INDIA – Public health experts have counselled the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to issue a ‘warning’ label on packaged junk foods instead of health star ratings as they are misleading and doing more harm than good to customers.

Health star rating is a labelling system that grades packaged foods on the scale of one to five stars.

“If the government is serious about the epidemic of obesity and non-communicable diseases, the consumer needs to be cautioned about junk foods through ‘warning’ labels,” said the public health experts gathered at the National Conclave on Sustainable Food Systems’, organized by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in Nimli, Rajasthan.

The deliberations included about 50 experts from across the country, including Amit Khurana, Programme Director, Sustainable Food Systems, CSE; George Cheriyan, Director, CUTS International, Rajasthan; Vandana Prasad, Community Pediatrician, Public Health Resource Network, Delhi; and Sanjay Pandey, Lead Advisor, Global Health Advocacy Incubator, India.

According to the scientists, health star ratings are designed by the food industry to mislead the consumer.  

Sunita Narain, Director General, CSE, noted while leading the experts’ deliberation on the Need for front-of-pack warning labels on ultra-processed junk foods’, that by pushing the star ratings, the FSSAI will give license to glorify junk foods, which is the opposite of what should be done.

Front-of-pack labelling on packaged foods was first recommended by an the FSSAI-led committee formed in 2013. The Centre for Science and Environment was part of this committee.

FSSAI then came up with a draft regulation in 2018, which had strict thresholds limits to know unhealthy levels based on those developed by the WHO for countries like India in the South-East Asia Region.

Having faced pressure from the industry, FSSAI came up with another draft in 2019 which was again rejected.

From January-June 2021, stakeholder consultations were held on the labelling design to be adopted, thresholds to made applicable and nutrients to be displayed.

The latest consultation took place in February during which it was made clear that FSSAI plans to go ahead with the ‘Health Star Rating’.

Labelling system

Khurana, who was part of these consultations, said the sole objective of the stakeholder consultations, which were heavily dominated by the packaged food industry, was to come up with a labelling system, which is industry-friendly.

He added that all this while, FSSAI has been insensitive to the information needs of the consumer and implied that the statutory body also ignored the global best practices and evidence around it.

“Instead, in an orchestrated way, through the scientific panel and commissioned studies, it is now getting ready to adopt a labelling system which is considered least effective and rejected across the world,” he said.

CSE enlightened that Health star ratings are depicted based on an algorithm at the back-end, which is not known to consumers, adding that it is only adopted voluntarily in few countries such as Australia and New Zealand and only some food products carry it.

The centre informed that it has previously been rejected in several other countries as it can mislead the consumer and be easily manipulated by the industry.

Experts added their voice to this saying that the proven best practice in front-of-pack labelling is nutrient specific ‘warning’ labels, which they claim has been simple and effective in discouraging junk food consumption.

Several Latin American countries, Canada and Israel have already adopted warning labels while many other countries are considering them. Among them, the best known are symbol-based warning labels such as that of Israel.

These will be most suitable for India, as it would transcend the literature and language barriers, the CSE said.

“We have submitted our concerns to FSSAI. It can’t allow a system that will effectively nudge the consumer to make unhealthy choices. It will mislead the consumer because of its design, algorithm and inclusion of positive nutrients in the calculation. It can’t allow relaxed limits and voluntary adoption,” Narain said.

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