Indian civil society organisation Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM) has launched a campaign of sorts against the regulatory body, accusing it of "joining hands with MNCs" and "playing into the hands of the vitamin 'cartel'" behind the façade of encouraging nationwide fortification of staple foods.
It first released a document detailing its concerns and suspicions regarding the FSSAI's true intentions, claiming the latter was attempting to get food firms to fortify their staples with synthetic vitamins that could be harmful to health.
On 29 August, SJM decided to escalate things further with a letter to Indian PM Narendra Modi, urging him to prevent any possible mandatory food fortification until he had consulted with experts and professionals from different sectors in the industry.
An FSSAI spokesperson who elected to remain anonymous told NutraIngredients-Asia: "Food fortification is the addition of key vitamins and minerals to staple foods to improve their nutritional content. However, many are unaware of its health benefits.
The spokesperson added that the food fortification standards the regulator had proposed in its most recent notification were created only after "careful deliberations from the scientific panel on nutrition and fortification", together with public health experts.
At the same time, the FSSAI maintained that the source of the premix used in fortified foods was not as important as SJM had made it out to be.
"The standards recommend a range of the doses, which are within safe limits, and the FSSAI focuses on the safety of the fortified food products instead of the source of the premix — natural versus synthetic, as pointed out by SJM."
Science and suspicion
SJM has also questioned the need for vitamins A and D, which are recommended by the FSSAI for food fortification, saying this was driven by its relationship with a so-called vitamin 'cartel' instead of concern for public health.
In a document released by the Food Fortification Resource Centre (FFRC), which was jointly set up by the FSSAI and Tata Trusts — one of the companies SJM claims has vested interests in fortification — the use of vitamins A and D was justified with the former's apparent anti-night blindness effects, and the latter's support of bone strength.
Another major suspicion the SJM has voiced is that it is the FSSAI's end-goal to make food fortification in India mandatory, though this was not mentioned explicitly in the regulator's notification.
It seems, however, that there may be some merit to SJM's assertion, as the FSSAI has hinted at the possibility of mandatory fortification.
In a recent press release, the regulator stated, "At present, food fortification is voluntary and is akin to a three-legged race, in which fortification needs to be scaled up step by step before it becomes mandatory."
Continuing despite criticism
The FSSAI was speaking to NutraIngredients-Asia just a day before its national consultation on milk fortification, which was held in New Delhi on September 5.
CEO Pawan Agarwal, Tata Trusts' senior adviser Vivek Arora, FFRC director Suniti Toteja, and National Dairy Development Board chairman Dilip Rath Ji all spoke at the event.
Topics covered included Tata Trusts' fortification initiative, and the FFRC's support of scaling up milk fortification in India.
This took place not long after the FSSAI had held a media workshop in Chandigarh to extol the benefits of and address misconceptions about food fortification.
The spokesperson told NutraIngredients-Asia: "India is not the only country moving forward with a fortification agenda. There are multiple examples from several other countries that clearly explain that fortification has helped in improving levels of vitamins A and D in the human body.
"The upper and lower limits are carefully identified in the notification, and the dosage of the premix used in the fortified staples is within safe limits, so there’s no need to fear over-dosage of vitamins and minerals in the fortified food staples.
"The National Nutrition Strategy, released by the government recently, also recommends a comprehensive approach towards micronutrient malnutrition, and lists food fortification as a key intervention to address iron-deficiency anaemia, as well as vitamin A, iodine and zinc deficiency."