Food firms, activists at war over junk food

Last Updated: Thu, Sep 26, 2013 20:47 hrs

Even as the Food Safety & Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) attempts to put in place a final set of guidelines on healthy food in educational institutions, top packaged food & beverage companies and food safety activists are at loggerheads over the issue.

Companies such as Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL), Nestle, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Dabur, part of the All India Food Processors’ Association (AIFPA), argue there is nothing such as junk food. “You either have something that is of low nutritional value or high nutritional value. There has to be a scientific basis to what constitutes junk food,” said M A Tejani, president, AIFPA.

AIFPA and the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI) have two members each on the 14-member expert committee that would give its recommendations to FSSAI before the latter formulates a set of guidelines on the issue by December. The four AIFPA and NRAI members boycotted the expert committee meeting held in New Delhi on Wednesday.

  • The Centre for Science & Environment (CSE) says AIFPA’s argument is intended to skirt the core issue of guidelines on healthy food for children
  • According to CSE, food safety and labelling standards in India are not adequate which hampers the circulation of healthy food

The Centre for Science & Environment (CSE) says AIFPA’s argument is frivolous and intended to skirt the core issue of guidelines or benchmarks on healthy food for children. “There are a number of countries around the world that prescribe guidelines pertaining to the wholesomeness and nutrition of food to children. There is certainly a need for a proper set of guidelines, as well as a national policy pertaining to food targeted at children here,” said CSE Director Sunita Narain, a member of the committee that would present its recommendations to FSSAI.

CSE says the move by the food safety regulator to have a defined set of guidelines is important, as the food safety and labelling standards in India aren’t adequate. The draft guidelines prescribed by FSSAI last month categorise food items commonly sold and consumed in schools under segments such as junk food, street food, nutritional food and unhealthy food. The move, according to those in the know, is aimed at helping children inculcate good eating habits.

Last year, after a two-month study, CSE had said fast food and snacks such as PepsiCo’s Lays and Haldiram’s Aloo Bhujiya contained dangerous levels of trans-fat and salt. Bejon Misra, a consumer policy expert and founder of Consumer Online Foundation, says food companies should indicate the proportion of salt, sugar and fat in food items. “More often than not, this is unclear on account of poor labelling standards that prevail here,” he says.

Executives at Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, however, say they are already part of an eight-member club of companies in India that has pledged to promote healthy dietary habits among children. The group, formed three years ago, also includes HUL, Nestle, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Mars and Cadbury. These firms have decided not to advertise to children below 12 years and desist from commercial communication of their food & beverage products in primary schools, except for products that fulfill specific nutrition criteria or those requested by or agreed to by school administrators.

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