Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Transparency in food labeling-Industry vs consumers

Does "front of the packet" labeling regulations which are in vogue in most countries in the world, in one form or the other, serve any purpose at all? If one goes by the views of the manufacturing industry such restraints are unnecessary because it has the best of the intentions in protecting the well being of the consumers! Probably if one goes by such yardsticks, there is no necessity for any food safety or quality regulating laws, leaving the onus of ensuring these aspects to the "good intentions" of the industry! What a quixotic logic! Whether the industry likes it or not many consumers patronize packed foods because they believe that the regulatory system that keeps a vigil over the doings of the industry is doing a satisfactory job. Look at the recent "noodle mess" in a country like India where consumers putting faith in their regulatory regime, however idiotic it may be, are reducing buying of processed foods in a very significant way as being reported by market watchers due to belief that the product is "toxic" as being claimed by the regulator. If what is happening in a country like the US, considered food processing capital of the world, is any indication food industry seems to be bent on "cheating" the consumers of their right to know what they want to buy and eat through "money muscle" and political clout. It is a disturbing trend and consumers world over must resist such blatant attempts by the industry to manipulate food laws to make them more are opaque. Here is a take on this unfortunate events taking place in the US.  

"By all accounts, Americans want a more transparent food system. Recent polling suggests the majority of Americans favor labeling that tells them exactly how and where their food is produced. And yet, several bills are currently moving through Congress that could make it much harder to learn about the source of our food. These bills would prevent state and local governments from requiring labeling of GMOs; remove country-of-origin labeling (COOL) requirements for most of the meat we buy; and make it harder to know where pesticides are used. The international trade agreements now being negotiated also include provisions that could make such information less available to consumers.  The food industry is spending an enormous amount of money to promote and lobby for this legislation. Food companies may have shelled out over $100 million* in the first six months of 2015 alone, according to federal lobbying disclosure reports. Businesses and trade groups promoting these policies say putting more information on food labels will send the wrong message about food safety, add costs, and pose barriers to trade. And in some cases, they worry it will open U.S. food producers and other companies to punitive import-export taxes. But good food advocates disagree. "This is basic transparency," says Patty Lovera, assistant director of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch. "We're not saying anything's unsafe," says Environmental Working Group(EWG) policy analyst Libby Foley. "We're saying it's about consumer choice." Here are the numbers the food industry doesn't want you to see: So far this year, food and beverage companies have spent $51.6 million on a series of lobbying including efforts efforts to defeat GMO labeling laws such as the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (H.R. 1599), which opponents have dubbed the "Deny Americans the Right to Know" or DARK Act. According to a recent analysis by EWG, nearly a quarter of this money—$12.6 million—comes from just six companies: Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg's, Land O'Lakes, and PepsiCo. Other big spenders in these efforts include the Grocery Manufacturers Association ($5.1 million); American Farm Bureau (nearly $1 million); and the National Restaurant Association ($2 million). Many state farm bureaus have also chipped in—among them, Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, and Oregon. Big name food producers, including Campbell Soup, Mars, Inc., Mondelez, NestlĂ©, OceanSpray, Safeway, and Unilever, are all spending significant amounts money on this issue as well."

Why is this happening in a country where literacy is almost 100%? May be it is precisely this reason that the industry is apprehensive of the consumers understanding the significance of what is presented on the label and shunning products which he considers not good, safe or environmentally unsatisfactory. An issue like declaring presence of GMO ingredients in a product has been blown out of proportion and American consumer is presently being denied this right because the regulatory authorities are overtly friendly with the powerful industry interests, ignoring the consumer feelings on this issue. Same is true with many safety related issues which invariably are loaded against the hapless consumer. In contrast in a country like India, the food safety agency is overtly antagonistic to the industry as proved by the recent unjustifiable ban on noodles with suspect testing results! What is required is a balance system that is equitable to the consumer as well as the manufacturer. May be it is an Utopian dream with least possibility of becoming a reality. 

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