Warning labels for informed choices over food: How to navigate challenges

Deccan Chronicle, March 11, 2024

By Pradeep S. Mehta and T.B. Simi

As consumers, let’s reflect on the challenges we face in making informed choices, particularly in India, where the need for transparency in our complex marketplace has never been more pressing. The abundance of options, complex product information, and aggressive marketing tactics often make it difficult for us to purchase products that best suit our needs and pockets. This struggle is aggravated by a lack of transparency, where inadequate product information, ambiguous labelling, and deceptive advertising make it difficult for consumers, to make the best choices. The consequences of this lack of transparency extends beyond our individual decisions, particularly in the realm of food products.

Misleading information on nutritional content and health benefits contributes to the rise of diet-related diseases and other public health issues. While the government is making all-out efforts to ensure consumers’ health, more needs to be done, in particular its orientation to a market-friendly approach rather than a business-friendly one.

A study “India: Health of the Nation’s States” by the Indian Council of Medical Research says the prevalence of deaths attributable to non-communicable diseases (NCD) in India increased from 37.9 per cent in 1990 to 61.8 per cent in 2016, rising further to 66 per cent in 2019. In 2018, Lancet Global Health reported that in India the largest proportion of NCD deaths is due to cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), comprising 48 per cent, followed by cancers at 21 per cent.

Compelling evidence suggests CVDs and strokes occur at an earlier age in Indians compared to individuals in the Global North. Further, a 2021 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Cardiology, revealed that while death rates from coronary artery diseases are declining in most rich nations, they are on the rise in Global South, including India.

The surge in NCD-related death rate in India is not solely attributed to inadequate healthcare facilities but is also linked to various other prime factors. These include lack of stringent regulations and implementation within our food sector and the widespread availability of processed and unhealthy foods without adequate warnings for consumers. Often, one could observe that major food giants adhere to stringent manufacturing and labelling practices mandated in Global North, yet have double standards in the Global South. This type of discriminatory behaviour exists across various consumer goods and services sectors. They are often seen using their dominant market presence, political influence and threat to leave to their advantage.

That’s why in India, despite years of policy discourse, the mounting pressure of large food industries is making it hard for regulators and policymakers to introduce and implement much-needed regulations like warning labels on the front of food packages. Such a policy is vital to help deal with mitigating the NCDs and rising level of obesity across all age groups by enabling the consumer to practice an informed choice.

Recently, in its Asia-Pacific SDG Progress Report 2024, UNESCAP said that the escalating levels of obesity among children pose a significant challenge to India’s economic progress towards achieving SDGs by 2030. Despite such multiple cautionary reports on health in recent times, the persistent disagreement between the preferences of health experts and the influence businesses have in shaping health rules has left the informed public questioning whether the authorities are genuinely concerned with public health and well-being of its citizen-consumers.

Today, the social media is buzzing with criticism and impactful videos, where both experts and individual consumers vehemently express their concerns about the rampant sale and effortless accessibility of unhealthy and deceptive food products in the Indian market. What is particularly striking is the flood of comments accompanying these viral posts, revealing consumers’ evident frustration and discontent with misleading claims, leaving them appalled by the presented facts. Such incidents underscore the pressing need for prominent warnings on food packages to alert consumers.

In the realm of public health policymaking, it is vital for regulators and policymakers to recognise the growing resentment and respond promptly, prioritising national health over short-term economic interests. Acknowledging the voices of public health experts and consumer groups is even more crucial in light of the alarming rise in NCDs. Furthermore, this will require a “whole of government” approach, otherwise files get lost in silos.

In this challenging context, manufacturers also bear a moral and social responsibility to present healthier food choices. Prioritising public health, food safety and acknowledging consumers’ right to be informed, they should willingly provide transparent and detailed information about negative ingredients through warning labels.

Such actions would align with the Prime Minister’s sentiments expressed during the B-20 summit on August 27, 2023, where he urged businesses to prioritise consumer well-being and proposed an International Consumer Care Day. His call for balanced global commerce and consumer-centric policies underscores the need to reconsider conventional economic governance frameworks. Further, embracing a shift towards healthier products not only aligns with ethical considerations but also opens doors to lucrative markets for our agricultural products in the realm of wholesome and nutritious foods.

Then, alongside regulatory and voluntary measures, promoting consumer education is vital. Initiatives that raise the awareness of food labelling, nutritional information, and consumer rights empower individuals to make informed choices and advocate for their interests. As we reflect on these challenges and potential solutions, we need to advocate, sensitise, raise awareness and drive change.

It’s a chance for the government, individuals and organisations to come together, advocate for consumer rights, and work towards creating a transparent and consumer-centric global marketplace. Through collective action, we can pave the way for a future where consumers are empowered, informed and protected. In the interest of consumers lies the national interest.

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