The waiting room is always full, and the phone does not stop ringing in Pawan Agarwal’s office. On the morning of 8 May, the CEO of the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India (FSSAI) published a report on the subject of high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) on its website. By evening, journalists had filed stories anticipating which recommendations the authority would act upon.
The 11-member group of experts had identified that the three ingredients significantly increased the risk of chronic diseases—diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular, which lead to half of all deaths in India. The group unequivocally recommended that the FSSAI frame a guideline to limit the three ‘offenders’, impose an additional tax on ultra-processed food products and ensure better labelling of food products.
By the next day, the news had induced anxiety in every food manufacturer.
Since then, processed food manufacturers, restaurant owners and street food vendors have been asking Agarwal one question—How does the regulator intend to act upon the report’s recommendations?
Agarwal now has an answer. “Like climate change commitments that require every country to reduce their carbon emissions without any legal mandate, we will ask food manufacturers for 30% salt reduction, in say three years; 10% a year,” said Agarwal.
What about sugar and fats?
“One step at a time,” added Agarwal.
Globally, public health experts have identified the harmful effects of what the industry refers to as HFSS food. And the Western governments have responded with nudges—both for the industry and the consumer to supply and demand food good for health. The problem with India is that the consumer is not yet demanding nutritious food, she is asking for food that is cheap and flavourful instead. Caught between a consumer, who wants inexpensive taste and a regulator pushing for health, food producers must tackle this challenge slowly but surely.
As CEO of India’s food regulator, Agarwal is readying for a difficult journey. No law currently prohibits anyone from serving the food that the served want to eat. While it mulls on the report, looking for ways to regulate the estimated Rs 3,00,000 crore ($48 billion) organised food business and an unaccounted market catered to by street food vendors, the FSSAI has to be a change agent. Because it’s simply not in the nature of these businesses to get empathetic to consumers’ health.
The talk therapy
Since the beginning of the year, the FSSAI has been conducting meetings with the industry, trying to understand what they can do to reduce fat, salt and sugar.