FSSAI’s star ratings for food products may mislead consumers: experts

Experts say IIM-Ahmedabad study is flawed in ‘design and interpretation’

Published - May 05, 2022 03:01 am IST - NEW DELHI

Nutrition and calorie facts label on the side of a cereal box. Representational image

Nutrition and calorie facts label on the side of a cereal box. Representational image | Photo Credit: AP

The nutrition labelling system for food packets recommended by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) will not only fail to enable consumers to make healthy choices but also mislead them about their nutritional value, warned experts who have called for the need to “insulate” policy making from the influence of the food industry.

In a meeting in February, the FSSAI decided that when it prepares its draft regulations for a Front of Package Labelling (FoPL) system, it will propose the health star rating system, which rates the overall nutritional profile of packaged food and assigns it a rating from half a star to five stars. The decision was based on an Indian Institute of Management (IIM)-Ahmedabad study commissioned by the FSSAI. The move has upset public health experts who favour the warning label system such as a black-and-white stop symbol used in Chile or the red warning symbol in Israel for each of the three ingredients — salt, sugar and fat.

“Warning signs educate consumers about harmful ingredients present in a food product and help them make healthy choices. They also give a repetitive educational message so that even for domestic cooking or buying street food that warning bell goes off. This educational component of a properly constructed warning system is missing in the health star[s] system, which are like a movie rating system and are of no use,” said K. Srinath Reddy, president, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), at a press conference.

Professor Reddy urged that the FSSAI must “reconsider” its decision.

He also said that the system being proposed by the food regulator was “devious” as it misleads consumers about a product’s nutrition profile. Under the health star rating system, an algorithm assigns a product a certain number of stars based on “positive” components (fibre, protein, and fruit, vegetable, nut and legume content) balanced against other components (energy, sugars, sodium, and saturated fat). Experts argue that this is divorced from science as the presence of high quantities of sugar can’t be offset by the so-called positive ingredients.

Dr. Reddy was launching a position statement endorsed by 21 organisations, including the Centre for Science and Environment, Consumer Voice, Cuts International, Indian Academy of Paediatrics, and the PHFI, among others.

In the statement, the 21 organisations have demanded that warning labels should be made mandatory when the draft regulation is made public for stakeholder consultations; that “decisions on public health issues should be made without any conflicts of interest even at a consultative level”; and that while interactions with the food industry may happen on different platforms, they should not be part of meetings held to take policy decisions.

In the February meeting, out of the total 26 external participants, there were 17 representatives from the industry, including from Dabur, Nestle, Hindustan Unilever Limited and PepsiCo.

Dr. Reddy also said that the IIM-Ahmedabad based study on which FSSAI had based its decision was flawed in “design and interpretation” and should not form the basis of policy making

Ashim Sanyal of Consumer Voice said that the health star rating system will defeat the seven-year-long fight for safeguarding consumer interests and helping them make informed decisions to exercise their right to healthy choices.

The FoPL issue is being discussed by the regulator since 2014, when it first set up an expert committee to prescribe a suitable format following a Delhi High Court order which was hearing a public interest petition seeking a ban on the sale of junk food in and around schools.

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