Q Why is it in News ?
A Seven years, four committees and two draft regulations later, India still does not have a clear labelling system to warn consumers about harmful levels of fat, salt and sugar in processed foods.
Q What is the Context ?
- According to the Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labelling) Regulations, 2011, every pre-packed processed food product sold in the country must be labelled with nutritional information.
- To ensure that consumers are able to easily see and interpret the nutritional information on food packets, an expert committee was established by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
- The committee, set up following an order of the Delhi High Court which was hearing a public interest petition seeking a ban on the sale of junk food in and around schools.
Q Why label nutritional information?
- This helps the consumer know everything about the food they buy and make an informed decision about what and how much to eat.
- Such information is particularly crucial because the packaged food contain ultra-processed foods that are high in fat, salt or sugar and low in fibre and other essential micronutrients.
- On the one hand, these foods cause malnutrition.
- On the other hand they are linked strongly with obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases, such as Type-2 diabetes, hypertension, heart ailments and certain cancers, like that of the colon.
- All these increase the risk of premature death.
- Not to mention that most products provide information in English understanding which can be daunting for a vast number of people in India.
Q What is FoP labelling?
- The front-of-pack (FoP) labelling system has long been listed as one of the global best practices to nudge consumers into healthy food choices.
- It works just the way cigarette packets are labelled with images to discourage consumption.
- Countries such as Chile, Brazil and Israel have laws to push the packaged food industry to adopt FoP labelling.
- They have used FoP labelling as a measure to fight obesity and NCDs.
Q What is state of FoP labelling in India ?
- The system is yet to be implemented in India even seven years after it was first proposed by FSSAI.
- The fact is, makers of packaged foods are also a powerful lot, with strong business acumen.
- While companies in other countries have acceded to the FoP labelling laws, they are unwilling to do so in India a country experiencing a dietary shift.
Q Why must we have FoP labels?
- Countries are working to find ways to nudge consumers into healthy food choices and to contain the growing crisis of obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
- It is a crisis that increasingly impacts children and also exacerbates novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) symptoms. Front-of-pack (FoP) labelling is definitely an effective tool in this effort.
- India definitely needs ‘warning labels’ on front-of-pack, but this must be a symbol-based label with no text and numbers. This is because:
(1) Junk foods have high levels of unhealthy nutrients
- There is strong evidence that sugar, salt and fat in junk foods are addictive, like nicotine in tobacco.
- FoP ‘warning’ labels have helped reduce cigarette consumption. It is time we adopted the same for junk foods.
(2) Warning labels are easy to notice and understand
- They do not confuse consumers with mixed messages.
- Their distinct shape, colour and size make them noticeable in the otherwise cluttered and colourful packaging.
- With one label for one nutrient, it becomes easier to know if a product is high in more than one nutrient.
(3) Warning labels are the global best practice now
- At least seven countries have adopted warning labels in the past five years. These include Chile, Peru, Mexico, Israel and Uruguay.
- Low- and middle-income mothers have shown profound changes in attitudes towards food purchases as they now understand the nutritional content of packaged foods.
- Even children can read the labels and take an informed decision. This has also forced food companies to reduce the amount of sugar and sodium in foods and beverages.
(4) They are best suited for India
- Warning labels are best suited for India as they do not include numbers unlike many other FoP labels.
- In fact, warning labels that are symbol-based, like that of Israel, can transcend the barriers of literacy and language in India.
(5) FSSAI has experience of successfully implementing symbol-based FoP labels
- Its “green filled circle in green outlined square” logo to depict vegetarian food has been hugely successful in informing consumers.
- In recent years, FSSAI also has made similar laws to depict fortification (+F logo) and organic food (a green-coloured tick for Jaivik Bharat logo).
Q What can be Way forward ?
- FoP labels must include information on nutrients that make food injurious to health.
- This should be distinct from the details on the back-of-pack. FoP labels should aim to inform the consumer, while the back-of-pack label serves the purpose of scientific compliance and enforcement.
- FoP labels should have information on ‘total sugar’ and not ‘added sugar’. There is no analytical laboratory method to differentiate ‘added sugar’ from total sugar and quantify it.