Covid-19 and the falling credibility of food

Introduction

Although the forborne transmission of the novel Coronavirus is less probable, the infection has fundamentally influenced the process of food production, manufacturing, and further its selling and distribution within the given scope of resources available at hand. With the increasing cases of COVID-19, people have become more anxious about their health. Despite this many people are oblivious of the unethical practices of several Food Producers. In this article, the author attempts to aware the consumers of their rights and duties so that they can protect themselves from such harm and have sufficient remedies available if they suffer such harm.

As the food sector, is one of the most significant and critical sectors, the encumbrance is to cope up with the snowballing demand of the people and government which provides ration to poor people at this time of health emergencies. The agriculture sector tends to continue to operate at this point of time when stay-at-home orders and the country-wide lockdown have been imposed by the government to curb the transmission. In order to do so, the government categorized several commodities as essential at the time of global emergency as a result of the pandemic. As per Section 2A of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, Essential Commodity includes those commodities which have been identified as under Schedule I of the Act as-(iii) foodstuffs, including edible oilseeds and oils. 

Although the aforesaid act has been amended which specifically allows the Government of India to reconsider the list of certain commodities as essential commodities which further allows the government to regulate the price and supply of the commodities as in cases of war, famine, extraordinary price rises, or natural calamities. The commodities which have been de-regulated are food items, including cereals, potato, onion, pulses, edible oilseeds, and oils too. The Ordinance affirms that the government’s regulation of commodities would be based on rising prices and these restrictions will not apply to stocks of food that are held for public distribution in India.

In a country like India where the local food system is tantalizing and the informal sector contributes a major chunk of production, there is a need to check up on the quality of the material being produced by them. As the level of consumption of various items has amplified due to lock down and due to change in food intake, many industrial sectors are suffering from a lack of workforce and staff in hand since they had to go back to their villages as surviving in the city without regular salaries was improbable. There was an abnormal upsurge in the demand for processed foods like noodles, frozen items, biscuits, and other commodities. When the lockdown was imposed, a variety of food items became an easy target for black marketing, hoarding, and adulteration. Emergencies arising out due to the situations like that of 21-day lockdown tend to create abnormally high demands for essential commodities. People residing in urban areas found it difficult to procure groceries as the commodities became scarce at the beginning itself. The foremost reason was the panic due to lockdown and hoarding among the people. Further, the food prices augmented across the nation as transportation services were halted and new supplies were not available at the moment.

Seemingly, fraudulent activities like that of healthcare scams and food sector manipulation were intensifying which makes us believe that at the time of crises too, crime is invincible. For instance -when the curfew was imposed in Punjab, the demand for milk decreased to a level that people started diluting it with water to sell more of it. Due to the lack of purchasing power of the people and low Demands of food eateries, the vendors were ready to sell the milk for as low as Rs. 20-25 / liter as against the normal price of 40-45 / liter.

Risking other’s life in order to earn more is purely unethical. The sole intention is to earn great margins either putting in low quality or selling low-grade products to compromise people’s health and wealth. The prevention of Black Marketing and maintenance of Supplies of the Essential Commodities Act, 1980 prohibits the practices of black marketing or hoarding transactions under which there are provisions for punishment against such persons who commit the same. This Act empowers the government of both the center and state or an officer of a rank not below the Joint secretary representing center or state govt. to make an order for detaining such person in case they have sufficient reason to believe that a person is committing an offence against provisions of the Act. The aforesaid act also gives similar power to district magistrates and commissioners of police to take any action against such person.

Although the government is unceasingly assessing and reviewing the evolving situation so as to protect the rights of the consumer, the need for proper guidelines regarding the issue also arises. If a vendor or seller is found to be adulterating the consumable goods then he can be charged for offence under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954. As per Section 2 clause (ia) of the Act, an article in view of food adulteration can be defined as “Adulterated”:-

  1. If the article is not of the nature, substance or quality which the consumer      demanded.
  2. If the article contains any substance which can affect the health of a person and is injurious in nature,which includes substance or quality thereof.
  3. If any inferior or cheaper substance is substituted wholly or in partly so as to affect  the quality or substance thereof.
  4. If it is kept at a place, packed or prepared where it has been contaminated or made injurious to health.
  5. If it contains in full or in part any filthy, putrid, , rotten, decomposed or diseased animal  or vegetable or is  infected by insects ,made unfit for human consumption.
  6. If it contains any poisonous, coloured or preservatives which are prohibited to be used.

Although the definition under this section ranges from case to case, the specific exemption can be made in this regard when the product variability is not more than the set limit and in the cases where due to natural causes the quality of the product was hampered.

In order to safeguard the interest of a consumer, the government came up with various legislations like the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954 and Consumer Protection Act, 2019 to protect the rights of the consumers and further providing compensation if a consumer suffers harm due to the consumption of adulterated food items. Other enactments and the public interest associations like consumer forums and Food Safety And Standards Authority of India(FSSAI) as being an independent body authorized under Section 4 of Food Safety & Standards Act, 2006 assures delivery of a right to the consumer to place the product before a food analyze once after making the purchase.

What can consumer do to safeguard himself?

A consumer must inspect the quality and label of the product carefully at this time of health emergency due to higher chances of adulteration owing to shortage of products in the market. The label of a product specifies the quality and the measures adopted by the producer to make it safe for intake. Some common checks for a consumer to do on a label of a product are:

  • The name of the company its logo and whether the company is registered for trademark or not.
  • Ingredients & Nutritional information Chart.
  • ·Manufacturing and Expiry Date.
  • Name and address of manufacturing company.
  •  Net content.
  • Declarations and Licenses, if obtained.

It is a general responsibility of every individual to report against such contamination and unethical practices of food vendors and sellers. A consumer can approach the local food quality associations, Consumer forums, or FSSAI to complain and to seek redressal for the said concerns. In this hour of serious crisis to the whole society together with manufacturers and traders of essential commodities should not involve in black marketing, hoarding, or any other wrongful activities which are against the interest of the common people of the country. It is also necessary to take immediate actions with regards to these business practices which adversely affect the consumers and their health. 

Author

  • Mayank Shyamsukha

    Student at Institute of Law Nirma University. A passionate legal entrepreneur who has a keen interest in legal research and writing. He has authored several articles on Constitutional Law, Contract Law, Information and Technology Law, Family Law etc.

Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views and opinions of Legally Flawless or its members.

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