Junk food monster: It's time for a red alert

Delays and dilutions have derailed regulations of packaged and fast foods. Is it time to press the panic button?

By Amit Khurana, Sonal Dhingra
Published: Tuesday 17 December 2019

The test results of the Environment Monitoring Laboratory at Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) have unmasked two anomalies:

  • First, food manufacturers blatantly sell products that have unhealthy levels of nutrients.
  • Second, a nexus between the industry and regulating agencies backs this brazen act.

India, therefore, urgently needs a robust law on labelling and disclosure of nutritional information on food packs.

Six long years have passed since the need to label these, upfront, was recognised. The baseline was that consumers must know everything about the food they buy. The existing Food Safety Standards (Packaging and Labelling) Regulations, 2011, is too weak and ineffective, as shown here:

Even some-thing as basic as salt is not mandatorily disclosed. But the statutory framework is just not coming along, clearly due to pressure from the powerful junk food industry and the resultant red tape. The chronology of events is a sorry tale of progressive delays, dilutions and vested interests.

In 2013, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the country’s food regulator, set up an expert committee to regulate junk food available in schools following an order of the Delhi High Court. Earlier, Uday Foundation, a non-profit, had demanded a complete ban on junk food in and around schools in a public interest petition.

In 2014, the expert committee, comprising doctors, nutritionists, public health experts, civil society and industry, suggested labelling of calories, sugar, fat, saturated fat and salt on the front of food packs, or FoP. This would help people make an informed choice about the food they eat. CSE was a part of this committee.

But this report was not “convenient” and so in 2015, FSSAI set up a second expert committee to assess the consumption of fat, salt and sugar and its health impacts. This 11-member panel was led by D Prabhakaran, then vice-president of Public Health Foundation of India. But two years later, this panel too endorsed the recommendations made by the first committee. It suggested to resolve ambiguities on the correct serving size of packed and fast foods and the exact nutritional information people need.

How much is one serve

In India, the serving size is not standardised. In absence of sound regulations, some companies declare it on their food packages, while some don't. There are a few who declare it on their websites. The draft Food Safety and Standard (Labelling and Display) Regulations, 2019, proposes the serving size and the number of serves to be mentioned. It also mandates per serve contribution to Recommended Dietary Allowance. But what does serving size really mean?

A serving size refers to the quantity of food typically consumed in one go. It varies for different food categories. For instance, it’s 30 g for chips, 35 g for namkeen and 60 g for instant noodles.

The problem is that more often than not, the size of packets does not match the serving size. For instance, a 52-g or 60-g pack of chips can declare 30 g as the serving size. This leads to excess consumption. In case of fast foods, one ends up eating an entire burger.

The serving size could be kept simple. A handful, a spoonful or a cupful is much easier to understand. But that's unlikely to happen. All efforts in this case lead to one result—keep the consumer addicted to junk food and make sure they do not have enough information to make an informed choice.

So no further procrastination was possible, or so you would think. It took FSSAI a year to be ready with the draft Food Safety Standard (Labelling and Display) Regulations, 2018. The draft sought mandatory declaration of salt as sodium chloride. Until now, salt did not figure in food labels.

The draft also proposed FoP label, a key element of consumer information in the world. The upper part of the label would disclose the quantum of calorie, total fat, total sugar, trans fat and salt, and the bottom part would declare how much each of these contributes in percentage to the Recommended Dietary Allowance, or RDA. FSSAI has set RDA considering one person requires 2,000 kilocalories in a day. The draft proposed to mark red on all nutrients that exceed thresholds.

This was a huge movement ahead as implementation of this notification would have changed the rules that allow food companies to rule our kitchens and stomachs. For once, we would have had the choice to know the quantum of salt, sugar or fat in the food we consume, not just in terms of quantity, but in terms of how much of our daily intake would get exhausted. But this was, obviously, too much for industry.

At a national consultation on food labelling regulations for safe and healthy food held on August 17, 2018, Pawan Agarwal, chief executive of FSSAI, said: “Industry does not want the food to be labelled red, which represents danger.” The 2018 draft remained a draft and to find a new way around it, FSSAI announced a third committee. This time, the committee was headed by B Sesikeran, former director of the National Institute of Nutrition. The recommendations of this committee were never made public.

Finally, when FSSAI came up with the second draft of the regulations in July 2019, it was a much diluted version (see Food, safety, standards: A progressive onslaught). So now you would have thought this was the end. But no.

The diluted version, which has seriously compromised public health, is still not acceptable, presumably to the powerful food industry. It is still not notified. After a draft is released for public comments, it should not take more than two months to be notified. But five months have gone by. If murmurs are to be believed, a new committee is in the works — to delay, prevaricate and dilute. It is clear that food is not the business of our health. It is the business of profit.

This story was first published in Down To Earth's print edition (dated 16-31 December, 2019)

Read how the delays and dilutions have affected public health and how the world is moving towards labelling.

Also read Junk food monster: Communicating diseases

Also read Sunita Narain's column on CSE's earlier probe into junk food: More to junk food than meets the eye 

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