FSSAI’s new star-rating system for packaged foods faces uproar

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Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) chief executive Arun Singhal told ET that the regulator plans to move forward with a new star rating system for packaged food and beverages, instead of telling companies to use ingredient-based warning labels. The move has faced opposition from nearly a dozen consumer and health advocacy groups, who argue the measure won’t help shoppers looking to eat healthy.

Consumer Voice, Nutrition Advocacy for Public Interest (NAPi), Civic Action Group (CAG), People’s Vigilance Committee (PVC), Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS) International and Center for Science and Environment (CSE) are among those who wrote to the Ministry of Health and in some cases to the Prime Minister’s Office over the past four to five weeks, opposing the decision of the FSSAI. The People’s Vigilance Committee, in an April 8 letter to the Health Ministry, said nutrition warnings on food packaging are an “urgent intervention” to protect public health.

The organizations say in their letters, copies of which ET has had access to, that star ratings will dilute warnings about high sugar, salt and saturated fat levels that exceed thresholds. They called for direct warning labels on packages.

Singhal, however, told ET: “IIM-A recommended health star ratings after a survey of over 20,000 Indian consumers. We will base it on what consumers preferred.”

The regulator had commissioned the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad to carry out a detailed report on front-of-package labeling of packaged and processed foods in the middle of last year, the first time that an external entity was enlisted for this purpose.

“Misleading Scoring Model”

Consumer Voice chief executive Ashim Sanyal said: “How does the FSSAI expect consumers to understand what the ratings even mean? What is needed are initial labels stating that foods are high in sugar or salt consumption of junk food.”

The FSSAI is expected to publish the draft regulations soon, followed by the final guidelines. The rules have been in the consultation stage for seven years. The upcoming ruling will have a direct impact on packaged food and drink makers such as Nestlé, PepsiCo, ITC, Hindustan Unilever and Britannia.

Sanyal alleged that the FSSAI’s decision is in the “interest of big food companies, not consumers”. CUTS International and CSE noted that the star rating model is misleading, as warnings about an excess of unhealthy ingredients would be overshadowed by healthier nutrients in the algorithm used to calculate the rating.

In February this year, a study by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) said consumers preferred direct warnings as the most effective type of labeling to warn them of excess salt, sugar and fats in packaged processed foods. They’re willing to make healthier food choices based on clear front-of-package labels instead of star ratings, which would be hard to understand, the study found.

Processed and packaged food companies have expressed reluctance to implement such front-of-package labeling because it would directly impact consumption, people with knowledge of the matter said.

Under existing guidelines, a certain amount of back-of-pack ingredient labeling is mandatory, including symbols to signify red for non-vegetarians and green for vegetarians.

Chile and Brazil are among countries that early adopted “high in” warning labels on their food packaging, which has successfully reduced consumption of unhealthy ultra-processed foods and drinks, said experts.

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