Junk foods must carry a ‘warning’ label: CSE
Centre for Science and Environment’s (CSE) latest analysis on food labelling has called for a law on front-of-pack labelling that can inform the Indian consumer about unhealthy packaged junk foods in a simple and effective way.
“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 such as diabetes, hypertension and heart ailments. It is a crisis that increasingly impacts children and also worsens the Covid-19 symptoms,” says Dr.Sunita Narain, director general, CSE.
“Front-of-pack labelling is definitely an effective tool in this effort. The current nutrition information on the food pack only helps the industry to keep consumers confused and does not let them know about how bad their food is,” adds Narain.
The analysis systematically presents how after seven years, four committees and two draft regulations, India still does not have the much-needed front-of pack labelling law to ‘warn’ consumers about harmful levels of fat, salt and sugar hiding in ultra-processed junk foods.
“CSE was part of the FSSAI-constituted committee that first proposed front-of-pack labelling in India in 2014. Ever since, the packaged junk food industry is pushing hard to delay it and make it weak,” says Amit Khurana, director, food safety and toxins programme at CSE and lead author of the analysis.
“While the lobbying by powerful industry is not surprising, the real concern is that the FSSAI has been hesitant to take a strong stand to protect the interest of consumers and public health,” adds Khurana.
The authors of the analysis, who were also part of the 2021 stakeholder consultations organised by the FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India), have also elaborated on how these consultations have not made meaningful progress and instead have opened possibilities for front-of-pack labelling options, which are weak, regressive and preferred by industry. Another study is now proposed by FSSAI to analyse major front-of-pack labelling models to identify ease of understanding and behavioural change of Indian consumers.
The analysis clearly enumerates how the draft thresholds (limits above which a product could be marked unhealthy) proposed by the FSSAI-constituted working group have suited the packaged food industry, as they were much relaxed than those proposed by FSSAI in its earlier labelling drafts of 2018 and 2019 as well as those adopted by countries with best practices. The draft proposed thresholds have now been put on hold; most consumer organisations had opposed them.
This working group was formed to look into the issue of thresholds following a CSE study (December 2019) which said that most popular packaged junk foods have salt and fat content several times higher than the thresholds proposed by FSSAI in its labelling drafts of 2018 and 2019; therefore, they would have been marked ‘red’ as per the proposed law at that time.
“We also opposed the last-minute FSSAI proposal of including ‘positive nutrients’ in the label. We are certain that it will only give industry a chance to claim its bad food as good food and mislead the consumer. These recent consultations were like one-step forward and two-steps backwards. We are far behind where we were in 2018 and we do not know which way it will go,” said Khurana.
The analysis outlines different types of front-of-pack labelling systems adopted in several countries and their limitations and effectiveness to inform consumers and change towards healthier food choices. In particular, it presents characteristics of ‘warning’ labels and how based on evidence they have been the choice of several countries in the last five years.
It also recommends what should be done in the case of India. For example, nutrient specific and symbol-based ‘warning’ labels should be adopted. Israel’s ‘warning’ label, which is symbol-based. is better than that of Chile that only has text. It will help transcend the barriers of language and illiteracy.
“If the government is serious to fight obesity and diet-related NCD epidemic, then it should soon make a law to make front-of-pack labelling mandatory. It should opt for symbol-based ‘warning’ label. FSSAI has experience of logos that depict vegetarian and non-vegetarian food and is aware how successful and effective such a label can be,” says Narain.
The CSE analysis recommends that in addition to calories, nutrients which are most useful for consumers to know should be displayed. These include salt, total sugar and total fat (in addition to saturated fat, if not instead of them). The thresholds proposed by FSSAI in its 2018 draft should be adopted and if new thresholds are developed, they should be in line with best practices from the world. These limits should be set in the interest of consumers and not as per convenience of the industry.
(With inputs from Pratyusha Mukherjee, a BBC Journalist based in Kolkata)