Thursday, September 15, 2011


Right to information is considered sacred for every citizen in this world, when purchases are made in the market and a discerning choice is to be made. It is based on this perception that the mandatory labeling rules are framed such a way that every consumer can know what is inside a sealed packet of food offered to him on the market shelf. On such labels prominent details shown include the nutritional content, allergens present, product description and mode of preparation and other information of relevance. Though there is no unanimity regarding the exact details to be provided on such labels among different countries, still the information provided definitely help consumers to some extent. More than the positive information, consumers find declaration of presence of harmful substances more useful. Thus contents of undesirable nature like allergens, trans fats, saturated fats, sodium etc are more carelessly scrutinized while making purchase decisions.

Lately environmental aspects of food processing have received attention from consumers and there are strong campaigns to declare the carbon foot print of each product on the label. Though this has nothing to do with the nutritional or health promoting property of the food contained in the packet, the modern industrial practices in production, processing and distribution of foods do cause pollution of enormous dimension. This is a matter that disturbs many people and governments and hence the demand for declaring the pollution contribution by the processed products. Of course there is no unanimity regrading the modus operandi in introducing such provisions in the labeling regulations in vogue. In principle it is a sound concept while in practice it can become a complex practical nightmare! As for the consumer it will become a difficult dilemma to choose between a product with low carbon foot print but not of high quality and another one with higher carbon foot print but with high nutritional and culinary quality.

Another labeling controversy pertains to declaration of the process undergone by the product. A Genetically modified food product is not required to be declared while irradiated foods must declare so on the label. What about process aids? No law forces any manufacturer to declare the type of process aids used during the processing though traces may still be present in the final product. For example the fry powder so commonly used in frying operations to prolong the life of the oil is never declared on the label. Similarly there are significant discrepancies regarding the expiry date declaration and it is well known that this provision contributes to enormous waste of food when they are thrown away after the "best before" date, though the same food is safe for consumption. There are many other grey areas where there is still no clarity. Will there be any unanimity among the countries regarding what information must be given and what need not be given? Probably national interests will override in deciding about such matters.

The recent controversy regarding the right to know what country a food has come from is a potential mine field that can divide the world vertically into opposing camps. A consumer, especially if highly patriotic or entertaining fear about products from other countries will invariably feel that he has every right to know about the country where the food in manufactured. Probably this popular belief has contributed to inward looking and restrictive policies in some wealthy countries to enact legislation to force the industry to declare the country of origin under the "country of origin labeling law" (COOL). The US made it mandatory for its food industry to follow COOL in 2009 which was challenged under the WTO regime by those countries which felt that it is a discriminatory trade practice affecting their exports to the US. Probably the US government was more worried about the cheap food imports from countries like China, Brazil, India, Vietnam etc which it felt, would overwhelm the domestic industry affecting its very survival! Food being a critical item of consumption that has the potential to impinge on the health, it makes sense for the US citizens to shun products from other countries with uncertain safety credentials. Is it not unfortunate that such a situation can only reflect on the very credibility of the government agencies tasked to oversee food imports? Is this policy not encouraging the citizens in the country to practice some type of "apartheid" which has no place in to day's multi cultural, multicolored global society?

It appears the so called consumer-friendly U.S. COOL policy, under which beef, lamb, pork, chicken, goat, fish, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts and ginseng, have to declare the country of origin is in jeopardy. According to dispassionate observers the COOL policy is not equitable in any sense and may be contravening the WTO treaty under which discriminatory trade practices are considered illegal. It was in 2009 that some countries like Brazil, Canada and others approached WTO filing a complaint against the US. They alleged that COOL is an unacceptable "barrier to trade" and the concerned WTO "dispute panel" frowned upon this policy in its preliminary report. It is anticipated that WTO may eventually rule against the US on this issue. What is not clear is about the response the US may consider to counter act this adverse ruling, though political class there is raising a hue and cry blaming WTO for infringing on the sovereignty of their country! The arrogance of power should not blind the Americans in resorting to such tactics as it goes against the grains of the concept of treating the world as a seamless global village. An option for them is not to make the policy mandatory and leave it to the industry to decide on such labeling.


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