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Coding and Marking Industry takes on front-of-the-pack labeling norms proposed by FSSAI
Saturday, 03 December, 2022, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Shiva Kabra
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has recently issued a draft notification for front-of-package labeling that proposes the introduction of star ratings on packaged food items to educate consumers about the product's nutritional value.

The newly made public draft of the amended Food Safety and Standards (Labelling & Display) Regulations, 2020, requires packaged food to display the prescribed format by assigning a rating from 1/2 star (least healthy) to five stars (most beneficial). The stars assigned to a product "shall be displayed near the name or brand name of the product on the front of the pack," says the draft notification.

This front-of-the-pack labeling norm proposed by FSSAI has stirred up quite a debate in many industry circles, and everybody has a different take on it. Let us understand this in further detail:

What is FOPNL?
FOPNL or front-of-pack nutritional labeling is a form of additional easy-to-understand nutritional information that needs to be displayed on the front of a packaged food. This is to help customers make an informed decision regarding how healthy or unhealthy a food product is before buying a food packet. Also, it is more easily accessible for consumers than the existing back or side labels. 

It also proposes introducing the concept of five-star ratings or color codes to provide nutritional information about the product to the customers, which can be easily understood and deciphered. Even a layman who needs help understanding the technicalities of the nutritional information label printed on the back or side of the pack can get a quick and clear idea of how healthy or unhealthy the food is just by looking at the FOPNL. Eg: a 5-star rating may mean healthy, or a red code may mean unhealthy. It is single-glance information for straightforward interpretation.

Why is this being proposed?
We all know that ingredients such as excess salt, sugars, and fats lead to several diseases, such as obesity, heart disease, hypertension, strokes, cancers, and many other illnesses that increase morbidity and mortality. The leading cause is junk and unhealthy food; the main concern is children and teenagers with easy access to these products. The FOPNL aims to provide information on excess harmful nutrients like fat, salt, and sugar displayed prominently on the food packets to ensure that the consumer can make informed choices about what they eat and to nudge the consumer towards making healthy eating choices. It will not require any expertise in the field of nutrition and will save time and effort for the consumer.

So why is there opposition to this move? It has been argued that these new norms hugely favour multinational companies and food giants while being detrimental to small and medium-scale enterprises, especially in the unorganized food space, which forms a vast majority of the packaged food industry. Traditional foods such as pickles, papads, chutneys, snacks and sweets, and many more, which contain salts, sugars, and fats used for taste, preservation, and texture, can fall under unhealthy foods. This can severely impact the business of these products and can, directly and indirectly, affect the livelihood of millions of people involved in this sector.

It is estimated that the MSME packaged food industry accounts for 32% of the total food market. A large chunk of this is concentrated in tier 2 and tier 3 cities and even small villages. They all will be affected adversely.

Also, it has been argued that it will open doors for international food giants with financial and technical means to make minor changes to their products. This can automatically qualify them to be labeled as healthy and acquire a sizeable chunk of the packaged food market.

This is likely to result in the loss of local jobs, loss of revenue, loss to farmers, increase in unemployment, and many other problems. At the same time, even for the consumer buying these foreign products, there will be an increase in cost, affecting their monthly budget.

Moreover, a star rating or a red flag or code is not a scientific measure; hence, it is tough to ascertain on what basis the star rating will be given. Will it be based on the inclusion of high sugar, high salt, trans fats, saturated fats? Also, an increased rating may just be awarded because the company puts in a small amount of the so-called healthy stuff such as nuts, oats, etc. Hence there is a lot of wiggle room for manipulation and malpractice.

There is no foolproof or proven method to ascertain whether FOPNL will achieve the objective it has set out to accomplish. There are loopholes, there are doubts, and there are genuine concerns. This jury is still out, and only time will tell.

(The author is joint managing director at Control Print Limited)
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