Wet Markets and Food Laws in India: What is Needed to Ensure Safety and Hygiene?

There is a growing worldwide clarion call for a ban on wet markets and meat consumption, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Do wet markets in India pose a risk to food safety? Are our food laws efficient and effectively implemented? The article discusses various laws and regulations, such as Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Slaughter House) Rules, 2001 and various local municipal laws that are meant to ensure safety and hygiene of our food and markets.

Most people had not heard the term “wet market” before the COVID-19 pandemic. The term gained almost universal acknowledgement once it came to light that the source of the outbreak of the coronavirus was the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a wet market in Wuhan, China. Close interactions with wild animals have caused numerous disease outbreaks in humans, even before the coronavirus. Similar conditions, including Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), have been caused by virus strains with zoonotic origins, meaning that they originated in an animal host before spilling over to human populations. Ebola, Nipah virus, and H1N1 (swine flu) also have zoonotic origins. 

A wet market typically has multiple open-air stalls, spread over a large area, where vegetables, fruits, meat and fresh seafood are sold. Some of these sell and slaughter live animals, including poultry and fish, on-site, while some even engage in illegal dealings of wild animals. A wet market is dubbed so because, in such a market, water and ice are used to keep the food and meat fresh. 

India is a huge market for meat consumption. In 2019, total meat production in India was 8.11 metric tonnes (Singh 2020). Besides traditional poultry, that is bovine and fish sources, some protected species are also illegally traded for food in wet markets across the country. For instance, as per reports, sale of turtle meat is rampant across West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and parts of Uttar Pradesh. Wet markets illicitly sell wild animal meat and other derivatives that may often include species protected by law (Bindra 2020).

Consumption of meat per se does not increase the risk of disease transmission. It is when the animals are stressed, stored in small cages and kept in close contact with humans during the slaughtering process in wet markets, that the risk of transmission increases. Under duress, the animals’ immune system is weakened. Viral pathogens can intermingle and mutate in ways that make them more transmissible between species. In the case of respiratory diseases, like COVID-19, the virus can then be transmitted to humans, for example, food handlers and customers (Maron 2020).

Leaders across the world, health experts and international bodies including the United Nations have called for a ban on wet markets (Economic Times 2020). In January 2020, owing to the spread of the novel coronavirus, China closed the Huanan wet market, but the same was reopened recently. Closing meat shops indefinitely is not an option because food is a choice and people cannot be compelled to turn vegetarian. More significantly, meat is an affordable source of nutrition for a large section of people. That said, due to the potential danger of the origin of diseases from wet markets, strict regulations are required.  

Regulations and Legislation in India

In India, the most important legislation pertaining to food is the Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA), 2006  that overrides all other food-related laws that were in operation prior to it. The FSSA initiates harmonisation of India’s food regulations as per international standards. The Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses) Regulations, 2011 govern the aspect of licensing and registration of food businesses, including meat and meat-based products. Under regulation 2.1, all food business operators (FBO) in the country are required to be registered. A valid license is required for any food-related operation so as to ensure safety, sanitation, and hygiene. The act has ensured the closure of illegal slaughterhouses and butcher shops. Such businesses are now required to obtain proper licenses and follow hygiene-related guidelines laid by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). Even in such shops, permission is only given for goat, sheep, pigs, bovine, poultry and fish to be slaughtered. 

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Slaughter House) Rules, 2001 stipulate that a veterinarian must certify that the animal is healthy and disease-free before it is slaughtered for meat. The rules also provide for separate isolation pens for animals suspected to be suffering from contagious and infectious diseases, to segregate them from the remaining animals. Further, several municipal laws apply to the meat markets and slaughterhouses as well. For instance, Section 415 of the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957 provides that no animal may be slaughtered except at a municipal or registered slaughterhouse. Section 407 of the act provides that in localities where a municipal slaughterhouse exists, it is illegal for animals to be killed anywhere else. Further, under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, it is illegal for slaughterhouse waste to be discharged into any waterbody. Under the rules, the Animal Welfare Board of India has the power to inspect any slaughterhouse, without notice, to ensure that the provisions of these rules are complied with. 

Gaps in Implementation

The on-ground implementation of these rules is found to be lacking. In the first place, there is confusion about the actual number of registered slaughterhouses in the country. Weak implementation can be gauged from a 2014 Supreme Court order, which observed that there was no periodic supervision or inspection of slaughterhouses functioning in various parts of the country. Action Taken Reports would indicate that, in many states, slaughterhouses are functioning without any licence and even the licensed slaughterhouses are not following the various provisions as well as the guidelines (Debroy 2016).

Similarly, the implementation of FSSA has also been found far from ideal in various aspects. In 2017, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) submitted its report on the implementation of the act. The report found systemic inefficiencies, delays and deficiencies in the framing of various regulations and standards. It was observed that licenses were issued on the basis of incomplete documents in more than 50% of the cases. It noted that neither FSSAI nor the state food authorities have documented policies and procedures on risk-based inspections. It further noted that 65 out of 72 state food laboratories entrusted with food testing and certification functions were not only ill-equipped but also did not possess the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) accreditation. FSSAI also has no data on whether all the notified empanelled food laboratories have qualified food analysts. The audit found that 15 out of the 16 test-checked food laboratories did not have qualified food analysts. The report also pointed out an acute shortage of licensing and enforcement officers in the states (CAG 2017).

Way Forward

To shore up its efforts, in 2019, FSSAI mandated a food safety audit for food businesses in six “high risk” categories—dairy products, meat and meat products, fish and fish products, egg and egg products, food for infant nutrition, and prepared food (catering). FSSAI has recognised 24 private audit agencies eligible to conduct food safety audits (Ambwani 2019). The FSSAI has further created a “hygiene rating” for meat shops. Setting up of regional offices and more labs have also been proposed. 

The existing legislation must be enforced strictly. The FSSA lays out various penalties and punishments for contravention of its provisions. For example, if a food business operator runs a food establishment without acquiring an FSSAI license, they may be fined an amount of Rs 5 lakh and imprisonment up to 6 months. If a food operator sells unsafe food, then depending upon the degree of injury caused by that unsafe food, they may be fined an amount ranging between Rs 1–10 lakh and imprisonment of a minimum of seven years (in case of death of the consumer). However, systemic improvements are required. FSSAI, as a nodal agency, should be strengthened and better equipped to ensure safe food and food outlets. More robust measures regarding licensing, sampling and testing need to be put in place. FSSAI should ensure that all licenses issued under the erstwhile system of product approvals are reviewed, and licences cancelled and reissued, as warranted under the present procedure. FSSAI and state food authorities should conduct surveys of food business activity under their jurisdiction to ensure a comprehensive and reliable database of FBOs. Accreditation of all state food laboratories must be ensured and state food laboratories and referral laboratories should be fully equipped and functional. More skilled human resource, having a scientific approach, needs to be recruited. Further, there is a need for greater synergy and coordination between the concerned ministries, agencies such as FSSAI and the civic municipal bodies. Moreover, besides strengthening the existing regulatory framework, state governments must explore and support advanced agricultural technologies to solve food safety and security issues. 

In the future, people may also explore alternative meat sources derived from plants and laboratory cultured cell-based meat. The meat value chain could be simplified dramatically, as “clean meat” labs could take the place of farm- and slaughterhouse-based meat. According to estimates, the value of the global meat substitute market is expected to rise to $8.1 billion by 2026 (Dewan 2020). 

The world will surely emerge from the clutches of COVID-19, but any country with wet markets and animal-based food practices needs to beware that the next novel zoonotic-based outbreak might occur again. Since wet markets are not likely to go out of business immediately, the way forward in operating them would involve giving high priority to clean cages, hygienic slaughtering environment, personal protective equipment kits for sellers, market zoning to stop contamination of different types of meat, education and awareness regarding wet market practices and monitoring of the market as a whole.

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