India’s Food Industry Is Now Under Global Scanner, but It’s a Chance for Reform

The quality of packaged foods and how they are marketed is interrelated. Neither can be reformed in isolation.

5 min read

The month of April witnessed an extraordinary attention to food policy controversies featuring aggressively marketed food and beverage products.

It started with the government of India telling e-commerce platforms that drinks like Bourn Vita (a very high sugar and flavoured drink) cannot be categorised as 'health drinks'.

Then Nestlé came under fire for adding sugar to its product ‘Cerelac’ in India and other developing nations but not in the global north.

Then came the report from Singapore and Hong Kong on Indian spices containing higher amounts of ethylene oxide, a grade 1 cancer causing preservative.

And finally, the European Union's Food Safety Authority said that, over the last four years, it has found ethylene oxide in 527 products linked to India. The United States' Food and Drug Administration is also looking into it now.

Such revelations question the very effectiveness of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, and subsequent regulations, including those that impact advertising.

However, this is an opportunity to reform.


'Sugar Coating' with Clever Marketing

Let me explain the key underlying issues first.

The Public Eye and International Baby Food Action Network’s report, Sugar: For Nestlé, Not All Babies Are Equal, published earlier this month, highlighted the risk of adding additional sugar to baby foods and then intensively marketing it to poor countries.

Similarly, while Bourn Vita is not categorised as a health drink, it is aggressively marketed/advertised using clever communication such as 'Vitamin D Ki Taakat' shifted from the earlier 'Tayyari Jeet Ki'.

Several high sugar beverages like packaged 'Lassi' or 'Tru Fruit Drink' are aggressively advertised to cash on summer time.

Spices and other food products found with high amounts of ethylene oxide are aggressively advertised too.

These have negative consequences on people's health.

According to a World Health Organization report from 2022, food marketing mostly promotes unhealthy foods and negatively affects children's health, eating behaviours, and food-related attitudes and beliefs.

What we need to act on are both the quality and marketing.

FSSAI’s Inclination To Please the F&B Industry Is Concerning

However, what does not surprise me when it comes to food safety regulations in the country is that there have been a number of instances when the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has been questioned for conflicts of interest in policy development, its inclination to help the food industry, or even facilitating the food industry positions.

In 2019, Coca Cola managing to infiltrate into the FSSAI through its allies allegedly led to postponing the decision to put a red label on unhealthy food products, the New York Times had reported at the time.

In 2018, the FSSAI granted four baby food corporations exemption while implementing a law that banned promotion of all baby foods under the age of two years.

In the making of a policy on 'front of the pack labelling' of unhealthy foods, the FSSAI sided with the industry, even at the cost of violating the process.

I have also heard food safety officers say that “we have to take care of the concerns or interests” of the food industry.

Is this partnership approach of the FSSAI to blame for inadequate food quality? Perhaps, yes.

Professor K Srinath Reddy, a renowned public health expert, writing for Hindustan Times recently, said that the FSSAI "must draw upon the expertise of other scientists who have no conflicts of interest."

He added,

"We must guard against agency capture through positioning of the industry’s preferred pliable persons in the agency’s leadership positions or heavily loading them into technical advisory committees that guide the agency."

'Health is Not the Food Industry’s Concern, but It Should Be Yours'

Most of the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company food products are ultra-processed and inherently unhealthy because of their nutrient contents being high in sugars/salt, fats (HFSS), cosmetic additives, colours, and flavours.

It's the marketing of these products that makes people want to buy them and the consumption goes up.

According to a recent WHO report, the consumption of unhealthy food products in India is rising by about 13 percent annually.

Sugar-sweetened beverages, chocolates, salty snacks, breakfast cereals, and dairy products are the most commonly marketed. Their advertisements are usually misleading.

There is a plethora of scientific evidence that the rising consumption of ultra-processed food products is associated with obesity, diabetes, and several other non-communicable diseases.

A recent study in the British Medical Journal concluded, "Greater exposure to ultra-processed food was associated with a higher risk of adverse health outcomes, especially cardiometabolic, common mental disorder, and mortality outcomes."

"These findings provide a rationale to develop and evaluate the effectiveness of using population based and public health measures to target and reduce dietary exposure to ultra-processed foods for improved human health.”
Study authors

Similarly, daily consumption of spices and other packaged products raises the risk of cancer among populations if laden with ethylene oxide.

The situation is alarming and we cannot rely on knee jerk answers.

The food industry usually argues that it is about the choice of the people. What it does not reflect in this view is that the food industry’s marketing wants you to replace your cultural dietary patterns.

Your everyday breakfast, lunch, and dinner are under attack from the industrial food/beverage products.

One handy example is Kellogg’s cereal and muesli targeting the breakfast habits of children and adults.

The industry is not shy about it and goes all the way to make profits. People’s health is not their concern.

What Policy Measures are Needed?

There are policy measures that can positively make a change in terms of the consumption of these products – restriction in advertisements of HFSS foods, a warning label on the front of the food pack, and a definition and criteria of 'healthy food' as well as HFSS.

As of now, most advertisements of packaged food products are misleading, if we go by the definition of the Consumer Protection Act.

Last year, an analysis by public health experts in The Lancet revealed that our policies are unable to restrict the advertisement of unhealthy food products, even as both the FSS Act 2006 and Consumer Protection Act 2019 say no to ‘misleading advertisements’.

The study concluded that a robust regulatory framework is needed to protect children from HFSS food marketing.

India’s very own National Multi-Sector Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Common Non-Communicable Diseases ( 2017-2022) reflects that there is acceptance and agreement for both these policies – restriction and addition of warning labels.

We need to have a strong surveillance system that checks the quality and recalls any products found to be crossing the limits of harmful ingredients.

Why it is being delayed then? This is a question for the Government of India.

India needs a policy on prevention of conflicts of interest in food/nutrition space. It cannot be left to market forces or trade as the health of the people needs priority protection.

The government or the regulators need not partner with the food industry, but the solution lies in transparent “interaction” with them for implementing various regulations. There is no logic or scientific justification of having the food industry sitting on the same table as the policymakers to develop the contents of regulation.

India could learn a lesson from Israel, who developed the criteria for the positive front-of-package labeling (FOPL) by an independent scientific committee.

Or India could consider an overarching legal framework like the one the US has recently introduced a Bill that would require warning labels on foods and beverages that are high in nutrients of concern, and would restrict junk food advertising to children.

The recent Supreme Court judgement on misleading advertisements of FMCG companies also underlines the need for urgent action. If India does not act now, we will probably miss a generation of action.

(Dr Arun Gupta is a paediatrician, Central Coordinator of Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI), Convener of the Nutrition Advocacy for Public Interest (NAPi), and former member of the Prime Minister’s Council on India’s Nutrition Challenges. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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