies who own the NABL accredited laboratories include ITC, Nestle India, Tilda Hain, Britannia, Markfed, Patanjali Food & Herbal Park, Mother Dairy, Karnataka Co-operative Milk Producers Federation, LT Foods, Synthite Industries, Dabur, Marico, Akay Flavours & Aromatics, Coca-Cola, Eastern Condiments, Jain Irrigation Systems, Parry Agro amongst others. “Many of the corporates own more than one such laboratories. Majority of the labs owned by FBOs can test for food and agri products, while a few specialized labs can also test for marine products and pesticide residues. Besides these NABL accredited laboratories, there are numerous other small laboratories which exist within the processing plants of the FBOs for their day to day testing of raw materials and final products. The number of such laboratories existing in the ecosystem is difficult to determine, as there is no central repository or database that capture such laboratory details”, points out Venkateswaran N, CEO, NABL. The core competency of any food testing laboratory, whether public or private, is identified on the basis of its testing facilities, equipment, trained manpower and capacity utilization. A food testing lab’s capabilities can be primarily gauged by the kind of equipment which is deployed for food testing and the number or variety of parameters it can cater to. There is a range of possible instruments and Systems used for food testing. Central to food testing analysis are spectrometers, alcohol analyzers, refractometers, titrators and moisture analyzers. Some of the leading players in Indian food testing market dealing with such equipment are SGS India, Eurofins Analytical Services India, TUV India, Intertek India, Bureau Veritas Consumer Products Services,Thermo Fisher Scientific India, Merck and Agilent Technologies among others. In general, Gas chromatography and Liquid chromatography systems coupled to mass spectrometers (GCMS and LCMS respectively) are the most commonly used equipment in food testing laboratories. At present, referrai labs have the maximum presence of these equipment to carry out the necessary food testing procedures, followed by private labs, FBOs, state labs, institutional labs and non FSSAI labs. Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (IRMS) is another essential equipment used for conducting food testing procedures, mostly found in referral and private labs. IRMS along with LCMS and GCMS are also found in few FBO labs but mostly these labs have tie ups with established commercial labs for outsourcing when additional parameters are required to be tested. However, state labs suffer a lot in procuring such equipment since lab configuration to suit high end equipment needs to pass through multiple approvals which came out as a key constraint. “In the government sector, procurement of high end equipment is a centralized process which necessitates multiple bureaucratic and formal approvals. This also holds true for upgradation or replacement of existing equipment. The delay in approvals is time consuming, causes huge downtime and affects the overall operations of the lab. On the other hand, procurement and maintenance of high end testing equipment by small and medium private sector labs is challenging owing to lack of samples and minimal capacity utilization. In addition, non- availability of the technical manpower has been one of the primary reasons behind underutilization of food testing laboratories. The availability of trained food analysts is also very low in the country”, shares Rahul Gupta, CEO, Sigma Test & Research Centre. In terms of manpower, presence of chemists is the maximum in referral labs owing to their wide quantum of work and accountability as the appel late authority followed by private labs. However, the number of microbiologists is very few, with State labs seldom reporting any presence. “Quality testing is a highly specialized skill set which requires core technical knowledge and awareness about the sample & its dynamics. A food sample is not the same as a soil sample or a packaging material sample. While hiring freshers, it needs continuous monitoring and training for personnel to reach to a certain level and quality in food testing. This consumes capital and time, after which a person may leave or move out to another lab or allied field/sector. Average attrition rate in private laboratories was is around 30 per cent. While in the government sector laboratories, vacancies are generally advertised and recruitment is done through centralized channel. Sometimes, delay in approvals and confirmations or bureaucratic decisions causes delay in filling of criticai posts in time which leads to daily operations being hampered negatively”, mentions N Bhaskar, Advisor, QA, FSSAI. In order to address some of these challenges, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has opened a National Food Laboratory (NFL) in Ghaziabad under a public-private-partnership mode, with Delhi based firm Arbro Pharmaceuticals, the first-of-its- kind in the food laboratory sector. The NFL houses an advanced, sophisticated Food Safety Solution Centre in collaboration with Thermo Fisher Scientific, and a Centre for Microbiological Analysis Training (C-MAT) in association with Merck. A parallel attempt has been carried out by another private player Agilent Technologies in the form of Centre of Excellence (CoE) facilities dedicated to developing integrated, end-to-end workflow Solutions for supporting diversified end markets including food testing. In total, three CoE facilities have been established by Agilent, in Bengaluru, Manesar and Mumbai. The latest facility in Mumbai is equipped with digitai technology to enable Virtual sessions and interactions, and to build a conducive environment where R&D expertise can be applied and developed. These initiatives will hopefully provide a boost since food testing laboratories, both public and private, seldom indulge in independent R&D to formulate or evolve latest techniques, training modules or protocols for food testing. No incentive or promotion is available for the same to keep up with the global standards. In addition, lack of communication among the food suppliers, sellers and buyers is another major challenge in the present food safety regime. Upcoming or newly set up laboratories face a problem in getting samples due to lack of market visibility and industry connect. Overall consumer awareness regarding food constituents, packaging material, nutritional information, mode of preparation and other such quality parameters of food commodities also requires impetus. As a general recommendation to address these challenges facing the food testing infrastructure in India, an action plan in coordination with state governments should be drawn for overcoming them. Perhaps, a separate agency or food safety department in each state should be established to enforce the food safety mechanism more efficiently.