A coalition of consumer groups led by the Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPi), in collaboration with public health advocates, lawyers, and medical professionals, is fervently urging the government to take decisive action against the soaring consumption of products laden with excessive sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. This pertains to a variety of junk foods, such as sugary colas, fruit juices brimming with sugar, potato chips, frozen meals, purported health drinks, chocolates, and pizzas.
This marks the most extensive alliance to date, uniting in a collective plea to the government to implement restrictions on foods responsible for the increasing incidence of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular conditions.
The coalition has called for the exclusion of such companies from participating in policymaking concerning packaged foods. They have proposed enacting legislation to clearly define junk food and imposing marketing restrictions on these products, similar to the regulations in place for infant foods, with a specific focus on safeguarding the health of young consumers.
The organization implored the government to establish an inter-ministerial committee tasked with crafting guidelines to prohibit the provision of unhealthy foods in schools, hospitals, correctional facilities, and various other public venues.
“Existing regulatory policies on junk foods remain ineffective,” said Arun Gupta, convenor of NAPi, the national think tank on nutrition policy, while releasing a report on Friday entitled The Junk Push, which draws on the surge in consumption of ultra-processed foods.
Packaged food companies that could potentially be affected by any policy alterations encompass Nestle, Parle Products, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Britannia, ITC, Mondelez, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and several others.
“The industry certainly wants regulation, but in the absence of consensus, it is tough to implement such policies,” said a senior executive at one of India’s largest packaged foods companies who didn’t want to be named. “On whether food companies should be part of policy decisions, there must be representation from the companies, as they are experts at dynamics of consumption of respective categories, which public health advocates do not understand.”
A Nestle India spokesperson said in an email, “We are yet to see the report and therefore not in a position to comment.”
Members of the consortium highlighted that advertisements using celebrity endorsements and promoting unverified health claims, particularly those aimed at children, fail to provide the “paramount information” required under the Consumer Protection Act of 2019. This crucial information pertains to detailed upfront data regarding the levels of sugar, salt, or saturated fat present in the product contents.
“None of the legal frameworks or guidelines in India have the potential to stop most misleading ads of pre-packaged junk foods, or to ban misleading claims or warn people about the risks to health,” said Gupta, also a former member of the Prime Minister’s Council on India’s nutrition challenges.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority (FSSAI) has put forth a proposal for the adoption of front-of-the-pack labeling with health star ratings. However, this proposal is still in the draft stage due to conflicting viewpoints among food companies, health organizations, and activists regarding the matter.
An FSSAI executive said, “We haven’t seen the report.”
Previously, the regulatory body emphasized its commitment to formulating policies through a consensus-based approach, involving all stakeholders, which encompass food companies and consumer health organizations.
“Policy making on front-of-pack labelling has not been free from food industry involvement,” said HPS Sachdev, epidemiologist and researcher. He added that food and nutrition policy development should be completely devoid of conflicts of interest.
PepsiCo, Britannia, ITC, Coca-Cola, Mondelez, Parle Products, and Jubilant FoodWorks, the operator of Domino’s Pizza, remained unresponsive to inquiries.
The Ministry of Consumer Affairs has established an inter-ministerial committee to examine deficiencies in current policies; however, there is no recent information or update available on the subject.