March 16, 2017 / 8:31 AM / 3 years ago

Q+A: India's food safety regulator on new rules, healthier products and the industry

Pawan Kumar Agarwal, Chief Executive Officer of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), speaks to Reuters during an interview in New Delhi, India, March 7, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

India is planning to frame draft rules within a month requiring manufacturers to display the fat, sugar and salt content of products on packaging.

Reuters interviewed Pawan Kumar Agarwal, chief executive of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). Here are edited excerpts:

What has an expert group recommended to regulate products high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS)?
The expert group’s report has eight recommendations - from dietary guidelines to the government nudging food businesses to review product offerings. These recommendations will have to go through a process to be implemented. For instance, the recommendation of some taxes on HFSS food, but this is something that the ministry of finance will take a call on.

What are some of the regulations planned?
Labelling requirements are under review and will now require manufacturers to provide the content in terms of sodium, saturated fat and free sugars. We should be able to finalize it within a month, then it would go to the ministry and it would go through a process.

Tell us more about the traffic light labelling proposal.
Reading labels becomes quite cumbersome, so traffic light (colour coding) is making it simple so that people can make out - red, people associate with danger; green is OK - to that extent it is a desirable thing. But there are many requirements - how do we fit all of it on a label, how to space it out.

Is there any resistance from the industry around such measures?
The industry is gearing up. Carbonated drink makers are aware of the global concern around HFSS food and they are providing variety and alternatives to their drinks. There's no pushback. In some sense, their worry is welcome. If they are in that anxiety, it is a good thing if it helps in providing healthier options to our consumers. They are looking at this trend globally. Companies are worried on that account - not about regulations but the general trend towards healthier food.

Do you think there will some broad restriction on chips or colas?
As far as healthier food choices are concerned, other than consumer education, they are not unsafe and therefore cannot be banned. It can only work through educating consumers so that they regulate consumption. We expect the food businesses to join us in such education.

How will you regulate traditional products so that big players are not discriminated?
It's a valid industry concern. We are talking to associations of traditional sweetmakers, other food makers, that they can also be more sensitive to traditional food and provide healthier options. We have received an encouraging response. Shops can educate public -- tell them to have jalebis and samosas in moderation, maybe use less salt in samosas.

Is that achievable in a country of our size?
For many of these things, we have to make a small beginning. If it catches the fancy of the masses, then why not.

What about the government's deliberations around a nationwide "fat tax"?
Taxation is not within our purview. If they are imposing taxes only on select restaurants then perhaps that's not the right thing.

Are any advertising restrictions planned?
Advertising will be part of our regulations. Even though the current act does provide for control on advertising, it is non-specific. There will be more specific provisions on [health] claims made in advertising. I don't think we are going to disallow anyone to advertise, but advertising has to be responsible.

Are other new initiatives planned to regulate such food items or businesses?
We are contemplating some kind of an index for top food businesses. Let's say the top 100 in terms of how responsive they are to safe and nutritious food and consumers in general. The matrix for the index is being developed. This will be voluntary. One of the parameters would be what percentage of their offering is nutritious. Over a period of time, we will make a dashboard and make this publicly available.

GRAPHICS: Carbonated drinks, package food industry, click | Deaths due to diabetes, click

Food, drink giants plot fightback as India looks to tighten rules

Editing by Tony Tharakan

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