Packaged foods and beverages should have mandatory and science backed Front of Pack warning labels (FoPL) to help consumers make healthy and safe decisions, industry representative, civil society presentative, political leaders and thought-leaders said at a consultation in New Delhi. The group called on FSSAI to make the right decision and adopt a label that would positively impact the lives of millions of Indians. At this event organised at the Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi voices from industry pledged they would have no hesitation in signing up for an FOPL regulation that would safeguard the health of their fellow citizens.
This gathering of senior MPs, industry representatives and civil society comes at a time when FSSAI’s purported choice of ‘health star rating’ over ‘warning labels’ preferred by public health experts and corroborated as the FOPL of choice by multiple research and studies, is being debated and Child rights activists and consumer bodies from all over the country have written to the lawmakers seeking their intervention to ensure better health of Indian citizens.
Calling the results of the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) an alarm bell, Dr Pradip Agarwal, Associate professor, from AIIMS Rishikesh said, “India is soon going to have the dubious distinction of becoming the world capital of diabetes and childhood obesity. All NCDs are on a steep rise. An observational study conducted by AIIMS from all four corners of India has found that people would most benefit from warning labels.”
Citing the recent randomized control field experiment spanning six states conducted by International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), Dr SK Singh from professor and head of department, International institute of population science (IIPS) said, “People have spoken, corroborating the science that we have known all along. Visually arresting, simple, negative warning labels will convey information about the healthfulness of a product and at the same time influence purchasing decisions. Warning labels were the only FOPL that led to a significant change in consumer purchasing decisions towards healthier products. It relayed nutrition information most effectively and as we know from past evidence, messages delivered well always results in behaviour change. I am truly hopeful that this important study will influence FSSAI’s decision as it considers an FOPL that is best for India.”
While delivering the keynote address, Mr Ashok Thakur, Director, National agricultural cooperative marketing federation of India Ltd. (NAFED) spoke in support of stringent health warning on unhealthy packaged foods that clearly specifies that there is high level of fats, sugar or salt in them. “The whole world is watching as India takes a decision on FOPL. We cannot afford to lose any more time and must choose what is best for the health of Indians. Experts, including top doctors have confirmed that clear warning labels will be the best possible measure to guide consumers and protect them from making harmful food choices.”
The food and beverage industry in India is one of the world’s largest with a sales volume of 34 million tons. Studies have shown that in Indian households – both urban and rural, 53% of children consume salted packaged food such as chips and instant noodles, 56% consume sweet packaged food such as chocolates and ice cream and 49% children consume sugar-sweetened packaged beverages at an average of over twice a week. Experts have raised alarm that such an unhealthy diet is responsible for more deaths worldwide than any other risk factor, and is a leading cause of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Representatives of the food industry present at the event, fully recognised the need for such measures and affirmed their commitment towards healthy food. Mr Ashish Bhati National general secretary of Bhartiya Vyapar Manch said, “World over the food industry is taking steps to ensure that their products are safe and healthy for the consumers. If the government decides to adopt warning labels, we are prepared to go along with that decision. Studies have indicated that reformulation to make food and beverages healthier does not impact profit nor does it lead to job losses.”
His views were reiterated by Mr Rohit Mohan, Managing Director , Essar Bakery,, who hailed the show of commitment from industry. “It is a win-win situation for the industry. The packaged food industry which is growing at a record pace in India, is ready to play a proactive role in building a healthier food system for our country. This will also improve our product acceptance in foreign markets and increase our export volume. But above all it will secure the health and well being of our future market.”
Speaking from her experience in countries such as Chile, Brazile, Mexico and Argentina, Vandana Shah, Regional Director, Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI) said, “India has the opportunity to introduce what is one of the most effective double duty action – an effective FOPL geared towards improvement of public health. Warning labels are the most effective FOP labelling system to date. They work by helping consumers identify unhealthy products in a quick and simple way and by discouraging them to buy. In Chile for example, the ‘high in’ black octagon shaped warning labels have resulted in a sharp drop in purchase of sugary drinks.”
The consultation was organised by People’s Initiative for Participatory Action on Food Labelling (PIPAL). PIPAL is a nation-wide network of civil society, parent groups and consumer groups that is demanding urgent policy action on FOPL to safeguard the health and nutrition rights of children.