Fast food, cola firms on collision course with FSSAI over junk label

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Worried over an uncertain business future, many multinational and national food processors have joined hands to thwart India’s attempt to move on to a healthier and nutritious food market.

It is an area, which successive governments have steered clear of, for the fear of ruffling influential feathers. Soft drinks and food processing companies, as well as retail food chains, have met a couple of times since January to discuss strategy to counter a move to brand some food as ‘junk food’ and label it accordingly, sources said.

“There are people who have sought ‘junk food’ to be written on some food items, which we do not want. The regulator can only prescribe standards and we have been following those in our products,” an industry official said.

However, unlike packaged products, there are no Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) standards for the food items sold by companies like McDonalds, KFC and Domino’s. FSSAI is the food quality regulator under the Union health ministry.

Alarmed by rising rates of obesity and diabetes, India plans to frame rules within a month requiring manufacturers to display the fat, sugar and salt content of products on

packaging.

The Delhi High Court in September 2013 had expressed concern over the ill effects of consuming ‘junk food’ as a ‘dietary habit’ by children. It observed: “Whereas nobody can question the interest of the society in its children eating wholesome and nutritious food and abjuring eating ‘junk food’, which may be consumed once in a while to satisfy the tongue. Ordinarily, as a daily intake, the children should consume wholesome and nutritious food. The ill effects of eating ‘junk food’ in today’s environ has been documented by public health experts, as also paediatricians.”

With reference to the term ‘junk food,’ the Court referred to food high in calories and low in

nutrition.

The Court recognised that medical problems such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes in children are direct consequence of excessive consumption of junk food.

To prepare the draft guideli­n­es, it had directed FSSAI’s central advisory panel, to consult experts in public he­a­lth space and those with expertise on junk food and its ill effects, if consumed as a dietary habit.

An expert panel had submitted draft guidelines to FSSAI in January 2014. But there was a delay in implementing the guidelines.

Now that the government has started to tie loose ends in policy making, particularly to implement those policies not enforced due to indecisiveness, FSSAI may release the official version of the guidelines seeking public comments, sources said.

But the $57 billion food sector in India is more concerned about a proposal for fat tax on junk foods.

In February, many companies like PepsiCo, Nestle and ITC met in New Delhi to coordinate efforts to resist pressure from health advocates, sources said.

The Indian market is very important for firms like PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestle and McDonald’s, as India’s carbonated drinks sector is estimated to grow at an average 3.7 per cent between 2017 and 2021, while the packag­ed food sector is estimated to grow by 8 per cent.

A Reuters report quoted Pawan Kumar Agarwal, CEO of FCCAI, as saying: “It is a good thing if it helps in providing healthier options.”

Agarwal denied that industry pressure was affecting implementation of ti­g­h­ter re­gulations, adding India was nudging firms to make healthier products while wo­r­king on new rules, it said.

The number of obese men and women in India rose to about 30 million by 2014 from 1.2 million in 1975, according to a study by British medical journal The Lancet.

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