India’s draft ‘red light’ food labelling regulations in need of "massive strengthening"

By Lester Wan

- Last updated on GMT

Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a public interest research and advocacy group, submitted a list of recommendations on the draft Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations to FSSAI. ©GettyImages
Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a public interest research and advocacy group, submitted a list of recommendations on the draft Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations to FSSAI. ©GettyImages

Related tags Label Gmo labeling Packaged Food Food safety Nutrition Traffic light label Food policy India South Asia

India’s proposed new Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations been dubbed a ‘good start’ but in urgent need of amendments to be truly effective in tackling obesity and diabetes.

The draft Regulations released by the FSSAI in April​ includes new mandatory front-of-pack labelling for packaged food products, including a 'red light' label for high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) foods.

In late May, the authority said it would finalise it within the next two to three months​.

However, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a public interest research and advocacy organisation, has submitted a list of recommendations on the draft to the FSSAI.

In a letter to Pawan Kumar Agarwal, CEO of FSSAI, Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of CSE, said: “We would like to mention that this is a good beginning considering the state of our existing labelling laws but the draft regulations need massive strengthening across several aspects to ensure appropriate food labelling framework that contributes in retarding the growth of obesity and non-communicable diseases in this country.”

Possible shortcomings

CSE states, one of the significant gaps is that the draft does not provide for the labelling of crucial aspects such as added sugar and dietary fibres.

"Public health and nutrition experts recommend that it is best to avoid added sugar in food items. It can be measured and controlled and, therefore, must be labelled,”​ said Amit Khurana, programme director, food safety and toxins unit, CSE. 

“Also, dietary fibre is a key beneficial component of our diet and must also be labelled.

“This will help consumers make informed and healthy food choices.”

The draft Regulation simply states that HFSS food products shall not be advertised to children in any form. The CSE researchers highlight that this is insufficient.

“Children are key consumers of HFSS food items and the burden of childhood obesity is rising. The FSSAI needs to adopt a detailed framework to regulate advertisement of HFSS foods,”​ said Sonam Taneja, programme manager, food safety and toxins unit, CSE. 

“Celebrities should not be allowed to endorse them and there should be no advertisement of certain food categories such as soft drinks. Broadcasting regulations should be developed to limit the exposure of children to food advertisements during primetime programmes.”

Devil in the detail?

The draft Regulation also emphasises providing nutrition information for each serving of a food item. It further lays down that consumers should be made aware of the contribution of each serving to one’s daily quota of salt, sugar or fat.

Nevertheless, the Regulation does not standardise serving sizes.

“Determination of serving sizes has been left to the industry — this is a big loophole. We have seen that the food industry often claims very small serving sizes, which are far from the reality and manipulates food labels,”​ said Bhushan. 

Serving sizes must be set by the FSSAI based on how much is customarily consumed by people in the Indian scenario.”

Regarding genetically modified (GM) food, CSE has recommended that through the Regulation the FSSAI must aim to regulate illegal GM food in India and should set a stricter bar for exemption from GM labelling. It says the bar set in the draft is very weak.

“The FSSAI has a crucial role in ensuring food safety and a strong labelling regulation is a must to fulfil this mandate,”​ said Bhushan. 

The Delhi-based CSE researches, lobbies for and communicates the urgency of development that is sustainable and equitable. It has been working on issues relating to HFSS food with regard to nutritional analysis, promotion and marketing targeted at children, and links to non-communicable diseases.

Earlier, the FSSAI had also proposed introducing a traffic light labelling scheme for foods sold in school canteens and vending machines​, to curb the consumption of sugary drinks, heavily processed foods and confectionery by young children.

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