FDA laboratories across Maharashtra struggle with staff shortage as posts lie vacant

Of 114 posts in Mumbai FDA laboratory, 50 lie vacant. The vacancies include the senior post of assistant director. Of five senior scientific officers required, four are vacant while of the 23 sanctioned posts of scientific officers, 10 remain vacant.

The failure to fill up vital posts in the government-run Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laboratories across Maharashtra has hampered testing of drugs and food items and created a long pendency list. In Mumbai alone, there are 3,500 food and 1,800 drug samples pending with the FDA lab in Bandra Kurla Complex.

Of 114 posts in Mumbai FDA laboratory, 50 lie vacant. The vacancies include the senior post of assistant director. Of five senior scientific officers required, four are vacant while of the 23 sanctioned posts of scientific officers, 10 remain vacant.

Staff shortage has hit the entire testing procedure. The latest case in point are over 100 alcohol samples that were collected by food inspectors in mid-December and were supposed to be tested before New Year eve for quality and composition. The results of these samples came last week, a month late after these liquor batches were already consumed during New Year’s celebrations.

A lab official said several toddy-based drinks failed compliance test and had presence of chloral hydrate. “It usually takes three days to test alcohol samples. But with so many samples already lined up with us, alcohol samples got delayed,” the official said. Alcohol is checked for presence of chloral hydrate, which is prohibited, level of methanol, carbohydrates and other standards.

Lab officials said they have to prioritise testing of fast perishable items like milk, cake, bread and prepared food over items that perish slowly such as alcohol and drugs. Other samples simply join the long waitlist. The office desks in FDA labs are filled with vegetables, fruits, packaged food items and medicines waiting to get tested. Even a day’s delay can affect composition in some and give varying results. A sample of capsicum and strawberry sat on one official’s table. “We have to do a colour test on them to check if artificial colours have been added. Such tests have to be undertaken immediately,” the official said.

Every month Mumbai FDA lab receives about 800 samples of food and 300-350 drug samples. “We are relying heavily on interns, there are about 15 from colleges who handle bulk of testing work,” the official said.

In Aurangabad government lab, of 40 posts, 12 are vacant. And in Nagpur, all 41 sanctioned posts do not have permanent appointed employees. Staff from another department are working in these labs on a temporary basis. Bhushan Patil, Joint Commissioner (Law), said, “Until now drug control laboratory staff of Nagpur were working in a food testing laboratory. Two months ago we asked the state to create separate posts for a food testing lab. There are 25 posts which will be filled soon.”

An official from Mumbai’s FDA lab said they have been asked to remotely handle Nagpur lab too. Patil added that they have alerted the medical education department to fill the vacant posts.

Data shows one post each of assistant director in all three laboratories in Nagpur, Aurangabad and Mumbai lie vacant. Of 11 posts for senior scientific officers across Maharashtra, nine are vacant. Only two posts are filled, one in Mumbai and one in Aurangabad.

FDA commissioner Abhimanyu Kale said they have sent a proposal to the state government to start testing in private labs to reduce the overall burden on government labs. “We have also asked for funds to conduct private testing. For honey samples we had to approach a private lab to conduct tests. We have asked the state to pay for it,” Kale said, adding that the issue of vacant posts will be resolved soon.

Meanwhile, Maharashtra government is set to construct a fourth FDA laboratory in Pune on a two-acre plot in Mulshi. The lab will cater to Pune, Sangli and Satara districts and is expected to reduce load on the three existing labs. An initial fund of Rs 14 crore has been allocated for its construction.

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