The government should issue a ‘warning’ label on packaged junk food instead of health star ratings as they are misleading and doing more harm to customers than good, health experts said on Wednesday.
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 food through ‘warning’ labels, public health experts gathered at the National Conclave on Sustainable Food Systems, organized by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in Nimli, Rajasthan, said.
“Health star ratings are designed by the powerful food industry to mislead the consumer. By pushing these, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) will give license to glorify junk foods, which is the opposite of what should be done,” Sunita Narain, director general, CSE, said while leading the expert deliberation on the need for front-of-pack warning labels on ultra-processed junk foods.
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.
Front-of-pack labelling on packaged foods was first recommended by an FSSAI-led committee formed in 2013. CSE was part of this committee. FSSAI then came up with a draft regulation in 2018, which had strict threshold limits to know unhealthy levels based on those developed by the WHO for countries like India in the South-East Asia Region.
Due to industry pressure, FSSAI came up with another draft in 2019. The food industry was still not pleased and this draft was repealed. From January-June 2021, stakeholder consultations were held on the labelling design to be adopted, thresholds to be made applicable and nutrients to be displayed. CSE has documented all delays and dilutions until June 2021, the organisation alleged in a statement.
The latest consultation took place in February, during which it was made clear that FSSAI plans to go ahead with the ‘Health Star Rating’.
“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,” said Khurana, who was part of these consultations, adding that all this while, FSSAI has been insensitive to the information needs of the consumer .
He alleged 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.
Health star ratings are depicted based on an algorithm at the back-end, which is not known to consumers, CSE said, adding that it is only adopted voluntarily in a few countries such as Australia and New Zealand and only some food products carry it.
“It has been rejected in several other countries as it can mislead the consumer and be easily manipulated by the industry,” the CSE said.
The proven best practice in front-of-pack labelling is nutrient specific ‘warning’ labels, experts said.
They have been simple and effective in discouraging junk food consumption. Several Latin American countries, Canada and Israel have already adopted warning labels. 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.