To help India fight the obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) epidemic, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has called for a law on front-of-pack labelling to inform consumers about unhealthy packaged junk foods, enabling them to make informed decisions about what they intake.

"Countries are working to find ways to nudge the consumers into healthy food choices and to contain the growing crisis of obesity and diet-related NCDs such as diabetes, hypertension and heart ailments. It is a crisis that increasingly impacts children and also worsens the Covid-19 symptoms," said Sunita Narain, Director General, CSE, and editor of 'Down To Earth' that carried the analysis.

Obesity (Representational Picture)Pxfuel

CSE first proposed in 2014

The analysis underlined how even after seven years, four committees and two draft regulations, India still does not have the much-needed front-of-pack labelling law to warn the consumers about the harmful levels of fat, salt and sugar hiding in ultra-processed junk foods.

"The CSE was part of the FSSAI-constituted committee that first proposed front-of-pack labelling in India in 2014. Ever since the packaged junk food industry is pushing hard to delay it and make it weak," said Amit Khurana, Director, food safety and toxins programme at the CSE, and the lead author of the analysis.

Also the part of the 2021 stakeholder consultations organised by the FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India), the authors have elaborated on how these consultations have not made meaningful progress and instead have opened possibilities for front-of-pack labelling options preferred by the industry.

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CSE studies in the past

The analysis clearly enumerates how the draft thresholds - limits above which a product could be marked unhealthy - proposed by the FSSAI-constituted working group have suited the packaged food industry, as they were much relaxed than those proposed by the FSSAI in its earlier labelling drafts of 2018 and 2019 as well as those adopted by countries with best practices. The proposed thresholds have now been put on hold after most consumer organisations opposed them.

This working group was formed to look into the issue of thresholds following a CSE study in December 2019, which said that most popular packaged junk foods have salt and fat content several times higher than the thresholds proposed by the FSSAI in its labelling drafts of 2018 and 2019. Therefore, they would have been marked 'red' as per the proposed law at that time.

"We also opposed the last-minute FSSAI proposal of including 'positive nutrients' in the label. We are certain that it will only give the industry a chance to claim its bad food as good food and mislead the consumer. These recent consultations were like one step forward and two steps backwards. We are far behind than where we were in 2018 and we do not know which way it will go," said Khurana.