Expert panel will study star rating: FSSAI CEO

It is unrealistic to expect that front-of-package labelling will be mandatory from day one, says Arun Singhal

Updated - May 06, 2022 10:35 am IST

Published - May 05, 2022 08:51 pm IST

 Arun Singhal, CEO, FSSAI. Photo: Special Arrangement

Arun Singhal, CEO, FSSAI. Photo: Special Arrangement

Food regulator the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) will soon make public its draft regulations for front-of-package labelling (FOPL) that recommend a health star rating (HSR) system that public health experts and consumer rights organisations have criticised as ineffective and misleading. In an interview with The Hindu, FSSAI CEO Arun Singhal responds to these concerns.

What is your response to criticism from public health experts who say that there is no evidence to show that health star rating system being proposed by the FSSAI for front-of-package labelling is effective, and that warning systems used by Chile have shown to dissuade consumers from buying unhealthy products?

We had six rounds of stakeholder consultations with consumer organisations as well as the industry following which there was consensus on everything except the exact format of the FOPL. So, it was decided that we will go to consumers for a survey that will be conducted by a reputed organisation like an IIM and we will follow whatever recommendations come from the survey. IIM-Ahmedabad conducted a survey of 20,500 people. It is an extremely prestigious institution. They have recommended the health star rating system. I have not seen any valid, sound reason to throw away their recommendations.

We will come out with draft regulations, and everyone will have an opportunity to give comments and a scientific panel will examine them.

There can be no comparison of the effectiveness of two FOPLs in the same population, because there is one FOPL in a country. Surveys in the U.K. have shown multiple traffic light system is the best, or there are surveys in Europe that say that nutri score is the best, or in Australia which say that HSR is the best.

Many global experts have raised questions about the design and interpretation used in the IIM-Ahmedabad study on whose basis the FSSAI has taken a decision to propose health star rating. Studies conducted by the AIIMS and the IIPS also say consumers prefer warning labels.

Whatever IIM-Ahmedabad publishes will be peer reviewed. Their survey is also the largest in the world with a sample size of 20,500. The second biggest survey has 12,800 samples. We expect that when stakeholders’ comments are invited, people will cite other studies and the scientific panel will look at their merit. We asked for a copy of the AIIMS study, but haven’t received it yet. But that study has several limitations. It doesn’t adequately seek responses from those with poor literacy levels as 70% of the population surveyed is intermediate pass (passed Class XII) or above and more than 70% of the respondents are also from urban areas simply because the institutions that participated were located in cities.

Why is the FSSAI in favour of voluntary adoption of FOPLs by the food industry instead of making them mandatory?

It is unrealistic to expect that the FOPL will be mandatory from day one. Chile, whose example is cited often, took 10 years to implement the law — it started framing the law in 2006, which was ready in 2012 and they were unable to implement it till 2016 and over a period of time improved permissible thresholds (for sugar, salt and fat). In the U.K., the FOPL has been voluntary from 2005. Only in 10 countries have they been made mandatory and none of them are model democracies. In no country in the world can the implementation happen instantaneously. We can have an initial voluntary period and then move towards improving the thresholds and making the FOPL mandatory.

Many have also asked why the food industry is present at various FSSAI meetings held on policy matters. Shouldn’t the food regulator maintain an arm’s length distance from the industry it is supposed to watch over?

We will consult both the industry and the consumers. After all, it is the industry that has to implement the regulations and if we don’t involve them in the decision-making process then it is a non-inclusive way of doing things.

We consult everyone and then take our own decisions. It is a misrepresentation of facts to say that a stakeholder consultation is where policy decisions are taken. The decision-making process is defined in our Act — the scientific panel will make a proposal and then the scientific committee and the FSSAI will look at those, followed by the Health Ministry and ultimately it is tabled before Parliament.

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