Experts hail warning labels on food packaging towards health security of Indian consumers

Financial Express, May 13, 2022

Experts have also expressed their strong disagreement towards the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) for moving ahead to introduce a Health Star Rating (HSR) label in the Indian market.

Experts unanimously have hailed that warning labels are the most effective Front of Package Labelling (FOPL) to help Indian consumers identify and avoid unhealthy foods. These views emerged from a webinar organised by CUTS International to hear from experts on the topic “Why Health Star Rating (HSR) is not suitable for India?” Experts have also expressed their strong disagreement towards the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) for moving ahead to introduce a Health Star Rating (HSR) label in the Indian market. This move is based upon a limited study carried out by a business school by ignoring the global best practices and evidence around it.

To help consumers make healthier choices, Australia and New Zealand had introduced the voluntary HSR system in 2014. But studies show that the system is highly flawed as unhealthy products are still able to get a high score. This is because the rating is based on the overall nutritional value, and the inclusion of healthy ingredients (i.e. fibre, protein and vitamins) cancel out the unhealthy ingredients (i.e. sugar, saturated fats and salt). More importantly, the system does not effectively assist the vulnerable consumers who need it the most.

George Cheriyan, Director, CUTS International, and a member of Food Authority (FSSAI) as a special invitee, while strongly objecting to some of the finding of the IIM A study, quoted in his keynote address that the policy makers of our country should remember that Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) contribute to 62 percent of total deaths in India; of concern are the preventable premature deaths, which account for a staggering 48 percent of mortality. Presently, the food regulator, who is having the mandate to ensure safe food to the people of this country, totally ignored the aspect of NCDs, linkage with food high in sugar, salt and fat, and the role FoPL can play, while choosing the format for FoPL.

He added that it was generally felt that the very objective of all the stakeholder consultations chaired by the FSSAI, which were heavily dominated by the packaged food industry, was to come up with a labelling system, which is ultimately more industry-friendly rather than for addressing the needs of the consumers in India.

Dr. Lindsey Smith Taillie, Assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, gave a detailed presentation touching upon different kinds of labels particularly given the context touching upon the HSR label and the warning label.  She pointed out that even after 8 years of implementation of the HSR label in Australia there is still no evidence of it creating a significant impact on the nutritional quality of people’s food and beverage purchases.

Infact this type of label promotes ultra-processed food products by confusing the consumers. She further added that a warning label, which has a wider global acceptance helps to achieve two most important goals of a labeling system i.e., inform consumers and reduce consumption of unhealthy foods.  She also highlighted few evidence to prove her stand and even spoke about a field experiment done in India very recently to test whether FoPLs helped Indian consumers identify ‘high-in’ foods and reduce intentions to purchase them.

Dr. Lindsey, who has published over 115 articles in top academic journals and her work on front-of-package labeling featuring in the New York Times, the Guardian, and other international media outlets, elaborated about an in-person randomized experiment study covering 2,869 adults between ages 18 and 60 years old in six states of India.

Participants were randomized to one of five FOPLs: a control label (barcode), warning label, HSR, Guideline Daily Amount (GDA), or traffic light label.  Fewer than half of participants in the control group (39.1 percent) correctly identified all products high in nutrient(s) of concern. All FOPLs led to an increase in this outcome, with the biggest differences observed for the warning label (60.8 percent) followed by the traffic light label (54.8 percent), GDA (55.0 percent), and HSR (45.0 percent).

Relative to the control, only the warning label led to a reduction in intentions to purchase the products. The results suggest that warning labels are the most effective FOPL to help Indian consumers identify and avoid unhealthy foods. During the discussion, Saroja Sundaram, Executive Director, Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG), Chennai spoke about how Dr. Lindsey’s presentation re-emphasis our campaign for a warning label. She stressed that HSR does not do well among the Indian population and it will never support in achieving the goal of FoPL.

Ashim Sanyal, Chief Operating Officer of Consumer VOICE and a member of the Central Advisory Committee of FSSAI, pointed out that the presentation and the findings of the study carried out by Dr. Lindsey and team once again highlighted how our regulators are on the wrong foot. Through the HSR label our regulators are trying to convey something which is beyond the understanding of a common consumer.

Amit Khurana, Director, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi while sharing his journey with FoPL regulation and discussions hoped that FSSAI would someday muster up the courage and deliver the mandate they are given. He claimed that none other than FSSAI better knows that symbol based labels would do wonders among consumers in India, given their experience with labels/logos highlighting foods that are veg, non-veg, vegan foods etc.

Before concluding, Antonio Picasso, Director General of Competere, Italy who are closely following the developments happening in India on FoPL shared with the audience their ongoing anti Nutriscore campaign launched in Europe. The virtual webinar was attended by around 55 delegates from across the country and abroad, including health experts, representatives from national and international organisations, industry representatives, AIIMS, Indian Medical Association, academic and research Institutions from more than 14 states.

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