16 December 2015 | Other | By Milind Kokje & Narayan Kulkarni
<p>Simple and implementable guidelines need to be developed for ensuring that claims are made on a fair and accurate basis and this can be achieved by moving to Digitization</p>
Labels on the consumable products play a crucial role since it is one of the most important and direct means of communicating product information to buyers by manufacturers or sellers. It is one of the primary means by which consumers differentiate between individual foods and brands to make informed purchasing choices. A label is expected to serve some important functions like basic product information, health safety and nutrition information, storage conditions, best before, safe handling and specific info for special dietary products.
Giving so much information are likely to create two opposite effects on buyers. For some it is a lot of help to choose a specific product. For many others there is a lot of clutter on a small label and this can confuse them. If some health claims are made on the labels chances are of more confusion in the mind of consumers. According to a Nielsen survey abroad, nearly 59% of consumers have a hard time understanding nutrition label. Still, no one can deny the necessity of the labels with full required information.
“Clutter is a systemic problem in all product labelling and as regards relatively newly regulated foods like NuFFoods, such clutter is bound to only increase,” said Dr Shatadru Sengupta, Governing Board Member, Protein Foods & Nutrition Development Association of India (PFNDAI).
In the new Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 the issues of packaging and labelling have been handled and Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and labelling) Regulations, 2011 were formulated. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) amended the regulations through a notification on February 17, 2015. This is the third amendment being
made by the agency. The first two amendments were made on June 7 and 27, 2013.
In the third amendment the changes have been made in labelling of nutritional content in foods in sub regulation 43 of regulation 2.4.5 (Under Specific Labelling Requirements of other products) and two additional regulations have been added namely sub-regulation 48 and 49. These changes will be effective once they are published in the official gazette and will be called the Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and labelling) Amendment Regulations, 2015.
According to Food Safety Helpline. com, earlier in sub-regulation 43 only packages of biscuits, breads and cakes were required to declare Oligofructose (dietary fiber) —gm/100 gm on the label. However, in the new Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labelling) Amendment Regulations, 2015 the number of food products that have to mention Oligo fructose on its label has increased. The Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labelling) Amendment Regulation, 2015 has also specified with addition of sub – regulation 48 and 49 the names of additional nutrient content that needs to be mentioned on label declarations.
Sharing his views on claims and labeling, Dr SD Kulkarni, Centre of Excellence on Soybean Processing and Utilisation, Central Institute of Agricultural Engineering (CIAE) Bhopal said, “It is a really a serious issue in nutritional, nutraceuticals and functional foods and dietary supplements (NuFFooDS) space these days. The innocent consumer believes in whatever has been put forth as a claim through the label (attractive) and many times get cheated. These being speciality products are relatively much costlier compared with other food products. Otherwise also consumers are cheated by misguiding indications.”
“There are many different foods in NuFFooDS category, some will be coming in the format similar to medicine such as tablets and capsules, whereas some will look very much like ordinary foods. So to have a uniform labelling policy will be very difficult,” said Dr JS Pai, Executive Director, Protein Foods & Nutrition Development Association of India (PFNDAI). He noted that even the labelling and claims guidelines for ordinary foods are yet to be finalised. Let us hope that the authority gives sufficient time to changeover as there is not just the printing that will be different but some additional inputs will be needed before a new layout can be prepared.
Dr Pai said that as per the current rules, any claim needs to be justified with science-based evidence. In future it may continue but will be simpler if the guidelines come up with some claims that could be made similar to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorised claims in the US.Some chromatographic methods are available which are being used in Germany to evaluate some botanical extracts. Similar methods could be used. Otherwise, every time the claim will have to go through an approval process similar to one which was struck down.
For nutrient content claims, Dr Pai said “It is easier and has been rationalised so when a product claims that it has reduced sugar or salt, consumer will know exactly how much is reduced or when it states it is rich in protein or vitamin, consumers get an idea about its amount.”
Recalling a recent incident DrKulkarni observed, “It has come to the notice that the tur (Pigeon pea) dal which was available at Rs 150/kg in open market through kirana (grocery) shops, one leading store put the MRP tag of Rs 200 and advertised for a discount of Rs 15 per kg (ignoring very conveniently the fact that the store was charging Rs 35/kg extra(@ Rs 185/kg).The picture of NuFFooDS sector can be very conveniently/easily imagined if we look at it from the point of view of consumer protection. Effect on consumer health and safety is another issue.”
Dr Kulkarni further said “We certainly need to have clear cut guidelinesforputting claims on the labels. It is generally seen that by the time law enforcement agencies and statutory bodies reach the stage of perfect understanding of the problem, some in the sector mint billions of rupees/$ as the case may be. The developing world is not equipped with the facilities to prove immediately their view point and therefore, mainly have to believe what the firms say probably on the basis of their credentials. Now a days we find that the size of the company has no relation with the ethics and business integrity. Food sector, under these situations becomes more vulnerable and ultimate sufferer is the consumer on both the accounts - money and health.”
Dr Sengupta observed “As regards claims in respect of NuFFooDS, there is some common ground between food law (the FSS Act and related regulations, both existing and proposed) and consumer protection law (the Consumer Protection Act, 1986) as regards the reasonableness or otherwise of claims. The consumer protection law aforesaid is a self-contained code as regards remedies against false or misleading claims. It is suggested that as regards claims, the proposed food law could either refer
to the consumer protection law to provide relief against false and misleading claims, or alternately, reproduce the provisions of the consumer protection law in the food law so as to protect the public adequately against false and misleading claims.”
Whether a NuFFooDS claim is fair and reasonable or is accurate and not misleading is a matter of fact that changes on a case-to-case basis. It is recommended that objective but simple and implementable guidelines be developed for ensuring that claims are made on a fair and accurate basis, but backed by science.
It is further recommended that to achieve the a foresaid, it would be well within the Indian regulator’s rights to look to and be inspired by NuFFooDS claim related regulatory practices in use overseas, in view of the explicit provisions of Section 18(2)(a) (ii) of the FSS Act, which explicitly requires the Food Authority, while it frames regulations or specifies standards under the FSS Act, to take into account international standards and practices, where international standards or practices exist or are in the process of being formulated.
Explaining the difference in the definitions of food and drugs, Prabodh Halde, President, AFST Mumbai and Head, Technical Regulatory, Marico Ltd., said it was needed to be noted that no food could claim the product property like drug. These are and will be always limitation of food claim. So even we have scientific supporting, food cannot claim drug properties, he added.
Dr Sengupta, pointed out that the existing regulations for labelling of foods in general are already cumbersome and require a lot of space (on the label) and effort to ensure compliance. To address the issue of clutter, in a country like India - a well-penetrated market in terms of mobiles, smartphones and mobile internet connectivity, it is recommended that the vast bulk of the disclosures in the nature of claims and labelling be put up on a website of themanufacturer, and the URL or link to be printed on the label.
Any person desirous of checking information need only visit the link. Such visiting could be done in the shop selling the food item or even on the road outside or abutting the shop selling the food item, to help a potential customer/consumer to make a decision on whether to buy the product.
Elaborating on this he said that one need not look very far for inspiration. A leaf could be taken from the Central Government’s own recent approach to eliminate all printed Gazette notifications and to require members of the public to visit the Government’s website instead, being http://www. egazette.nic.in/ It is therefore in public interest the information should be made available through click of a button. “It is anticipated that the above steps will go a long way to achieve practical and protective regulation in the emerging area of claims and labelling of NuFFooDS,” he concluded.
Halde pointed out, “New labelling and claim guidelines are under draft stage and FSSAI is working on this. These documents will give more clar
What ity on various definitions and efficacy part on claims. But we need to wait for final documents.”
According to a 2012 news report, out of a total of 80 samples of various products collected by the food department based on complaints since the coming into force of the FSS Act, 2006, nearly half of them were found to be misbranded. In the same year, Delhi-based NGO, Centre for Science and Environment, had alleged that leading food manufacturers were guilty of "large scale misbranding and misinformation" by claiming that their food contained zero trans-fats even though tests showed that they have heavy doses of it.
Now we see many foreign companies involved in NuFFooDS sector find their ease of business in developing countries such as India because of liberal approach in putting forward the claims through labels on the product package.
Hence Dr Kulkarni suggested “Stringent labelling guidelines may have to be brought forward to safeguard the interest of the consumer. The FSSAI has an important and protective role to play in favour of the innocent consumers of the NuFFooDS sector.”
“I don’t see any problem in current Act and regulations since the principals are laid down very clear. Act is very clear, it has accepted that the scientific justification and burden of proof is responsibility of FBO. The onus is on the FBO who makes the claim,” said Halde.
He concluded that the current Act and Regulation has given ‘what’ part of Health/Nutritional claims, but we need to wait till detailed regulations formation to know ‘how’ part of Health/Nutritional claims.
We can expect in FSSA regulation will have very standard system on making Nutrition & Health claims like USFDA and FOSHU. Thus, developing regulations with long-term dietary improvements across populations, as their underlying goal will maximise this potential of nutrition labels and health claims.