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Need to save people from harmful packaged food

Recently the Food and Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has initiated the model of Front of Packing Label (FOPL) of food items. With this a debate has started on whether food packages should have a 'Health Star Rating' (HSR) about the quality of the food or a warning regarding harmful food. In this regard, FSSAI, under pressure from the ultra-processed food industry, has decided that each food should be rated from half to five stars. From the minutes of the meeting it is evident that while taking this decision, FSSAI has has chosen to ignore consumer interest and has given undue importance to the opinion of large food processing industries.

Our country traditionally has a tradition of making and eating healthy and nutritious food. Proteins, vitamins, carbohydrates and other nutrients are found in a very balanced form in our food plate, so our diet has always been very balanced. But in the recent past, the trend of processed foods has increased and especially markets are flooded with ultra-processed foods. Scientists believe that these ultra-processed foods are causing many non communicable diseases ( NCDs) including cancer. Not only this, companies use excessive amounts of sugar, salt (sodium) and saturated fats to entice customers and make children get used to their products or say addict them. In our country, diabetes, blood pressure, kidney and liver diseases are becoming common due to excess of sugar, sodium and saturated fats in the food. In our country due to lack of awareness among the people about nutrition and in this case due to absence of warning on food packets, people are unknowingly consuming these harmful food items, due to which these diseases are are on rise, sometimes called lifestyle diseases.

If a warning is posted on such harmful foods stating that it contains sugar, salt or saturated fats beyond a threshold limit, consumers will be able to learn more about their side effects and make informed decisions about their food purchases. It is true that companies manufacturing these food items may face a decline in sales of these harmful food. However, this will improve the health of the common man, there is no doubt about it. This is not only a theoretical conclusion, but it has also been experienced in different countries. Realizing the importance of this issue, many countries including Chile, Brazil, Israel decided to put such warnings on food packets. Chile has made a law after fixing the threshold limits of this harmful food and also made a law mandating printing of warning about the same. After Chile's decision to put such warnings by law, there was a huge reduction in the sale of such harmful food there. We can understand how much benefit Chile must have got in the protection of public health due to this. Today, when we are in the process of deciding in our country, that how consumers should be educated in the selection of healthy foods, instead of warning the consumers about the harmful food, it wouldn’t be proper to legitimize the unhealthy food by giving star rating to them.

In this regard a meeting of ‘stakeholders’ was organized by FSSAI on 15th February 2022, in which amongst participants, there were 17 members from food industry and their organizations, 1 from World Health Organization    (WHO), 2 members were from Indian Institute of Ahmedabad (IIM) Ahmedabad, only 3 members were from consumer organizations, 1 member was from Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a premier institution; 9 FSSAI officials; and 10 belonged to the experts’ category. Instead of discussing international experiences, the meeting referred to a study conducted by IIM, Ahmedabad and Dexter Consultancy Pvt Ltd and pointed out that participants in this study have given the opinion that the system of health star rating (HSR) on food packets should be be adopted. Significantly, two representatives of consumer organizations and a representative of Center for Science and Environment voted against this decision. But ignoring their opinion, it was said that the opinion coming from the survey of 20 thousand people is more important, so the stakeholders will have to give their suggestions on the health star rating only. Even according to the survey by IIM Ahmedabad, the warning option was rated better in terms of reducing the intention to purchase harmful food, due to presence of excess of unwanted nutrients. But despite this, the report recommending HSR as the preferred option, which does not even give the consumer an understanding of the health risks, is raising doubts about the impartiality of the authors of the report.

Not only this, that there was presence of large number of representatives of companies and their organisations, in the meeting of stakeholders, in which the decision regarding health store rating was taken; even among experts, there were many people who are associated with the companies. It is worth noting that Australia is the only country in the world, in which there is a system of Health Star Rating, whereas in most of the countries where there is a system of FOPL, there is a provision of warning rather than Health Star rating. According to HSR formula, if any nutrient such as fruit juice, is added to any harmful food product, then its star rating can reach even up to five stars. For example, if orange juice is added to a beverage with high sugar, it will get far more stars, and the consumer will inadvertently be consuming harmful foods, because they will not have the opportunity to know that it is a harmful food.

Today, when the country's food regulatory body is taking a decision in this regard, the health of the people of the country should be the first priority and not the profit of the companies. The presence of such a large number of food companies in this decision-making process and their long-standing partnership with FSSAI, puts a question mark on the objectivity of FSSAI's decision. It is the responsibility of the Ministry of Health that, keeping a close watch on these subjects, instead of adopting the Health Star Rating, harmful to the health of the people of the country, it should make a provision to give a clear warning regarding the food items, which are injurious to health.

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