'Draft guidelines submitted in Delhi High Court will not serve the purpose of saving children from junk food'
The committee constituted by the Delhi High court to give recommendations for protecting school children from junk food has failed to meet the expectations of activists and civil society members who wanted a complete ban on sale of such food items in and around school premises.
The committee, formed under the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), submitted its draft guidelines to the court on Wednesday. In the last committee meeting held on February 28, non industry members had objected to changes made in the recommendations. The draft submitted in court on March 12 failed to address the concerns raised at the meeting. It had some major shortcomings.
Major shortcomings in draft guidelines
For one, the term “junk food” is not used anywhere in the document. Instead, the term “HFSS” (high in fat, salt and sugar) has been used. Instead of banning the sale of junk food, the recommendation is to restrict and limit the use of HFSS. It is not clear whether the restriction or limitation is in terms of availability of junk food, frequency of consumption or portion size. It is also not clear who would implement the recommendations and who will supervise and monitor their implementation.
The committee members had suggested, as demanded in the public interest petition being heard in court, that junk food should be banned within a radius of 500 yards around schools. In the draft guidelines, this distance has been reduced to 50 metre.
The document stresses excessively on physical activity as a solution for problems caused by junk food, though the mandate of the committee was only to suggest ways to regulate junk food. Activists say that this is a trick to divert attention from the real issue.
The court had requested FSSAI to prepare guidelines on advertising junk food in all media. Instead of giving suggestions, the draft has merely passed on the responsibility to the Advertising Standard Council of India.
Uday Foundation, a Delhi based NGO had filed the petition currently being heard by the court in 2010. It sought complete ban on junk food and carbonated drinks in schools. During the hearing, the court appointed a Central Advisory Committee (CAC) under the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India to oversee the formulation of these guidelines. The committee comprised civil society members, medical practitioners and people from industry as well. Besides immediate ban of junk food and carbonated drinks and restricting their sale in and around all Delhi schools, the petition had sought directions to government to develop a comprehensive school canteen policy, which emphasises healthy nutrition among school-going children.
On the condition of anonymity, a nutritionist who was also part of the committee, termed the recommendations completely unsatisfactory. Another member said that the recommendations do not meet the demand made in the petition and will not serve the purpose of saving children from junk food.
The court has now asked FSSAI to file the final guidelines in the court within two days with advance copies to the petitioner NGO and the amicus curiae so that they can file suitable responses. The next hearing is scheduled on April 23.
During the course of the case, the food industry has tried to halt efforts to ban junk food in schools. For instance, they approached the high court and contended that there should be no category called junk food. The food industry was represented by Retailers Association of India, National Restaurants Association of India and All India Food Processors Association. The applicants had also challenged the setting up of the CAC to oversee the formulation of guidelines. However, the court did not find any merit in their claim.
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