Drastic interventions to improve lifestyle and food habits among the people is imminent and unavoidable.
NEW DELHI: The global pandemic of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) is certainly perceived to be a threat to sustainable development. Recognising this looming threat, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) included the need to reduce premature deaths from NCDs by one-third by 2030. Additionally, three of the nine health targets in SDGs also focus on NCDs related issues. Now with such increased focus to tackle NCDs globally and India being one of the worst affected countries by NCDs, the government cannot remain passive anymore. Drastic interventions to improve lifestyle and food habits among the people is imminent and unavoidable. While educating whole of the population on food and nutrition to bring some visible change within the next decade would be a herculean task, the government through use of broader set of laws and regulations can come up with suitable nutrition policies and food regulations that would encourage food and beverage manufacturers to create healthier options for consumers and reduce the consumption of unhealthy food products.
The regulation to eliminate industrially produced trans-fatty acids from the food supply and the recent efforts through proposed front-of-pack labelling (FOPL) regulation, all aims to encourage production of such healthy products within the country. Such policies will significantly help improve the food environment and therefore plays a key role in achieving the government's ambition to reduce deaths due to NCD by a third by 2030.
An Attempt to Introduce a Toothless Tool
The draft Food Safety and Standards (Labelling & Display) Amendment Regulations, 2022 related to FOPL, notified on Sept 13, 2022, in the present format is just a confusing piece of regulation. There are many reasons for this - First, as the per proposed regulation the food manufacturers are given the power to decide whether to have the nutrition rating on their products or not, because it is voluntary for an unacceptable long period of 4 years. This means a consumer during this long period would only see ratings on some products and not on others. So, this gives food manufacturers an option to cherry-pick their products within the thresholds and avoid putting stars ratings on their worst.
Second, as per regulation the way nutrition ratings are calculated is by assessing the overall nutrition value of the product, that means positive nutrients of a food product (like protein, dietary fibre, fruits, vegetables and nuts) against the negative nutrients (like energy, saturated fat, sugars, sodium). Negative points can be partially offset by points accumulated for positive nutrients. Meaning that foods high in sugar can still receive a high rating, since the healthy ingredients cancel out the unhealthy ingredients. Thereby defeating the very objective of FoPL and making it a toothless tool.
Besides, by introducing nutrition rating the food regulator would merely act as a promoting agent of otherwise unhealthy products. What the consumers need is a tool that easily help them in identifying food products that are high in critical nutrients, which are generally advised by the health practitioners to refrain consuming in excess.
Regulator Failed to Consult States or Sensitize SMEs
Despite public health being a state subject, the food regulator here failed to consult or involve any of the States actively during the FOPL consultations. Ensuring all key stakeholders are equally aware and consulted during the process of a policy development is a critical element to ensure a well drafted regulation. The regulator went ahead and designed this draft regulation merely consulting a large group of food manufacturers and couple of consumer organisations, whose voice often went unheard in the crowd. Not just the states, the regulator even failed to sensitize and convince the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) about the need and importance of such a regulation in the country. This is evident through the recent news reports of small businesses opposing the FOPL regulation. Getting their support, especially when they make up almost three-fourths of India’s packaged foods industry, was crucial before going ahead with drafting a policy. They ought to have been sensitised to see FoPL as an effective marketing strategy instead of seeing it as a constraint.
Unnecessary Fear of Impact on Traditional Foods
One of the main arguments against the regulation is its potential negative effects on business, particularly on small business who manufacture and sell traditional Indian foods. Their arguments are focused particularly on the expected increase in production costs, change in taste as a result of changing the composition of their products, as well as required modifications in labelling and packaging.
Comparatively, it might be a challenge for small business to modify their traditional food products to meet FOPL criteria without compromising on taste, but it is not an impossible task. After all, the same companies were once reluctant couple of years before citing similar concern on the impact on taste when TFA regulations were put in place. That time through effective sensitisation and hand holding by all other stakeholders they were able to overcome their fears and were able to find suitable cost effective alternatives without compromising the tastes. Besides, it should be noted that any change in composition will be equally applicable to all packaged food manufacturers in India and hence the argument that consumers would stop purchasing their product and prefer another brand that have better taste does not stand ground.
Moreover, businesses should realise that today more and more consumers worldwide are looking for ways to reduce the amount of sugar, salt and fat in their diets and FOPL regulation is not something exclusively introduced in our country. In fact, more than 40 countries, both developed and developing, have already brought in similar regulations and are implementing it without much bottlenecks and many are in the process. Adhering to the regulation therefore is inevitable and in fact already well delayed. In a way such timely regulations help businesses to spread their wings to outside markets in the long run by keeping up with global standards.
Consumers have the right to be correctly informed so that they can themselves choose what is needed and what is not, and warning label does help in this process. It does not rate food products, it does not force upon us any decision, it does not say what is good or what is evil, it just informs and warn the consumers when critical nutrients are in excess than the prescribed WHO level.
The priority therefore at this stage for most stakeholders including public health experts is to take the opportunity to halt the process of taking this draft forward, and highlight to the government and the FSSAI the impact that the regulation would have on consumers if some of the above concerns are left unaddressed. More importantly, regulators should be encouraged to rethink their decision on moving ahead with nutrition rating system and instead consider coming up with a more suitable warning label that has the potential to address the concern of all stakeholders especially the consumers. Such a warning label should be mandatory with immediate effect rather than being voluntary as it has been established as the most reliable FoPL format that improves public health and aids consumers (regardless of their age, literacy proficiency or socio-economic strata) to make healthier choices. Exception for the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) can be provided with a grace period of 12 months or lesser to adopt, like practiced in most other countries. There is also a need to educate and sensitise all stakeholders and gather their support to successfully implement a regulation like FOPL.
(The Authors - George Cheriyan is Director and Simi T.B. is Policy Analyst at CUTS International, a global public policy research and consumer advocacy organisation. George is also a member of the Central Advisory Committee of Food Safety & Standards Authority of India)