Speaking at a media briefing by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), director general Sunita Narain pointed out that the government had been considering amending the Consumer Protection Act to provide for jail terms and stiff financial penalties for celebrities responsible for backing false and misleading claims.
But because the amendments in question would mean a celebrity is not liable where precautions are taken and due diligence is conducted before deciding to endorse a product, they “amount to nothing”, Narain added.
Other experts believe that Indian diets cannot be healthy so long as food laws do not require quantities of salt, sugar, dietary fibres, vitamins, supplements and cholesterol to be listed on labels.
“In contrast to best practices in other parts of the world, there is no mention of several other types of nutrition claims. There is no list of approved or non-approved health claims. Neither is there a mention of a need for an approval process, or the kind of scientific substantiation required,” said Amit Khurana, of CSE’s food safety and toxins team.
He said there was also a “clear trend” of focusing on a single attribute of a product while making claims “completely missing the concept of wholesome food or balanced diet”.
“A look at the content of a few popular packaged food claims suggests that these could be unhealthy due to nutrients other than those claimed,” Khurana added.
Food advertising is under the purview of various government departments and agencies, though it is largely self-regulated through the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), which has no punitive powers of its own.
The Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 has provisions to prohibit food advertisements that are misleading in nature, though it is not authorised to approve or monitor food advertisements by itself. The ASCI primarily acts based on complaints through its code on food advertisements.
The issue of celebrities promoting of food products has been in the news recently, especially when they have been shown to endorse foods high in salt, sugar and fat.
An expert committee on the Consumer Protection Bill, 2015 has recommended a penalty of Rs1m (US$14,800) and imprisonment of up to two years, or both, for a first offence by a celebrity responsible for false and misleading claims. The current penalty is Rs500,000, and five-year’s imprisonment for a second offence.
“But,” said Khurana, “there are two problems with this proposal. One, manufacturers have not been held equally guilty and two, celebrities may not understand the science behind the claims and conduct due diligence.”
Instead, the CSE is calling for a strengthening of the nutrition facts labelling system so that it is easier to read and contains only authorised health claims. It is also advocating for an authority to approve food adverts and a ban on celebrity endorsements of unhealthy food.
Likewise, the group has also demanded a ban on soft drink advertising in a move that would mirror the prohibition on tobacco marketing.
Meanwhile, India’s leading food and beverage manufacturers are gearing up to meet an end-of-year commitment to stop all advertising of products to children below 12 years of age. The self-imposed move could involve changes to the way some of the biggest foods brands in the country are promoted.
This is in line with a pledge by the Food and Beverage Alliance of India whose members include Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kellogg, Nestlé and Mondelēz.
“FBAI members will not engage in food or beverage marketing aimed at children in primary schools. The policy covers food and beverage product marketing communications that are primarily directed to children under 12 in all covered media,” according to the pledge, reported by Economic Times.
“The association will publish periodic reports to demonstrate compliance with this policy. The policy will become applicable to all members by December 31, 2016.”
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Food firms need to manufacture healthier options
A research report has slammed India’s biggest food and beverage manufacturers for not fighting hard enough to combat over- and undernutrition.
The in-depth study found that while society faces an uphill battle against malnutrition, only 12% of beverages and 16% of foods manufactured by the majors contain high-quality nutrients.
“The largest F&B manufacturers in India are falling far short of what they need to do to help fight the enduring and mounting double-burden of malnutrition in India,” it said.
Manufacturers have a “responsibility” to be part of a process to find a solution to problems caused by diet, said Inge Kauer, executive director of the Access to Nutrition Foundation (ATNF), which compiled the report.
“India faces serious and escalating malnutrition, with a large undernourished population as well as growing numbers of overweight and obese people who are developing chronic diseases,” Kauer said.
The foundation said it hoped that its India Spotlight Index would encourage manufacturers to ramp up production of nutritious foods and to “responsibly exercise their substantial influence on consumer choice and behaviour” to improve diets across India.
The study ranked Mother Dairy first in the “Product Profile” category, based on a product portfolio adjudged to be the healthiest of the all 10 companies assessed.
Nestlé India topped the “Corporate Profile” ranking, sealing first place for its “policies, practices and disclosure on nutrition and undernutrition”.
Yet the tone of the report was less of celebration and more of indictment as it called on companies to “adopt and disclose their nutrition strategies and policies”. It demanded that multinationals in particular improve the nutritional quality of their products.
Nine of the companies had posted a commitment to combat undernutrition but most companies produced very few fortified foods, it found.
Stricter regulation and more vigilant monitoring of breast-milk substitutes provided a backdrop for the eight companies in this category that were found broadly to comply with the law. Nevertheless, several instances of questionable marketing were identified, such as promotions by online retailers and product labels that include promotional wording.
The authors called on manufacturers to integrate nutrition into their core business strategies, and commit to increasing the number of healthy products they manufacture, using fortified staple foods as ingredients and targeting specific nutrient deficiencies.
They also demanded formal industry policies to ensure the affordability and accessibility of healthy foods and the adoption of strict marketing policies that allow only healthy foods to be marketed to children.
ATNF said it hoped that “scores of F&B manufacturers in India will have increased their functional production significantly” by the time its next India Spotlight Index is published in 2018. This, it said would reflect “their acceptance that they have a central role to play in tackling the double burden of malnutrition in India.”
The country’s food regulator, the FSSAI has already proposed making fortified food mandatory for public food programmes.
“We are in discussions with various ministries and industry and working on setting up standards and how to make large-scale food fortification a reality,” said Pawan Kumar Agarwal, the FSSAI’s chief executive, who officially released the ATNF report.
FSSAI orders energy drinks to comply to regulations
India’s food regulator is gearing up to set a limit on caffeine contained in energy drinks. From July 1, manufacturers will be compelled to comply to FSSAI regulations, according to a notification published last week.
Non-alcoholic beverages with more than 145mg of caffeine per litre will be labelled as “caffeinated beverage”. The caffeine content in these beverages should not be greater than 300mg per litre irrespective of the source of the caffeine, the notification said. This limit is lower than the 320mg initially suggested by the regulator.
This is a category contested by brands such as Red Bull, Tzinga, Cloud 9 and Monster, which will from next year be forced to make certain disclosures, including their caffeine content, on labels.
Most carbonated beverages, including colas, will not fall in the category unless the caffeine content crosses 145mg per litre.
The regulator has also set out the permitted quantities of vitamins such as thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 that can be added to beverages.
“In respect of ingredients, flavours, sweeteners, food additives, contaminants and microbiological requirement the product shall conform to the standards for carbonated water,” the FSSAI said.
The FSSAI also made it mandatory for brands to prominently display a cautionary note for drinks containing caffeine, saying: “Not recommended for children, pregnant and lactating women, persons sensitive to caffeine.”
In 2015, the FSSAI banned variants of Monster energy drink and ordered the recall of Restless Energy Drink, sold by Pune-based Pushpam Foods and Beverages. It also banned some Cloud 9 lines and Tzinga for compliance issues.