he Telegraph, December 20, 2010

Pre-packaged imported food items often do not carry the necessary information on their labels. V. Kumara Swamy explains how consumers are shortchanged when such labelling norms are flouted

Abhilasha Aggarwal, a Delhi-based media executive, received a lot of gifts from her relatives and friends this Diwali. Most of them were sweets, chocolates, dry fruits and other food items, and much of it was imported, with labels in languages like Japanese, Arabic and others. “Many of them neither carried the names of the ingredients nor clearly mentioned whether they were vegetarian or non-vegetarian,” says Aggarwal, who is a strict vegetarian.

This was also one of the concerns of the Delhi High Court while it heard a trademark suit on imported food items recently. In fact, it directed the Union health ministry and consumer affairs ministry to ensure that chocolates and other pre-packaged food products imported into India contain details of all the ingredients. It also asked the government to spread awareness among consumers about the dangers of buying products that do not carry such labels.

Indian consumers today have easy access to pre-packaged imported food items in their neighbourhood stores and supermarkets. But are they aware of the precautions to be taken while buying these products?

According to the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition (NIT), a study on the perceptions and practices of Indian households related to food safety in 2006 revealed that as many as 60 per cent of the households buy packed food, but only 20 per cent check their labels.

The disclosure of basic information on food labels in India is primarily governed by the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act (PFA), 1954. However, amendments on packaging and labelling food under Part VII of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, 1955, has also made it mandatory for manufacturers to disclose the health and nutritional claims on food labels.

According to the rules under the PFA, all imported packaged foods must show the name and complete address of the manufacturer, packer and the importer, the maximum price, the names of all the ingredients in descending order of composition, month and year of packaging in capital letters and the “best before” date.

“India has sufficient rules and regulations for mandating the production and supply of safe and quality food products in the market. However, operational and institutional mechanisms for enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of these laws require urgent attention,” says Jabir Ali, professor, Centre for Food and Agribusiness Management, Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Lucknow.

In its study, ‘Assessment of Current Scenario of Food Labelling in India’, NIT states that food labelling in the country is “primitive”. It also says that it found the labelling information on 109 imported pre-packaged foods wanting on several counts.

Experts say that in a situation where food labelling norms are flouted so flagrantly, the onus is on consumers to protect themselves. “The least a consumer should look for is the address of the importer on a foreign made product. If something goes wrong, that will be needed to register a case,” says Ashok Kanchan, of Consumer VOICE, the Delhi-based consumer body.

According to government rules, every package of non-vegetarian food should bear the symbol of a red dot in a square very close to the name or brand name of the food stuff. Also, every package of vegetarian food should have a green dot. But this isn’t always followed in the case of imported pre-package products. “I think consumers have to determine for themselves whether there is a vegetarian or non-vegetarian ingredient in the imported food product,” says Kanchan.

An official of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), a statutory body that lays down standards for articles of food and regulates the manufacturing, processing, distribution, sale and import of food, admits that some imported food items do find their way into India through “grey” channels. He claims, however, that the organisation is trying its best to enforce the standards laid down. “We are keeping a close watch. We also issue advisories for consumers and conduct consumer awareness workshops all over the country,” the official says.

Some importers complain that the rules are already stringent enough. Sharad Bohra, proprietor of the Calcutta-based Ruchi International which imports food products from around 15 countries, says that not a single pre-packaged food product can pass through the customs if it doesn’t meet government rules. “Every imported food product is checked by the customs and they are cleared only when they meet the standards,” insists Bohra.

However, most consumer experts contradict this view. According to one industry study, as much as 35 per cent of the imported food items find their way into Indian markets through grey channels. And a substantial part of these food items are pre-packaged products. “Until and unless consumers are aware of what goes into their food and have access to information on the ingredients, they cannot make an informed choice. For instance, how many of us are aware that Chinese milk and milk products are banned in India,” asks Keya Ghosh, head, Calcutta Resource Centre, Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS). “Yet one can easily find Chinese made toffees and chocolates in the Indian markets.”

The government could learn a thing or two from the recent initiatives of foreign governments to ensure standardisation in the labelling of imported food products. “The Indonesian government has mandated the use of the Indonesian language on the labels of all imported packaged food products. China too has made it mandatory for all packaged foods for retail sale to have their fundamental elements printed in Chinese,” says Ali of IIM-Lucknow.

But until the government is able to implement its own rules effectively, it is the consumer who has to be careful about finding out more about an imported food item before he or she buys it. As Ghosh puts it, “From consumer awareness will come consumer choice, and consumer choice should ideally dictate the market dynamics.”

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