This food regulator needs to step up to the plate

Context: The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is expected to issue a draft regulation for labels on front of food packets that will inform consumers if a product is high in salt, sugar and fat. It is expected to propose a system under which stars will be assigned to a product.

The draft regulation is based on a study commissioned by the FSSAI and conducted by IIM-Ahmedabad.

As per this article, the study has many methodological errors. Hence, the FSSAI cannot go ahead with a draft regulation based on a highly contested study design and whose findings are not yet peer reviewed.

Its decision to stick to a Health Star Rating based on an algorithm known to the food industry only, as a front of pack labelling, is without sound logic or evidence.

What are the associated concerns?

We need to reduce the production, the marketing and the availability of such unhealthy foods.

Even if available, we need to change consumer behaviour in purchasing such processed food by due warning of their contents using the labels on the packets.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a threshold for sugar, salt, fat, and calories per 100 grams of processed food packaged or 100 ml of liquid beverages bottled. Unless we generate competing technical data for the Indian population, we have to abide by WHO norms.

– We cannot relax thresholds to suit the industry, but industry must alter its composition to healthy limits. The FSSAI must ensure that.

Any order or guideline issued in public interest must be mandatory from day one. We cannot have the flexibility of voluntary adoption and staggered implementation.

No one denies that the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad is an institute of repute, but so are many others which were not invited or given a chance to bid for such a large expensive study.

On Front of the Package labelling: The participants of the study must have the capacity to objectively evaluate the various formats of FOPL based on the information content. They must have the ability to compare and identify least harmful, or identify higher content than recommended. Opinion of the consumer, who is not knowledgeable or illiterate, is pointless.

The authors admit in this study that 13.8% of respondents have not had schooling at all or are illiterate, while 28%-35% of respondents are those who never read food labels. Therefore, they should have been excluded from making a relative comparison between labels in this study.

Missing data: The exclusion of young adolescent children aged 10-18 years — who are big consumers of packaged biscuits chips and bottled soft drinks — from the study is a big methodological error. It is a case of significant missing data.

Source: This post is based on the article “This food regulator needs to step up to the plate” published in The Hindu on 11th May 22.

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