Whats inside the box, Doc

Updated: Aug 31 2006, 05:30am hrs
Quick. Do you know the difference between Class I and Class II additives Or that, when artificial sugar is added (or not added) to a bottled beverage, the declaration must be made on the crown How many of us, for instance, know that 442 on a Cadburys dairy milk chocolate bar is the code name for an emulsifier called Ammonium Phosphatides Or that 1422 on Nestls New Maggi Tomato-Pundina sauce is the code for a thickening agent called Acetylated Distarch Adipate

The pesticide-in-cola controversy has stirred up a major concern for marketers: Must food packaging be only about aesthetics, or should it also carry information on nutritional value, unit cost and food safety Last weeks notification on new labelling norms clearly indicates that at the end of the day, packaging is as much a tool intended to provide information to the customer as a devise to sweep her off her feet.

Fact is, most packaged, perishable commodities in India carry little or no nutritional information, nor a full listing of all the ingredients. The 7th Amendment to the PFA Rules, 2006, as notified by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, may change this situation a bit, but the problem may persist. Even when such information is carried-as do the labels of Nestle, HLL, Cadbury, or Amul, to name a few progressive companies-the objective appears to be more to impress than inform.

The catch is also in the new PFA notification. Ingredients that are present in less than 2% quantity are not required to be labelled, even though they may be lethal even in small quantities, informs Chandra Bhushan, an associate director at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

Worse, very often, vital information such as the date of manufacture or expiry is carried in such small fond size that a consumer has to look hard to find it, whereas it should be the first noticeable declaration on a food pack. At other times, the ink is either smudged or the design is enough to camouflage the declaration.

This despite the fact that the PFA Act lays down clear norms relating to the language, design, display and fond size that must be used for such declarations. Certain acidifying agents, artificial flavours and emulsifiers continue to be listed by code numbers rather than their actual names, making things more confusing for the lay consumer.

An ingredient like gelatine, which is an animal derivative, is not declared on the label, although we have so many vegetarians in our country, rues Chandra Bhushan. A technical expert at Amul, requesting anonymity, admitted that coding is meaningless for a lay consumer, though he too hurried on to add: Often there is not enough space on a label to carry the full ingredient list by name. On their part, Nestle and Caf Coffee Day spokespersons, contacted separately by the Financial Express, said: We fully comply with the PFA Act and any other applicable regulations for our products including those relevant to packaging and labelling.

Compare this with the international practice. In the US or the UK, a statutory warning like Smoking Kills takes up nearly half the space on a cigarette pack, but in India it gets watered down to a small one-liner, Smoking is injurious to health. Such design and information minimisa- tion sets a dangerous pre- cedent for the whole industry, warns Chandra Bhu- shan. In any case, labelling is effective only when the community is knowledgeable, which is not always the case in India, he adds.

One can argue that substituting acidifying agent with 330 or Disodium Guanylate with 627 will hardly add to the space crunch, not will it take away from the aesthetic appeal. Whats heartening is that a consensus is building up that with increasing exposure to processed food, product labelling in India must also satisfy a consumers right to information and not just her sense gratification.