Last month, India’s food safety regulator announced the introduction of a mandatory “Health Star Rating” on packaged and processed food products, saying it was aimed at guiding consumers to opt for healthy food and reduce India’s growing burden of lifestyle diseases.
Under the proposed HSR format, packaged food items based on salt, sugar and fat content would be given one to five stars and the rating would be printed on the front of the package.
The move by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) followed a report by the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, which was based on a countrywide survey and on the face of it, appeared to be a progressive step, given that India faces sharply rising incidences of obesity and non-communicable diseases.
Yet, on March 11, a group of health and nutrition experts under the banner of Nutrition Advocacy for Public Interest (NAPi) shot off a letter, with supporting documents, to the Prime Minister’s Office, the health ministry and Niti Aayog, seeking mandatory pictorial warning labels on all processed food high in salt, sugar and fats.
Importantly, the advocacy group asked the Centre to reject the plan to introduce the HSR system on processed foods – from cornflakes and chocolates to chips – arguing that the star rating system under consideration can easily be manipulated by the industry.
NAPi underlined that food products high in sugar or fat that deserve a low rating (1 star) could get a moderate rating (3 or even 4 stars) only because they contain some positive nutrients (for example, fruit and nut chocolates).
Currently, packaged foods in the country have back-of-the-package nutrient information in detail but no front-of-package labelling (FoPL) which, as per the experience in several countries, has the ability to nudge healthy consumption behaviour with respect to packaged food.
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Now, the FSSAI under the health ministry has recommended voluntary implementation of FoPL from 2023 and a transition period of four years for making it mandatory. FSSAI officials said the new policy, which exempts milk and dairy products, is in line with FoPL models implemented in several other nations as well as WHO Population Nutrient Intake Goals Recommendations.
They added that the move will push companies to produce healthier foods and beverages and nudge consumers to choose healthier items.
This may be necessary. While a large section of the population in the country suffers from malnutrition, there is also a parallel crisis of exponentially rising non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer, which are largely influenced by lifestyle.
India is known as the diabetes capital of the world with the diabetic population estimated to hit almost 70 million by 2025 and 80 million by 2030.
Dr Arun Gupta, a NAPi member and central coordinator of the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India, argued that there is a “vested interest” in opting for the HSR model instead of warning labels for FoPL.
“There is scientific evidence which proves that warning labels deter people from picking up unhealthy packaged food and the same was also clearly mentioned in the IIM-A report based on which the FSSAI has made the decision,” he said. “Yet, a decision has been taken which favours the industry, not consumers. Such a model has been adopted so far only in Australia and is based on recommendations made by people in the food industry and as such a clear-cut case of conflict of interest.”
The IIM report does say that warning labels may have a better intended effect on consumer behaviour.
“Warning labels and HSR produce the same effect on purchase of chips and biscuits, with warning labels being marginally ahead in terms of reducing purchase intention,” it said.
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Dr Vandana Prasad, a NAPI member and a paediatrician, said that as opposed to warning labels, the HSR format creates a misleading “positive perception” in the minds of consumers.
“Even if there is only one star on a food product, it does not tell consumers that it is bad and therefore should not be consumed but it will rather make them think there will at least be something good about the product and hence the star,” Prasad said.
The document shared by the group said that as of now, countries including Chile, Peru, Mexico, Israel and Uruguay already have FoPL nutrition warning systems in practice, while Brazil, Columbia and Canada are likely to enforce it by this year.
“The pictorial warning label on food items is both logical and backed by strong science,” Prasad said.
The letter sent to the government has been endorsed by more than 100 scientists and public health specialists.
No going back for FSSAI?
Arun Singhal, chief executive officer of FSSAI, insisted that the agency had engaged IIM Ahmedabad to carry out a survey after exhaustive discussions and consensus among various stakeholders.
“The aim of the survey was to understand which FoPL format would be the best and for this, more than 20,000 people across the country were surveyed,” he told Moneycontrol. “The majority in the survey have recommended HSR-type FoPL. We will follow their recommendation in view of the fact that it emanated directly from our citizens.”