Thursday, January 20, 2011


Freedom of speech is enshrined invariably in all Constitutions of democratic countries, the express purpose being the inalienable right of citizens to raise matters of concern to them as well as the environment they live in. It is only through such expression any meaningful government can get a feed back from their subjects and take up remedial measures that can provide relief and comfort. But a bigger question now being raised is whether such rights can be misused to harm others in the Society. An example is the "front of the packet" label claims being made by many manufacturers of processed foods which lure the unsuspecting customers to buy the same. When unsubstantiated and unsupported health claims are printed on the food label, the consumer has no means to verify such claims and in pursuit of maintaining good health, these products are bought with full belief on the processor. As most of these claims were found to be at best dubious because of lack of scientific proof to support them, they could be termed as "lies" attracting severe punishment, let alone allowing them under "freedom of speech" principle.

"Food companies insist that they can make health claims for their products, whether backed by science or not, because commercial speech is protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment, in case you have forgotten, says:Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. In a commentary in JAMA (PDF) earlier this year about front-of-package labeling, David Ludwig and I argued that it was time to take another look at current interpretations of the First Amendment suggesting that free commercial speech is equivalent to free political or religious speech. Surely, we said, consumers would be better off without front-of-package labels and health claims on food products. Last month, the British journal Public Health Nutrition published an article by law professor Timothy Lytton. His article, "Banning front-of-package food labels: First Amendment constraints on public health policy," takes issue with our JAMA argument: In recent months, the FDA has begun a crackdown on misleading nutrition and health claims on the front of food packages by issuing warning letters to manufacturers and promising to develop stricter regulatory standards. Leading nutrition policy experts Marion Nestle and David Ludwig have called for an even tougher approach: a ban on all nutrition and health claims on the front of food packages. Nestle and Ludwig argue that most of these claims are scientifically unsound and misleading to consumers and that eliminating them would 'aid educational efforts to encourage the public to eat whole or minimally processed foods and to read the ingredients list on processed foods'. Nestle and Ludwig are right to raise concerns about consumer protection and public health when it comes to front-of-package food labels, but an outright ban on front-of-package nutrition and health claims would violate the First Amendment. As nutrition policy experts develop efforts to regulate front-of-package nutrition and health claims, they should be mindful of First Amendment constraints on government regulation of commercial speech".

It is a strange logic that food industry can print their claim irrespective of the scientific truth, literally saying that they have the right to kill people, albeit slowly through their foods! Though voluntary constraints by the industry is the best way to tackle this controversial issue, such an approach rarely works with a few dissenting players getting away with practicing such duplicity. As this is a vital "life or death" issue, countries not willing to compromise on the "freedom of speech" principle, must go back to people for a referendum to take majority view. It is unlikely that people will vote for their own destruction through long term consumption of foods with dubious claims put out by the industry..


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