The regulator took the opportunity to address dairy companies at its national consultation on milk fortification in New Delhi, held just two weeks after it had published a notification detailing its updated guidelines for food fortification.
The consultation — jointly organised by the FSSAI, Tata Trusts and the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) — was attended by about 35 private dairy companies and 10 state cooperatives, who participated in an open house discussion on food fortification.
Topics covered included the cost of fortification, sources of vitamins for fortification, and quality control.
In addition, early adopters of voluntary milk fortification, including Mother Dairy and the Jharkhand Milk Federation, were given a special mention at the consultation in recognition of their compliance.
Milk processors at the event voiced their support for the fortification initiative, promising to fortify a higher percentage of their milk products by the end of 2018.
At the moment, 13 state cooperatives and 11 private dairy companies offer fortified milk products.
FSSAI CEO Pawan Agarwal assured attendees that the vitamins and minerals used for fortification were obtained solely from vegetarian sources, and that costs would be kept to a minimum for all commodities, especially milk.
He said milk fortification cost only 2 to 3 paise (2% to 3% of a rupee) per litre, and companies that had been fortifying their dairy products, such as Mother Dairy, had been absorbing these costs.
He added that food fortification is the most cost-effective and internationally recognised method of countering micronutrient deficiencies.
He also revealed that the FSSAI had received requests from certain ministries and government bodies to make food fortification mandatory, but that the regulator first wanted to determine if the industry was ready, as "fortification needs to be scaled up step by step before being made mandatory".
Retaliation to criticism
"A large majority of stakeholders are in favour of food fortification but a few misinformed elements are creating confusion around the issue. We need to ensure it does not get derailed due to misinformation or lack of awareness."
He was referring to the recent onslaught from civil society organisation Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM), which had levelled harsh criticism at the FSSAI for allegedly harbouring an ulterior motive behind its food fortification efforts, driven by its relationship with MNCs and foreign NGOs.
More specifically, SJM accused the FSSAI of permitting the use of synthetic vitamins for fortification, as well as not ensuring the ingredient sources were vegetarian. It even wrote a letter to PM Narendra Modi in a bid to prevent the regulator from making food fortification mandatory.
Agarwal said the FSSAI's scientific panel consisted of scientists and public health experts, who had finalised its food fortification standards only after careful assessments and deliberations over the course of a year and a half.
"Let public health issues be dealt with by scientists and experts in the FSSAI. If there are concerns regarding the (fortification) standards, they need to be looked at by the scientific panel."