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Uniform food labels in pipeline

Plan to have salt, sugar and fat content displayed compulsorily

By Our Special Correspondent
  • Published 20.12.16

New Delhi, Dec. 19: India's food safety regulator is set to revise rules for nutrition labels to make it mandatory for manufacturers to display salt, sugar and fat, among other contents, on all packaged foods, amid concerns about misleading or selective labelling.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is preparing a draft of new rules to ensure uniform display of levels of sodium (salt), sugar, fats, including cholesterol and transfat, in all packaged and processed food, FSSAI chief executive officer Pawan Agarwal said.

"Some companies are already printing nutrition information on labels, some don't - we want everyone to do this," Agarwal told The Telegraph, on the sidelines of a food labelling conference organised by the New Delhi-based non-government Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) on Friday.

Nutrition experts are hoping the proposed revisions will address gaps in existing rules that they say make current labels inconsistent across products and manufacturers. While many existing labels display absolute values of food constituents, they do not specify recommended daily allowances (RDA) or cut-offs.

"The absolute levels of salt, sugar or fats in a packaged food or beverage will carry no meaning for most consumers unless they're also told how much they can safely consume in a day," said Rekha Harish, professor of paediatrics at the Government Medical College, Jammu, and former national convener of the Indian Academy of Pediatrics task force on prevention of childhood obesity.

However, existing rules do not require companies to disclose levels of nutrients in relation to RDAs.

Harish and others say most consumers will need this information to make informed choices. The cut-off for the daily sodium intake, for example, is 2,000mg, or 5gm salt. The CSE, in a report released at the conference, has pointed out that a single packet of "masala oats" contains 30 per cent of the RDA of salt.

The FSSAI is consulting with scientific experts on the issue of making RDAs mandatory on nutrition labels, Agarwal said, but added that the issue is complicated because the values of RDAs for some constituents may vary for people across different age groups.

"We are aware of these concerns, we're looking into them," Agarwal said. "But the process of revising and notifying rules is a long process." The FSSAI is hoping to finalise the draft rules in about a month after which they will be sent to the Union health ministry for approval, notification and responses from the public, including the food industry.

The CSE has been urging the FSSAI to strengthen rules also to address selective disclosure, misleading labels and celebrity endorsements of "junk food" which it says is a popular term for food with high fat, salt, or sugar.

It has pointed out that not all snacks are consistently labelled for sodium or salt. For example, one manufacturer displays sodium content on its sweet variety of oats, but does not display sodium content in its spicy variety of oats.

"People need to know it right to choose right, and the food industry must tell it right," Sunita Narain, the director general of the CSE told the conference.

The Advertising Standards Council of India, an industry watchdog, has over the past three years pointed out several misleading claims by manufacturers involving products ranging from rice bran oil and canola oil to health drinks for children and digestive biscuits.

The CSE has also called for regulation of celebrity endorsement of foods high in salt, sugar, or fat, pointing out that an expert panel on the Consumer Protection Act 2015, to replace existing law, has recommended measures to tackle misleading advertisements and fix liability on celebrities.