Since late 2022, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has been preparing a proposal for front-of-pack labelling (FOPL) to be presented to the government that would redefine the way packaged food is available to the public. However, there has been criticism about how the star-labelling system on food products may mislead consumers instead of helping them make informed decisions. What is the FOPL, and has FSSAI over-simplified its design?
The FSSAI first introduced the FOPL draft on September 20, 2022. This regulation aimed to offer consumers transparency and guidance regarding the nutrition of food products. Moreover, this would help strengthen the food labelling ecosystem in the country and regulate health & safety standards. The draft also proposed the Indian Nutrition Rating (INR) model to assign star ratings to show the healthiness of a food product.
The existing draft policy is based on a study by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and formulated by FSSAI.
What is FOPL?
Front-of-pack labelling, or FOPL, indicates which products contain added sugars, total fats, saturated fats, trans fats, and sodium. It is an essential policy tool to help regulate and inform consumers of processed foods to help them make informed decisions when purchasing food products.
FOPL models are designed to provide simplified nutrition information on the front of pre-packaged foods. They can be displayed on food packages in many forms, including colour-coded models, warning labels, scale-based graded labels, and endorsement symbols.
Many countries, including the UK, France, Australia, and Chile, have already implemented different forms of the FOPL models.
What is the Indian Nutrition Rating (INR) model?
The Indian Nutrition Rating or INR rating model provides food with a star rating from half a star (least healthy) to five stars (healthiest). The more stars a product has, the better it is at meeting daily nutritional needs.
INR classification covers three categories of processed and packaged foods: solid, liquid, and exempted. No star rating is applicable for beverages without energy and/or sugar.
Calculating the INR score and star rating involves baseline points, FVNLM points (fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and millet), and protein and fibre points. The formula used to calculate the INR score takes into account these factors to provide an accurate nutritional profile of the food product.
Australia and New Zealand have also implemented a similar health star rating system, while Singapore has a 'Healthier Choice Symbol'.
Why is this needed?
While nutritional information is available on the back of processed food, this can be difficult to read and even understand by the majority.
The FOPL allows consumers to access easy-to-understand nutritional information without the need to read lengthy food labels. This will help in making healthier food choices and encourage food manufacturers to produce healthier products for the public.
At the time of the first draft, the processing food market in India had grown by 24 per cent year on year and has grown further due to its affordability.
Moreover, obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are also increasing in India . According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW), NCDs such as Cardiovascular diseases, Cancer, Chronic Respiratory Diseases, and Diabetes are estimated to account for around 60 per cent of all deaths.
By introducing the INR FOPL model, FSSAI aims to empower consumers to make healthier choices and promote the production of nutritious food options. With this user-friendly system, consumers can easily identify healthier products without the need to read complex food labels.
Critics of the FOPL
FSSAI made the draft policy open to the public on November 19, 2022, to invite comments and perspectives before submitting the proposal to the government.
The existing draft drew a lot of criticism from public health professionals, who urged the food regulator to add an educational component that was missing from the INR system. Consumer research and surveys showed that warning labels outperformed all other labels when it came to helping consumers make healthy choices. Moreover, studies by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), the International Institute of Population Sciences, and other organisations found that consumers preferred clear warning labels indicating if the products were high in unhealthy ingredients.
In March, BJP Lok Sabha member Varun Gandhi also stated, "FSSAI's nutritional-labelling draft notification is a misguided effort to rate Indian packaged foods with western options. It will skew consumption away from Indian MSMEs towards western MNCs and can be economically ruinous for marginal farmers & traditional Indian food manufacturers."
Varun Gandhi cited a study by the Indian Sellers Collective that explored the rating of popular traditional Indian foods under the proposed FSSAI guidelines. The study also stated that consumers would perceive Indian traditional foods to be 'unhealthy' compared to Western foods with equal if not more, sugar, fat, and salt content.
The idea of FOPL is widely accepted as a positive step towards helping consumers make more informed, healthy decisions. There are many ways for the FSSAI to approach its implementation across India. Critiques have argued that the system proposed needs to be further tailored to meet the unique requirements of Indian consumers and the variety of food offered in the Indian market.