Monday, August 24, 2015

Banning sale of of Junk foods near schools-Is any one serious?

In India if no decision is to be taken on any issue, especially at government level, the most effectively used strategy is to "set up" a committee which guarantees that the issue is buried at least for some time! Most recent case is the "decision" by the Women and Child Development Ministry of Government of India (GOI) to "consider" banning junk foods near schools constitutes an excellent one to illustrate this point. It was about 5 years ago that Uday Foundation, an NGO approached Delhi High Court (D-HC) pleading to impose a ban on sale of junk foods near schools where kids, with pocketful of money liberally provided by parents, buy unhealthy foods affecting their health in the long run. It was indeed a noble effort by this Foundation to help the nation to protect its budding citizens from the harmful effects of so called junk foods and they deserve our gratitude for this visionary focus attention on this much neglected area. Looking back the D-HC, progressive as it is, allowed the appeal in December 2010, asking the central government to respond suitably to address this issue.

What is a junk food? Unfortunately there is no consensus on this much debated subject though food industry considers all the products manufactured by it are foods providing at least calories and/or proteins and/or other nutrients required by human beings. They further aver that the products made by it are as per safety norms prescribed by the appropriate authorities vested with strong powers. May be the industry has a point in that all foods which conform to national quality and safety norms are edible and serve the purpose of satiating hunger. Besides the industry is selling products which are accepted by the consumers on their own volition with no compulsion or external pressure. Implications of fat, that too saturated fats, in many life style diseases like CVD, obesity, blood pressure etc and unveiling the role of dietary fiber in diseases related to gastrointestinal tract created a great awareness about the importance of balanced foods and physical exercise leading to the campaign by consumers and consumer organizations against the food industry to change the product portfolio to shun products which according to them are unhealthy. It is generally understood that consuming regularly foods with "empty" calories (nil or low nutrient density) is not good for health and this can severely affect growing children in terms of starving them of vitally needed nutrients at the most critical stage of their development. That is how the junki food concept arose originally in wealthy countries like the US where more than 35% of the population is considered obese as measured by the Body Mass Index (BMI) yardstick.

Whether it is the desire to ape the West or due to genuine concern, in India also the issue regarding junk foods was raised from time to time with neither the social organizations nor the government giving serious attention. Though a segment of the consumer community was worried about the long term impact of not restraining food industry to churn out unhealthy foods, targeted especially at the most vulnerable group of children. The topicality of the subject can be gauged by the fact that even to day many countries are finding it difficult to address this problem with total satisfaction to all the stakeholders. The problem became acute with the explosive growth of electronic media and kids became more vulnerable to commercial advertisements promoting these so called junk foods and to add to this the proportion of the commercials to the actual content of the programs is continuously increasing. Unfortunately many parents find it difficult to resist demands by their wards to buy these patently unhealthy food products which do provide fantastic eating pleasure making it addictive. Foods which are so appealing and irresistible are invariably rich in sugar, fat or salt while healthy foods with low levels of these ingredients, rich in fiber are unappealing to most of them. It is conceded that promoting eating of fruits or vegetables in place of fried or baked snacks is a near impossible task.   

Though scores of seminars and workshops have been organized from time to time to discuss this issue, nothing concrete emerged during the last 3 decades. It was left to a young voluntary organization, Uday Foundation devoted to helping promote the cause of distressed children to rake up this issue in the year 2010 approaching D-HC which resulted in the directive given by D-HC to the Central Government to ban junk foods near the vicinity of schools. After debating the issue for almost 2 years , the court issued another order in Jan 2012 asking the Health Ministry to take action to ban sale of junk foods within 6 months. Shamelessly the GOI after sitting on the issue for almost 8 months, "informed" the court that the task of laying down guidelines had been entrusted to its toothless agency pompously called Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). Nothing happened till April 2013 till D-HC gave another 3 months for GOI to complete the work by July 2013. In Sept 2013 the Court again asked GOI to put in place necessary guidelines for banning junk food sale near schools. Still nothing happened and to add to the delay the industry filed objection to any such ban in Oct 2013 which was over ruled by D-HC. It is against this background that GOI set up an expert group in March 2014 to consider the issue. Alas this group only"recommended" regulation of sale of junk foods. Subsequently another expert committee deliberated the issue and came up with some guidelines in August 2015.    

This high-level committee set up by the Women & Child Welfare Ministry suggested to impose a ban by street vendors within 200 meters of a school. It also wanted the civic authorities not to issue licences to shops and restaurants selling food to uniformed children within 200 meters of a school. Unfortunately the onus of determining what constitutes a junk food was put back to the GOI. It wanted GOI to decide about a comprehensive definition of junk food in the context of children. It is reported to have further suggested that a list should be drawn of "desirable" food items to be offered in school canteens as well as labelling of pre-packaged food, stating clearly as "unfit" for infant/children/pregnant and lactating mothers or persons with specific ailments".  It further claimed that it reviewed the prevalent practices of regulation of junk food in 23 countries and suggested establishment and management of school canteens besides bringing about comprehensive advertisement/promotion campaign to be undertaken jointly by different stakeholder Ministries. The Ministry had constituted the committee under the Chairmanship of Director, National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, to look into matters relating to availability of junk food at various places accessible to children.The committee included representatives from Niti Aayog, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Department of AYUSH, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Bureau of Indian Standards, food regulator FSSAI, National Institute of Public Cooperation & Child Development, Indian Council of Medical Research and independent experts in the field of nutrition and clinical psychology/behavioural science.

Now there is some thing to go on regarding this issue, but it is not clear how long the GOI will take to legislate on this important issue. One must remember that India does not lack laws with teeth on the statute books but the country fails miserably in administering these laws to achieve the intended purpose. Whether it is lack of funds or lack of seriousness, it is difficult to understand. It is understandable that being a federal governing system, GOI has to depend on local authorities to implement national regulations and in this case also passing legislation to ban junk foods is not going to help unless adequate monitoring system is put in place to enforce its provisions. Probably putting in place a ban on sale of junk foods may be a beginning which will at least deter a few vendors from selling them near the schools. Ultimately an acute awareness about the dangers of junk foods among the kids as well as the school authorities can contribute much to eradicate this evil. 


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