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Front-of-package label (FOPL) warnings are a proven strategy for consumers

Jaipur – Experts unanimously hails that simple and easy to understand Front-of-package label (FOPL) warnings label on package food products would be the best suitable for Indian population as it has proven useful to all consumers’ categories regardless of their age, literacy proficiency or socio-economic strata.

More importantly it would act as an efficient tool to guide those consumers who are medically advised to reduce the intake of fat, sugar or salt in their diet, thereby encouraging them towards a healthy eating habit and India should not delay any more in introducing Front-of-package label (FOPL) warnings.

Front-of-package label (FOPL) warnings are a proven strategy for informing consumers of the hidden dangers in foods and beverages and every year increasing number of countries are willingly implementing it. India too for the past couple of years has been seriously considering implementing mandatory Front-of-package label (FOPL) warnings and is conducting stakeholder consultations in this regard. Any such regulation will form a major stepping stone for the country to target packaged foods that are high in salt, sugar, fat (HFSS), which is the main cause for the increasing number of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the country. However, from various news reports it has come sto light that some are showing a preference to opt for Health Star Rating (HSR) Label, which is a matter of concern given that the country has a huge number of poor, illiterate and vulnerable populations.

To help consumers make healthier choices, Australia and New Zealand had introduced the voluntary HSR system in 2014 that is quite similar to the energy rating label used on our electrical appliances. But recent studies shows that their system is highly flawed as unhealthy food products are still able to get a high score as the rating is based on the overall nutritional value, and any inclusion of healthy ingredients like fibre and protein to an otherwise unhealthy product could easily cancel out its unhealthy ingredients i.e. sugar, saturated fats and salt.

More importantly, the HSR system does not effectively assist the vulnerable consumers who need it the most. While HSR, including our own energy star label that was introduced in 2009, does help some middle to high-income consumers, it does a poor job with respect to  consumers of low socio-economic status . Only a fourth of Indian households are currently aware of BEE’s star labels. This suggests that this type of label requires consumers to be thoroughly educated about its meaning and use provided by Front-of-package label (FOPL) warnings.

These views emerged out of a webinar organised by CUTS International to hear to experts on the topic, share Australian country experience and lessons learnt, discuss challenges, and propose alternative solutions and an effective label that would be more suitable for our country and our consumers.

“The Health Star rating is already dead in the water. The algorithm is flawed in the combination of fat, salt and sugar.  The food industry brought this to us, we were suckered in. Perversely, very high sugar foods can get 4+ health stars.” – quoting these lines of the public health expert Grant Schofield who is also the Chief Health and Nutrition Advisor to Ministry of Education, New Zealand, George Cheriyan, Director, CUTS International in his opening address as the Moderator, cautioned the Indian regulators to move forward diligently while choosing an ideal label for packaged food products for consumers in India. He further said, simple and interpretive Front-of-package label (FOPL) warnings label is suitable for a country like India to aid consumer to choose between healthy and less healthy products.

Dr Alexandra Jones, Research Fellow, Food Policy and Law, The George Institute for Global Health, Australia, gave a detailed presentation of their country experience with HSR label and summarised what India can learn from it. She said consumer trust is still a problem in Australia.

Industry sits on the committee, which decided about HSR, which created distrust among consumers. She further said, HSR is only voluntary in Australia hence the industry use it selectively, on products which get high starts they display it and products which gets low starts they don’t display it.

Dr Pankaj Bhardwaj, Vice Dean (Research), AIIMS Jodhpur while highlighting the need for effective Front-of-package label (FOPL) warning labels from a health perspective cautioned that people with comorbidity and pre-existing Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) are more vulnerable and at higher risk of getting infected by the Covid 19 virus.

Saroja Sundaram, Executive Director, Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG), Chennai spoke about Front-of-package label (FOPL) warnings from a consumer perspective and reminded regulators how the existing detailed nutritional summary provided in the back of the product never served the purpose due to language barrier and consumer ignorance about its purpose. So she strongly advocated for a Front-of-package label (FOPL) warnings that is always simple and easily interpretable by a consumer thereby helping him to identify a unhealthy products.

Amit Khurana, Director, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi expressed how disheartening it is to see in spite of long eight years the country is still discussing about Front-of-package label (FOPL) warnings. He further voiced his displeasure at the way our regulators take up such pertinent issues and opined that regulators in this case are not strong as it should have been as often the consumers are left alone to deal with HFSS foods, especially when diabetes and hypertension has become a household phenomenon. One of the interesting observations made by him which would effectively sum up the very objective of this CUTS webinar is “All that is in English and all that are technical are often ignored by majority of consumers in India where every 100 km distance the local language change”.

Therefore an easy to understand warning label which could address the language and literacy barrier remains the only effective solution before the regulators for the larger interests of the consumers. The virtual webinar was attended by around 60 delegates from across the country and abroad, including health experts, representatives from national and international organisations, industry representatives, various state Food Safety Commissionerate, AIIMS, Indian Medical Association, academic and research Institutions from more than 14 states.

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