On 30 June, a motley crew of around 35 food industry officials and consumer representatives found themselves in a virtual huddle with Arun Singhal. Singhal is the chief executive officer (CEO) of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). The meeting was meant to help figure out how best to issue warning labels for high fat, sugar, and salt (HFSS) content on pre-packaged food items such as sweets, snacks, and beverages.
According to the minutes of this meeting, analysed by The Ken, around 27 companies—including prominent packaged food conglomerates like Coca Cola, ITC Foods, Pepsico, Haldirams, all with considerable skin in the game—had a seat at the high table for negotiations. Singhal was hard selling a ‘Health Star Ratings’ model as an option. “Suppose my son was presented with two chocolate bars—one with nuts and dry fruit and the other without, I would ask him to eat the former. Because that would also provide him with some nutrition,” he told the attendees.
The star ratings model is an algorithm that rates the overall nutrition profile of packed foods and assigns them with 0.5 to 5 stars. The message is—‘the more the stars, the healthier the choice.’
Consumer advocacy groups, however, were not impressed. “You cannot just add the good ingredients in the bad and convert it into a good product. It continues to remain bad.” said Ashim Sanyal, chief operating officer (COO) of Voluntary Organisation in Interest of Consumer Education, or VOICE. Sanyal is also a member of the stakeholders’ committee that met with Singhal.
For example, The Ken found that a fruit and nut milk chocolate bar from a popular brand had nearly as much sugar—49 grams per 100 grams—as a plain milk chocolate bar—57g per 100g—from the same brand. This is 8X to 10X higher than the prescribed FSSAI threshold of 6g of sugar per 100g in a packaged food item.
This push and pull over the star ratings model is but a taste of the stalemate hounding FSSAI, the packaged food industry, and the consumer representatives on the issue of front of the pack labels (FOPL). Since 2014, the FSSAI has formed multiple committees to study the issue, but draft regulations ended up heavily edited or junked, study reports hijacked. One report never saw the light of day.
Despite the food fights, FSSAI released the draft Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations in 2018. But that too faced strong opposition from the industry. The 2018 draft required that food manufacturers add a red highlight on the front of the pack for food that had fat, sugar, and salt content over the recommended limit.
FSSAI officially notified draft regulations on labelling in November 2020, but FOPL regulations found no mention in it. The body decided to delink it from labelling and look at it, instead, through the public health lens.