Prevent junk food from being labelled healthy

Published on May 24, 2015 02:21:21 AM

India needs to tighten its food safety norms and enforce them vigorously to prevent food industry from positioning junk food as healthy, argues the writer Dinesh C Sharma

The recall of Maggi noodle packets from markets in Uttar Pradesh has evoked a variety of reactions from people, particularly on social media. Some people believed it was a healthy snack – as claimed in television commercials – while others felt that street food kiosks and mithai shops with poor hygiene should also be taken to task just like Maggi. A lot of jokes were cracked about life of hostellers, single men and mothers of nagging kids without “two-minute” noodle brand.

“Maggi disappearing is less likely to have a positive impact and more an apocalyptic outcome, at least in India,” declared a journalist on a digital news website. Most of the public discourse on the issue focused on the brand itself and trivial concerns of it becoming unavailable. This successfully obfuscated real issues this episode has raised - food safety, marketing of unhealthy or junk food and growing influence of Big Food in our food chain.

First let’s get the facts of the case right. The recall of Maggi in Uttar Pradesh was large, involving some two lakh packets belonging to one particular batch manufactured in February 2014. Nestle, which owns the brand, claims that this batch had already reached its expiry or ‘Best Before date’ in November 2014, thereby implying that it is not be blamed for substandard quality.

About the detection of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) in samples of Maggi noodles, the company says it does not add MSG to noodles but “authorities may have detected glutamate which occurs naturally in many foods.” The food company has not been able to provide any convincing explanation about elevated levels of lead in a pack of Noodles analysed by food safety authorities.

The presence of lead is far more serious finding because the heavy metal is supposed to cause severe health problems, particularly in growing children. In fact, food safety authorities in other States too should check samples for heavy metal presence. This is not the first time that any junk food company is under scanner. A few years back, analysis of samples randomly picked up from market by the Centre for Science and Environment had found high levels of salt and other harmful ingredients in chips and noodle packets, including that of Maggi.

All processed food products manufactured and sold in the country are supposed to be regulated by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and State food authorities in respective States. The food regulatory regime, at present, is limited to licensing, labeling norms and regulation of certain additives and other ingredients.

However, there are loopholes in the system in various stages. For instance, the labeling norms are not consumer-friendly and are misleading. Food labels are supposed to display amounts of calorie, protein, carbohydrate, fat and contents for which a health claim is made, but divulging salt and sodium levels is not mandatory for all products.

Moreover, contents are listed under caption “nutritional information” falsely implying to consumers that all the contents are nutritional. The information is provided for 100 ml or 100 gm of the product and not for the actual weight of the product. Even existing labeling norms are not being followed by all companies. A survey of food products in Hyderabad last year found that labeling of as many as 48 percent of the products was not as per FSSAI norms.

Those flouting the norms included Britannia, Nestle and PepsiCo. Clearly, enforcement of food regulation is extremely poor. State food administrations are not fully equipped both technically and in terms of manpower. While mandatory labeling norms are being overlooked, food companies are printing additional information on packs to give an impression to consumers that their products are ‘healthy’.

They provide so-called health and fitness tips and use celebrity endorsement to position junk food products as healthy. The food safety regulator has no mechanism in place to check veracity of tall health or disease risk reduction claims made on product packs. India has no regulation in marketing of unhealthy food items to children. The food industry is working overtime to make sure that regulation remains industry-friendly.

All standard making processes of food regulatory authority are heavily influenced by the industry. Though direct presence of food industry executives in scientific panels of FSSAI has been nixed by the Supreme Court, food industry participates in regulatory process through industry associations. The industry is even seeking a high seat in the World Health Organisation so that it can nip in the bud any move to regulate it on health grounds. This is indeed dangerous.