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Front-of-pack labelling on less healthy food & beverages is need of the hour

The last two decades have seen a huge transition in our eating habits with processed foods and aerated drinks becoming routine parts of our diet, and a proliferation of these in the marketplace.

World Consumer Rights Day is observed on March 15 to draw attention to the rights of consumers, respect their needs and protect them. The Right to information is an important consumer right, helping them make the right choices. Clear, honest information about any product or service is fundamental to protecting this right.

General principles under the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection issued by UNCTAD in 1985 (and adopted as a Resolution on Consumer Protection in 2015) talks about access by consumers to adequate information, emphasising the need for governments to protect consumers, particularly the rural population and the poor. Similarly, Section 2 (9)(ii) of the Indian Consumer Protection Act, 2019 defines consumer rights as the right to be informed about the quality, quantity, potency, purity, standard and price of goods, products or services.

The last two decades have seen a huge transition in our eating habits with processed foods and aerated drinks becoming routine parts of our diet, and a proliferation of these in the marketplace. A study by WHO reveals that the ultra-processed foods sector grew at a compound annual growth rate of 13.37% in retail sale value between 2011 and 2021. Thanks to clever marketing and pricing, processed foods are now prevalent in every corner of the country. These foods are often high in non-nutritive ingredients, harmful to health, particularly, fats, sugar and sodium.

The steep increase in non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancer, etc is a grave concern as they contribute to about 63% of all deaths in India. The National Family Health Survey - 5 reveals a number of concerning findings about NCD incidence in Tamil Nadu – about 40% of people are obese, about 20% have elevated blood sugar and about 30% are hypertensive. More alarmingly, the World Obesity Federation reports that India could have over 27 million children with obesity by 2030.

Labels on most processed foods mention manufacturing and expiry dates, MRP, net weight, ingredients by quantity, manufacturer’s address, complaint details, and nutritional information, as mandated by law. However, studies reveal that consumers spend only a few seconds reading a label, mainly the expiry date, and price. Nutritional information is overlooked because the information is complex with numbers alongside entries like energy, calories, sugar, total sugars, added sugars, salt, sodium, saturated fat, trans fat, etc. These mean very little to a common person. Nutritional information per serve size, where available, adds to the confusing numbers. Consumers, especially those who rely on processed foods, are looking for convenience, and therefore want to make quick decisions.

WHO recommends the implementation of front-of-pack labelling (FoPL) on less healthy foods and beverages as a strategy to prevent and control NCDs. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) also recognises the need for FoPL and is in the process of issuing regulations. We must settle for nothing less than clear, interpretative, warning labels on front of packs of processed foods, clearly indicating high salt, sugar and fat content in these. This will suit India best as it will cut across the barriers of illiteracy and multiple languages. Countries like Israel and Chile have successfully implemented it, with the latter significantly reducing purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages since the implementation of regulations.

The manufacturer of one product is a consumer of several others. Therefore, processed food manufacturers should recognise the seriousness of the issue, and engage with labelling policies, prioritising human health over profits.

FSSAI should consider the interests of consumers, especially those from the rural areas, and mandate warning labels that will be beneficial to all. Consumers have a right to reliable, clear information to make informed food choices. The most effective way of conveying this information is through warning labels on front of pack of processed foods. Warning labels remain a key means of addressing our NCD crisis, and must therefore be prioritised by policy makers.

Preventing diseases

WHO recommends such labelling to prevent and control non-communicable diseases. Countries like Israel and Chile have successfully implemented it.


This article was originally published by The New Indian Express on 16 March 2024.

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