Friday, March 5, 2010


Consumers world over have an inalienable right to know what is present in side a food packet and right type of information discernible readily will enable them to pick and choose the ones most suited to their needs. Different countries have different rules and regulations that govern industry's responsibility in providing information on the label of the packet. In India the manufacturers are mandated to provide many information on the label based on the perception of the authorities who are vested with the power. If a cursory look at the range of products in the market and varying type of shapes, sizes and materials used for packing, any consumer is bound to be confused on many counts and ultimately the choice is made not because of the labels but by the past experience of buying similar products.

Almost 90% of the food packets print the label in English and how far this is effective in a country where even local language literacy is barely 50%, is a matter of speculation. One can understand the dilemma in choosing the language for printing the label as there are more than a dozen regional languages practiced in the country and providing the information in all these languages for a product with pan-India foot print is not feasible, though desirable. Logistical problems posed can be a nightmare for any industry wanting to establish their brands through out the country. Imagine what will happen if the linguistic chauvinists in Mumbai resort to violence demanding that printing of the labels of all packed foods to be made or marketed in the state of Maharashtra must be printed only in Marathi language! Probably a solution could be to allow the industry to use stickers on one side of the pack, reserved exclusively for this purpose, that will explain the product in the pack in local languages with some bare details.

Coming to the needs of consumers vis-à-vis the product labeling, the present system is highly confusing and even literate and educated consumers find it difficult to assess the product correctly. In any new format to be considered, information to be provided for every pack consumed, must include identity of the product, quantity, total calories, sugar, salt, saturated and trans fats contained in the pack, product guaranty including safe consumption date ( not best before date which has no meaning), unit price (boldly in letter size of font not less than 10) and list of ingredients (percentage). Nutrition labeling as it exists to day is totally irrelevant to the Indian public as it conveys practically nothing. Later as the consumer literacy grows, more information like growth quality of the product in terms of protein efficiency ratio, glycemic index and health risks like allergens must be included. Guaranty statements must clearly spell out the accountability feature like what damages consumer can claim if the guaranty clause is violated.

The present provision for including the phone number or e-mail ID of a contact person has no meaning since many industry players do not take this seriously and no consumer has ever been known to have received a satisfactory reply for the complaints registered. The freedom given to the industry under the weights and measures act is grossly being abused and it is time that this is restricted to allow only pack sizes of 25 gm and multiples. Thus the two most important provisions of price per unit in bolder letters and guarantee clauses may boost the consumer confidence in the food industry and it is on its own interest that these provisions are accepted by the industry. If a central complaint center is established under the consumer affairs ministry with on-line complaining facility in Delhi with 4 or 5 regional hubs, it will be of great "solace" to the consumers in this country, weighed down by the present insensitive food safety overseeing system.


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