Thursday, December 31, 2015

"Best before date" to be replaced by "Expiry date" on packed food labels? Imponderable factors

World over the consumer right to know what is offered as food by its makers is recognized and it is for this reason that the food manufacturers are forced to declare unambiguously the ingredients used and the nutrition it offers for which mandatory label provisions have been evolved. Each country has opted for a standard format of its own to be followed by the makers of foods in the county. Though there may be variations in the details of the declaration, basically these labels are insisted upon so that an average consumer knows about the quantity, price, ingredients, allergic and health affecting constituents, manufacturing date and batch number, best before date etc.Because of the realization that consumer may be more discerning in his choice of food, most important items to be included on the label vis-s-vis health are calories, fat, sugar, proteins and some micronutrients. While in India food processing industry has to abide by the law regarding labeling, what is galling is that such demands are not made on the public eateries which offer freshly cooked foods either served in regular brick and mortar restaurants or the informal unorganized street vending outlets though their products have neither any standards of identity in the statute books nor the liability for any food poisoning episodes. When packaged food food business is comparatively small considering that millions of people eat outside their home in such eateries, why these players are not asked to tell their patrons the basic composition of the foods they offer?                                                 

During the last few years eating out scenario has dramatically changed with more and more people being pulled by fast food restaurants, food trucks and street vendors which naturally would have affected the growth of the so called "brick and mortar" eateries.The eternal debate regarding the quality and safety of products offered by casual eateries will go on and on, with no clear answer emerging soon. Whether one likes it or not the current trend of faster growth of the informal sector of catering will continue and the catering sector as a whole has to take this in its stride. Why do more and more people like street foods in preference to going to a "standard" restaurant which at least ensures some accountability that can be enforced? Is it the price factor? Or is it the convenience factor that decides? Very difficult to get any definite answer though both must have some thing to do with such shifting of consumer loyalty. If we go by western standards the fast food industry registered phenomenal growth riding on the consumer desire to save time on eating and later it emerged that these new formats of eateries could also offer good "tasting" foods at comparatively lower prices. Lately the fast food food sector is however being hit badly by the new consumer awareness about health and the relentless onslaught of obesity caused by their low nutrient density food preparations though some of the major ones are in the process of overhauling their menu to make their products more healthy.

In India street food vendors are omnipotent across the urban and semi urban areas working unobtrusively occupying some of the important arterial and busy streets where crowds do collect in the evenings. Though from time to time concerns have been raised regarding the adverse impact of these street foods on the health of the citizens, civic administrations find it difficult to do any thing to discourage the working of these vendors due to humanitarian and political reasons. Neither is there any organized attempt either at the national or state level to improve the system with active policy intervention. Major issues that bother the health experts are the sanitary and safety problems inherent in such a situation where quality of inputs like water, raw materials and cooking environment cannot be considered satisfactory with most vendors. Besides disposal wastes and total lack of toilet facilities nearby make consuming these foods relatively a risk taking venture! Still it has to be conceded that there are thousands and thousands of street hawkers eking out a living through street vending giving it a socio-economic flavor. 

It is against such a background one has to listen to the discourse from the Consumer Affairs Minister at Delhi that Indians are confused by the labels on packaged foods, especially when it comes to the "best before" date and declared that it would be replaced with "expiry date" so that consumer can decide not to buy date expired products. The assumption is that date expired foods can be dangerous while many foods even after the best before date are still edible and safe to consume. May be there is a point in what the Minister has said because even the United Nations agencies have declared that enormous waste of food all over the world, especially in affluent countries is unconscionable. But what is the technical feasibility of arriving at at an expiry date for any food? After all food is a complex cocktail of organic molecules and any prediction regarding interactions among them may be somewhat difficult. Drawing any parallel between food industry and its counterpart in the pharmaceutical sector is not sustainable as most drug preparations have one or two active ingredients and what happens to them over a period of time can be easily assessed through model studies. 

While government is becoming more and more demanding when it comes to organized industry, the unorganized sector like street vending goes without much of an oversight by the safety agencies. Whether declaration of ingredients or expiry date such rules are enforced only when the players are registered with government regulatory authorities. It is still fresh in our memory as to how the safety regulator in this country systematically hounded the manufacturer of a particular brand of instant noodles slapping on them the unsustainable charge of their products being unsafe due to excessive levels of lead or mono sodium glutamate though there are many others producing the same not subjected to any scrutiny. It is misfortune of the citizens of this country that we are saddled with a food safety "management" agency which believes more in applying the law in letter rather than the spirit behind them. The instant noodle episode is a standing testimony to the character and culture of this agency. The appalling and archaic food safety vigilance and enforcement infrastructure controlled by state level departments cannot instill much confidence among the consumers that things will improve one day! 

The Consumer Affairs Minister was forthcoming regarding his ideas to stream line the street vendors by establishing specialized food vendors' zones to shift the existing vendors so that the quality of foods served would be much better though it is not clear as to how the central government can orchestrate the policy in an area considered coming under the state's power. Also he should have suggested that all food vendors, in the organized as well as in the informal sectors, must follow a declaration format containing some basic information regarding the two most important components, total calories and total fat to begin with. Why he was not considering this as important may be due organized objections the restaurant sector would raise citing technical difficulties in providing such information to their customers. Though this may be a valid argument it is not insurmountable.because such information can be generated with enormous technical resources available in government funded food laboratories in the country. A still better approach could be to generate data on the Indian culinary preparations and lay down guidelines for some of them for the catering industry to follow. 


No comments: