As the food safety regulator prepares to notify changes in the labelling on packaged food products, nutrition activists have raised the pitch for a revised policy that is “scientific and health-friendly.”
The Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) earlier this year published draft regulations for a Health Star Rating (HSR) on packaged and processed food products, aimed at guiding consumers to opt for healthy food and reduce India’s growing burden of lifestyle disease.
Under the proposed HSR format, on which feedback was sought from various stakeholders, 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.
But activists say the draft, if not changed substantially, is unlikely to achieve the intended objective and FSSAI’s mandate to ensure food safety for consumers.
FSSAI has maintained that its draft norms are based on a report by the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A), which in turn was based on a countrywide survey.
A group of health and nutrition experts, led by national think tank Nutrition Advocacy for Public Interest (NAPI), have said the labels on processed and packaged foods should have mandatory pictorial warnings.
They have accused the FSSAI of taking the IIM-A report only at face value and prompting the institution’s researchers towards health star ratings.
Given that the draft of some regulations to amend the Food Safety and Standards (Labelling & Display) Regulations is being brought out in the interest of public health, it is a fundamental flaw of concept to rate foods from “least healthy to healthiest,” public health professional and NAPi member Vandana Prasad said.
She also opposes the proposed inclusion of the notion of positive nutrients instead of warning consumers against foods that are clearly accepted as unhealthy.
“For instance, a packet of chips or a bottle of sugary soda would also be labelled healthy to some extent,” she said.
“Moreover, the token addition of some fibre could substantially increase their rating without in any way mitigating their adverse effect on health,” Kumar added. “The vehement response by the food industry against any form of FoPL is testimony to the fact that it depends on massive profits.”
FoPL is short for Front of Pack Labelling.
NAPi convener Arun Gupta said that there is no scientific evidence that adding a positive factor or nutrient like vegetable, fruit or nuts to an unhealthy food product would reduce the risk of disease.
He stressed that most of professional health organizations and public health experts, in their comments, have endorsed the requirement of warning labels depicting the true information about unhealthy nutrients on FoPL.
FSSAI officials approached for comment insisted that their draft regulation was based on research findings and a large-scale survey .The suggestions received on it are being evaluated before final norms are notified, the officials said.