Thursday, October 28, 2010


Labeling regulations are increasingly being viewed by many consumers as a tool to have a peep into the contents of a processed food pack and help the safety enforcement agencies to keep a tag on the market products to detect unsafe and sub-standard products from the industry. There are three main parts to a label viz, the ingredients list in descending order, best before use date and the information pertaining to some nutrients and components of critical importance. While there are conventional guidelines for such declarations, more or less common in all countries, there are some contentious areas where there is conflict of interest. The three stake holders in the food processing area are consumers, government and the industry. Consumers expect safe products that will not cause any short term or long term injury to his health and adequate quality for the price he pays while the industry invariably strives to maximize profits as a part of corporate philosophy. It is the government which has to make sure that the interests of these two players are balanced.

Enforcing labeling rules is fraught with tremendous logistical difficulties and it is an arduous task for any government to please both the groups with diverging interests. It is true that most regulatory rules are implemented after wide consultations amongst the stake holders but the strong lobbying clout of large global corporates working in many countries stifle meaningful reforms in this area. Even a simple issue like expiry date is a bone of contention with different countries following different policies. Thus "best before date", "use before date", "sell before date,"etc are routinely used on the label with consumers having no clue regarding the precise meaning of these guidelines. Similarly the provision for printing claims for a particular product is grossly misused and lately many countries are waking up to this hoax perpetrated by some manufacturers without any scientific evidence.

A classical example of labeling dilemma is provided by irradiated products. While the consumers want clear labeling regarding the fact that a product is irradiated, industry opposes the same because of fear of consumer backlash. Similarly GM foods are to day sold routinely in some countries without making any mention on the label, but in many other countries powerful consumer activists are fighting for suitable label declaration to enable buyer to make an informed choice. There are hundreds of health claims printed on food packet labels based on flimsy literature information or traditional usage history. It is now being realized that unless adequate scientific evidence exists, no health claims should be allowed to be made.

One of the latest contentious issues relate to labeling of packed fluid milk in the US which has been a subject matter of litigation there which offers some insight into the food safety environment in that country. Most milk producers in the US use the recombinant bovine hormone in milch animals to increase the yield of milk and boost farm profitability, ignoring the safety implications of such practices. Many believe that artificial hormone used cannot be safe and the buyers must have the necessary freedom to choose between naturally produced and hormone treated products. Unless appropriate labeling is insisted upon, the consumer will not be in a position to exercise this right. While those using the hormone do not want to declare the same on the label, others marketing naturally produced milk distinguished their products declaring that their products come from untreated cows. While some courts have ruled against the natural milk producers' right to declare their products hormone free, other courts support the producers of hormone treated milk in opposing the practice of labeling as "hormone free".

Probably one has not seen the end of this controversy as the case is likely to end up in the Supreme Court because the aggrieved parties are sure to approach the apex court for over ruling the Federal Court decision. Is it not an irony that a citizen in the most powerful country in the world is "powerless" to stop the bullying power of the dairy industry from forcing him to consume milk that is suspect from the safety angle? The Judiciary in that country is supposed to be pro-conservative and pro-industry and it is unlikely that the consumer will ever get justice. Probably the food safety authorities may have to step in to allow producers of natural milk to include on the label the fact that they have not used the hormone or must force the users of the hormone to declare the same unambiguously for the benefit of the consumer.

1 comment:

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