Govt refuses to answer queries on junk food labelling rules, again

It had been asked to comment on a recent study by CSE about labelling regulations for junk food

By Sonal Dhingra
Published: Thursday 05 March 2020
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Union government once again refused to address the issue of labelling regulations for junk food when it was asked to comment on Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)’s latest study on junk food.

On March 3, 2020, a Rajya Sabha member TG Venkatesh asked the government:

  • Whether its attention had been drawn to commercially available packaged foods that had levels of salt and fat much higher than those recommended by the guidelines of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), according to the study conducted by CSE
  • If so, the details thereof
  • The remedial measures being taken by the government in this regard?

Union Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare, Ashwini Kumar Choubey, replied to Venkatesh’s question in the Rajya Sabha.

“FSSAI has informed that the CSE study has alleged that the quantity of salt and fat in the samples tested were higher than the threshold limits proposed in the draft Food Safety and Standards (Labelling & Display) Regulations. Out of total 33 samples tested in the said study, 19 samples are of ‘prepared food’ where ‘Front-of-Pack’ labelling is not applicable,” Choubey said.

“As far as pre-packaged food items are concerned, the sample size (14 samples) is too small and cannot be considered as representative of pre-packaged food industry in the country,” he added.

The study

The CSE study had tested 33 samples — 14 packaged foods such as chips, namkeen (salted snacks), noodles, and soup and 19 fast foods such as burgers, fries, fried chicken, pizza, sandwiches and wraps.

The results suggested that all these foods should be labelled ‘Red’ on the front-of-pack (FoP) as they had been found to have higher salt and fat than the limits defined by FSSAI in the draft Food Safety and Standards (labelling and Display) Regulations of 2018 and 2019.

The findings also said salt and fat content in these foods exhausted a considerable portion of the Recommended Dietary Allowance to such an extent there was no scope left for the consumption of salt and fat in other meals throughout the day. The excess consumption of the harmful nutrients was a cause of many non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, heart diseases and even cancer.

These risk factors contributed to 25 per cent of India’s total disease burden in 2016, up from 10 per cent in 1990.

Though the threat of NCDs has been looming large, there has been a considerable delay in India in taking steps for its abatement such as simplifying label reading by strengthening labelling regime of the packaged foods. Strengthening nutritional information and a FoP label were recommended six years ago by an FSSAI expert committee. However, a draft regulation is still waiting to be notified today.

In its current form, the FoP label is of little value to consumers who only know salt, but the label mentions sodium. Other nutrients mentioned on the label are added sugar and saturated fat which are only a subset of bigger problems i.e. total sugar and total fat.

Why Choubey’s answer falls short

Choubey is not factually wrong when he says FoP labels are not applicable to the fast foods that CSE tested. However, the considerable high levels of salt and fat deem them necessary.

In fact, the FSSAI has already proposed mandatory declaration of calorific values on menu cards or boards and that the declaration should also provide information about fat, salt and sugar in order to ensure informed consumption. FSSAI has also provided thresholds for prepared foods.

However, his second point regarding sample size cannot be agreed with. The study carefully picked samples from all the main categories of foods that are known to have high salt and /or fat — chips, namkeens, instant noodles, soups, burgers, fries, fried chicken, pizza and sandwiches and wraps. Among these categories, products from companies with big market shares that sell brands which are popularly sold in multiple-portion sizes were tested.

A good mix of national and multinational products in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian were tested. Since these companies market standardised products across India, its relevance for the entire Indian population is high.

Choubey’s answer excludes emphasising the need for a robust labelling law in India, probing the food regulator for the reasons of delay and dilution in the labelling regulations as well as urging everyone to look into and adopting the best practices followed across the globe such as FoP warning labels that have proven to be effective in defeating industry lobbies.

“The minister’s response shows that the government is not serious about appropriately labelling these unhealthy foods and warning consumers about high salt, sugar and fat in junk foods. This callous approach will not help India adequately address the public health burden of non-communicable diseases,” Amit Khurana, director of CSE’s food safety and toxins programme and one of the study’s authors, said.

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