Friday, August 1, 2008


Right to information is vital for any users to decide about whether to buy or not, what he should buy and at what cost and how much he should buy, at the point of sales. This is especially true when it comes to food product labeling. Any equitable labeling regulations must ensure fairness to the consumer as well as the manufacturer, though safety of a food product is paramount to protect the health of the nation. From the consumer side the demand will be to make the manufacturer more transparent while the latter invariably will strive to give out as less information as possible, lest his competitors get to know of his secrets. It must be remembered that the technology of food processing has progressed so much the industry can meet the aspirations of the consumer in so many different ways in terms of color, aroma, texture and taste.

In India the Federal Health Ministry primarily is vested with the responsibility for all matters concerning the quality and safety of food products through the Food Standards and Safety Authority. It is a daunting task because of the need to have norms for evolving, rationalizing and implementing thousands of standards for quality and safety for many products which are indigenous to the country and for which there are no parallels else where in the world. One of the major constraints is the relatively small scientific data on most of the products that exist to day and marked reluctance for the food scientists to undertake R & D on native foods. Unless basic research programs are initiated immediately the country is bound to suffer for want of such data and consequent continuation of the hoch-poch days of PFA. With increasing globalization, a time will come for the country to align its standards with international benchmarks at least for the sake of
protecting the national exports.

What does one expect from the labels that have become an integral part of modern manufacturing and marketing. The the government has the responsibility to ensure consumer safety and economic frauds like bloated claims, unsustainable health declarations and false depiction of the contents in side. The industry, obviously will strive for maximum exposure of its strengths and advantages and manage to include whatever information necessary to create confidence in the buyer within the space available on the label. The consumer expects vital and reliable information regarding the nutrition/health aspects, safety from chemical, microbiological and other contaminants,besides knowing about the shelf-life of the product both before and after opening the pack.

In a country like India where new nutritional labeling norms are being made mandatory it is worth considering what purpose it is going to serve. One wonders what percentage of the population is English-literate even to read the label, let alone understand the significance of the figures and explanations which are part of the label. Probably they will have to be satisfied with the visuals, if they truly reflect the nature of the contents. Those who are well versed in English may be able to discern only the name of the product, ingredients used, quantity in the pack, manufacturer's name, production batch number, maximum retail price and date of expiry, unless they are knowledgeable about food and nutrition. In many developed countries new information pertaining to presence of allergic ingredients such as gluten, peanuts, etc is also mandatory. Coming to the Indian situation what is intriguing is the nutritional label required to be printed on the pack
and its format. Declaration regarding total energy, energy from fat and energy from saturated fat, extent of unsaturated fat, levels of trans fat, total protein, sugar and carbohydrate, dietary fiber, and selected vitamins and minerals has become the universal practice to day all over the world..

It is beyond one's comprehension as to how a consumer is being benefited if caloric load is not related to the serving unit, quality of the proteins is not indicated, glycemic index(GI) of the carbohydrate and glycemic load (GL) per serving are not declared. Majority of the consumers do not have much idea about the minimum nutritional requirement of a healthy person but they are aware that protein is good, fat is bad, dietary fiber is good, and too much carbohydrates are not good. Often consumers mistake the values of % of daily requirement as the absolute concentration of those constituents in the food and such misunderstanding may have some negative implications. Is it not more appropriate if the nutrition content is declared for the whole pack and leave to the consumer as to how much he eats per serving?

Where is the need to declare MRP and why not leave it to the market to sell at an appropriate price keeping in view the competition? One has yet to hear any monopolistic hold of any single player in the fiercely competitive Indian market. Because of MRP declaration it becomes difficult to lower the prices drastically, as such price reduction raises doubts about the quality of food, fatal to the reputation of any brand of food. The phenomenon of wide price range for the same product can be healthy and prices are bound to come down once market has oversupplies. In many developed countries the price range can vary for the same product and it is not unusual for the price to tumble as much as 50% during many occasions which after all benefits the consumer. Also MRP hinders the initiatives of organized retailers who provide added services in their stores for more consumer comfort, cost of which will have to be borne by the products.

The consumer's top most priority is how long he can keep the product without causing spoilage. The terms such as 'sell before', 'best before' , date of expiry mean different things to different consumers. While finding a solution to this vexed problem, the practical difficulties of the manufacturer must also be kept in mind. Why not give a definite time period before the product gets unsafe both at 30C as well as at 4C? before opening as well afterwards. Of course these issues need to be sorted out between the government, consumers, the industry and the food scientists. Data regarding safety of products at different temperatures in different packing modes will have to be generated and validated, if the accountability for default is to be factored into the system. Product return, replacement, damages for dereliction etc must be a part of the food chain and any marginal cost rise for these steps will be readily accepted by the consumer.


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