The consumer in India is caught between the proverbial "Deep sea and the Devil? It appears so if the recent war of words between branded food manufacturers and consumer activist organizations regarding the unhealthy character of foods offered by the former in India is any indication. While the industry rests its case on the contention that no rules are violated by it, others beg to differ. According to consumer activists many major brands of food in the market are guilty of hiding truth regarding the contents of trans fats, salts and sugar in them and the right of the consumer to know the truth is violated too frequently while the FSSAI looks on with nonchalance! Where lies the truth? Both parties may have to share the blame because of wrong interpretation of the food laws. While responsible industry probably may not indulge in misinformation or mislabeling, consumer expectation is raised too high by the campaigns taken up by the activist organizations. But one thing is sure that the present labeling system has become too complicated by including many irrelevant information while most industry players try to make the label as an advertisement medium rather than as a helping guide to the consumer. Read the following report which appeared in all major media recently.
"Do you know that a packet of instant noodles has over 60 per cent of your recommended daily salt intake or that a Happy Meal contains 90 per cent of your child's daily requirement of trans fats? Consumers are usually unaware of such facts since most companies in India don't bother to put such information on their labels. But a consumer has the right to know all these facts so that he or she can make an informed choice. If one is to believe a recent study carried out by Delhi-based public interest research organisation, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), many leading national and international brands as well as food chains may be misinforming customers or, worse, misbranding their products, sending wrong impressions about the products. Last month, CSE carried out tests on food items of 16 leading brands, including some products of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Happy Meals of McDonald's, instant noodles such as Maggi and Top Ramen, Pepsico's Lays Chips and Haldiram's Aloo Bhujia. The results they came up with were alarming. "The products we tested contain either very high levels of sugar or salt and trans fats that can have a devastating effect on a consumer's health, especially on kids," says Souparno Banerjee, programme director, media, CSE. Trans fats are found in hydrogenated vegetable oils such as vanaspati. "But what is worse is that labels, in most cases, have either no mention of these ingredients or give wrong data on the percentage content of ingredients such as fatty acids, cholesterol, sugar or salt in their products," he added. "Trans fats get deposited on the walls of arteries, making them narrower or clogging them. When trans fats combine with large amounts of salt that usually packaged foods under the scanner contain, the heart is exposed to greater risk from increased blood pressure," warns Calcutta-based family physician Kanchan Gurtu. But brushing aside the CSE claim, leading corporate food giants say the study is making an issue out of a non-issue. Says Himangshu Manglik, communications manager of Nestlé India, whose product Maggi Noodles is listed under CSE results, "The level of trans fats in Maggi is below 0.2 per cent, which is well within the recommendations of Indian Council of Medical Research, a premier government body. If the percentage is below 0.2, there is no need to mention it on the label as per food safety department's rules. So how can you say that we are misleading consumers and where is the wrong information on the label," he asks. "Food provides pleasure when eaten with balance and understanding and Maggi Noodles is a good light meal that all members of the family can enjoy as part of a diversified, balanced diet," he adds. And it is true that the food items put to the test by the CSE are not usually a part of the regular diet. "They are primarily junk or pleasure foods," points out Gurtu".
It is interesting to hear some pundits saying that those aggrieved by the misinformation being carried by the label can go to the consumer courts for compensation but is an Indian citizen destined to fight for every right to day that is bestowed on him by the constitution? Has the citizen no other business but to spend his time in such courts? A honest citizen expects his right to be protected by the government and if the industry and the safety authorities cultivate a cozy relationship which blinds them to the cause of the consumer, both are culpable for criminal collusion for defrauding him. Similarly a section raises the question as to why the food laws are not enforced while dealing with cooked foods at home or restaurants! What an argument! Another "critic" finds fault with the consumers, arguing out that they should not over eat junk foods! Justification comes also from learned pundits that after all junk foods are not eaten regularly and they do not substitute for the main meal! They further aver that the amount of salt, sugar, trans fats and other " friendly poisons" in branded foods getting into humans would be too small to cause any grievous injury! Ultimately it is a fact that the citizens in this country cannot count on industry, trade or the government for his health when it comes to consuming any food or ingredients sold in the market and he has to fend for himself!