The CSE tested the fast-food against yet-to-be-notified thresholds set by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), and all were in breach.
The findings of a lab-analysis of 33 popular junk foods from top-billed brands, including PepsiCo’s Lays, Nestle’s Maggi, and Mc Donald’s, among others, by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) show consumers could be ingesting unhealthy amounts of salt and fat. The CSE tested the fast-food against yet-to-be-notified thresholds set by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), and all were in breach—indeed, one brand of snacks marketed as a healthier alternative to conventional offerings had twice the level of salt allowed in a day from a snack. But, the real shocker is CSE’s assertion that consumers have been kept in the dark because the processed food lobby is thwarting the notification of the Food Safety Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations that would replace the existing Regulations.
FSSAI had already taken five years—work had started in 2013—when it came up with a draft in 2018 that was sent to the health ministry for finalisation. The draft proposed that packaged food containing more than its prescribed thresholds of salt, transfats, added sugars, and other nutritional components that pose health risks carry a front-of-the-pack red mark to indicate these risks. But, following objections from the food industry, FSSAI sent the draft for review to a committee headed by B Sesikeran, a trustee of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), in August 2018. ILSI is financed by Coca-Cola, PespsiCo, Nestle, Danone, and other food industry giants. While the final draft Labelling and Display Regulations—announced in June 2019—retains the ‘red mark’ provision of the 2018 draft, it dilutes several thresholds. For instance, as per the 2019 draft released after the Sesikeran committee submitted its report—the report was never made public—a product will have to be marked ‘red’ if the energy provided by the added sugar content is more than 10% of the total energy provided by 100g of the product. But, the 2019 draft dropped the 2018 draft’s labelling requirement for total sugar in favour of ‘added sugar’—that means the manufacturer doesn’t have to inform the consumer about the naturally occurring sugar in the food. Also, the threshold for added sugar has been set at 50 g, the same as the 2018 threshold for total sugar.
Whether or not the food companies are stalling the notification of the regulations is difficult to say. But, given consumers have a right to know what they are consuming, the government must provide clarity on the notification of the regulations. New York Times reports that, in China, ILSI shares office space and staff with the body tasked with battling the country’s obesity epidemic, and, in Brazil, its representatives occupy seats that were previously reserved for university researchers on food and nutrition panels. Against such a backdrop, the government needs to be very circumspect about the heft it allows food industry representatives in food standards regulation.