Packaged ‘bad’

Packaged foods in India must adhere to higher quality standards, for which the food regulator, FSSAI, must become more stringent

Packaged ‘bad’

I’m always amazed that junk food from global chains tastes better overseas than in India. Agree? I think you are nodding in assent. From chocolate to supposedly nourishing soups, the same brands available in the developed market have a stark nutritional difference and flavour. The chocolates in India seem saccharine sweet, the burger patties are more potato than meat, the cheese is of the poorest quality. The ordinary Indian may not even be aware of what he consumes but ask the well-heeled traveller, and the story is much the same.

We see from time-to-time, viral claims of India and other third-world nations receiving the worst class of products. These allegations have often been true and seldom refuted. The recent instances of Cadbudy Bournvita and Nestle Cerelac are much the same. Bournvita has lost its place as a “health drink” while a report from Swiss investigative organisation, Public Eye, suggests that Nestle’s baby food has added sugar in India, and other Asian, African, and Latin American countries. Do poorer nations not deserve the same quality as the first world?

If we say that India assumes the centre of economic action and growth in the world, why should our people have access to crap? In September 2022, Union Minister for Commerce and Industry, Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution and Textiles, Piyush Goyal, had said that even the poorest of Indian consumers deserve quality products. While certain food standards may have improved, a universal commitment to quality is missing. The domestic market as well as the international goods flooding our shelves, are not always up to the mark. Industry insiders often remark that while we reserve the highest quality products for exports, our own brethren may be consuming sub-par items. Those who are affluent and privileged pay more to eat the best — from organic vegetables and grains to grass-fed meat, from healthy snacks to preservative-free packaged foods — we dish out more for the assurance of quality; that which a commoner can’t.

Travelling to foreign shores not only opens up the mind but is also an eye-opener. The first world takes food standards extremely seriously; any deviation can attract strict action. In France and Belgium, for example, almost every packaged item has a clearly distinctive ‘nutri-score’ on the top of the pack — ‘A’ being most healthy, right through to ‘E’ being the least. Even what we’d consider premium quality can be categorised as ‘D’ or ‘E’ if it doesn’t conform to nutritional levels. Obviously, people still consume unhealthy food products but there’s no hoodwinking of the consumer there. It’s the same in Spain, Germany, and Portugal while Israel, Chile, and Brazil have laws nudging the packaging industry to adopt front of pack (FoP) labelling. Unfortunately, FoP labelling is still not a norm in India, though it was proposed almost a decade ago; a possible push-back from muscled packaged foods companies.

Meanwhile, products, including health supplements, continue to lead in making fake claims, showcase misleading advertising, and carry incredibly tough-to-decipher labelling. Snapdeal founder Kunal Bahl recently spoke about a domestic protein brand causing serious health issues. Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali was also rapped on the knuckles for falsely claiming that its herbal products could cure serious ailments.

A global study conducted by the University of Oxford released startling findings in 2019. After an analysis of 400,000 food and drink products, the study found that India had the most unhealthy packaged food in the world. The George Institute of Global Health ranked the UK topmost with the highest rating of 2.83, followed by the US (2.82) and Australia (2.81). Indian packaged foods, with the most elevated levels of saturated fat, sugar, and salt, came in last with a 2.27 rating.

Indian authorities have cracked down on those pushing false advertising and making inaccurate health claims. In a written reply to the Lok Sabha last year, the government admitted that almost one-fourth of the food samples tested by Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) between 2019-20 and 2021-22 didn’t fulfil the standard. As per the reply, 80,513 civil cases were started and 13,496 criminal cases were filed, while penalties worth Rs 163.5 Cr have been doled out. There have also been convictions in 51,599 civil cases and 1,957 criminal cases. But the regulator needs to do more.

FSSAI must be a tougher gatekeeper not only making ‘desi’ companies adhere to better standards but also ensuring that global ones don’t use us as a dumping ground. The recent dilution of FSSAI standards and nutritional thresholds have got to stop. Those companies that indulge in mislabelling, advertise misleading information, and sell products with dangerous or harmful ingredients, must pay a hefty price. Sub-standard international products are made in India and other third world nations, primarily to trim input costs and yet sell in markets where per capita income is lower. If quality benchmarks and the food regulator are lenient, then companies will continue to peddle junk to the Indian consumer. Therefore and most importantly, the officials at FSSAI must doggedly believe that every Indian deserves higher grade products. Even then, the actual work would have hardly been done. Without proper consumer education, many households will still keep opting for products without reading their nutritional attributes or deficiencies. This would be an excellent opportunity to make the consumers aware of what goes into that packet of instant noodles or health drink. Time for a ‘Jago Grahak Jago 2.0’ (wake up consumer 2.0) campaign perhaps?

The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal

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