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Tinker whiff on junk food bar

New Delhi, April 22: Proposed guidelines to ban junk food in and near schools across India have been weakened under the influence of industry representatives, some of the technical experts who had helped draft them alleged today.

The guidelines, submitted by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India to Delhi High Court last month, are significantly different from what an expert group had prepared for the food safety authority in January this year, the experts said.

The food safety authority initiative follows a high court directive to the Centre to outline its actions to limit children’s exposure to junk food. The directive had come in response to a public interest litigation moved by Uday Foundation, a non-government organisation.

The expert group had called for a ban in schools on common foods high in fat, sugar, salt and what nutrition experts call “empty calories”. But the final guidelines call merely for restricting or limiting junk food in schools.

A proposal in the draft guidelines to regulate the sale of junk food up to “500 yards” from a school has been changed to “50 metres”.

“Such modifications will defeat the objectives of the guidelines,” said Sunita Narain, director-general at the non-government Centre for Science and Environment and chair of the expert group set up by the food safety authority.

The first draft had called for a ban on chips, fried packaged foods, instant noodles, potato fries, carbonated beverages and sugar-sweetened non-carbonated beverages.

It had cited alternative food such as vegetable sandwiches, chickpeas, vegetable poha, sprouts, fruit salads and seasonal fruits, and beverages such as low-fat milk shakes, fresh-fruit juice, lime sodas and plain lassi.

While the initial draft was focused on food and diet, the final guidelines emphasise the need for physical activity.

“We believe the food industry has worked to influence the expert group’s guidelines,” the Centre for Science and Environment said in a media release today.

The expert group had a panel of doctors, nutrition specialists, a health official and six members from three industry associations: the Retailers Association of India, the National Restaurant Association of India, and the All India Food Processors’ Association.

A member of the expert group who requested anonymity told The Telegraph that the final guidelines appear to have been finalised in a series of “hurriedly called” meetings that were not attended by all the experts.

Narain said one of the expert group members representing the All India Food Processors’ Association worked with a company manufacturing noodles, while a member representing the National Restaurant Association was a senior employee of a company manufacturing soft drinks.

These two members were not immediately available for comment this evening.

“It is extremely important to ban junk food in and around schools,” said Umesh Kapil, professor of nutrition at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, who was also a member of the expert group.

“Such an effort could have long-term benefits for the health of schoolchildren.”

The high court is expected to examine the guidelines at future hearings.