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India doesn’t define ‘Junk Food’, invites manipulation

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New Delhi, Feb 11: When the whole world is fighting against the ill effects of Junk Food, India is yet to define what junk food is.

'Junk Food' is not defined under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 and Regulations thereunder, Ashwini Kumar Choubey, Minister of State of Health and Family Welfare, informed the Lok Sabha on Friday.

India doesn’t define ‘Junk Food’, invites manipulation

Junk food is a pejorative term for food containing a large number of calories from sugar or fat with little dietary fiber, protein, vitamins or minerals.

Instead, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has prepared guidelines, that too as per the directions of the Delhi High Court.

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The guidelines titled as 'Guidelines for making available Wholesome Nutritious, Safe and Hygienic Food to School Children in India' have been prepared by an expert group /central advisory committee.

The Delhi High Court had issued directions while hearing the petition No. 8568 of 2010 titled 'Uday Foundation for Congenial defects and Rare Blood Vs UOI & Others'.

Since India has not 'officially' defined Junk Food, it has left open the door for the multinational junk food giants to manipulate country's health policies in connivance of government officials.

Here is the latest example how efforts are on to manipulate India's food policy, which if successful, will not only affect current population but also future generations.

The FSSAI, country's top food regulator, launched 'The Eat Right India' movement in July, 2018 to improve public health in India and combat negative nutritional trends to fight lifestyle diseases and spends crores of taxpayers' money on advertisements to keep Indians healthy.

However, a watchdog organisation has accused the FSSAI of providing a 'government platform' to the multinational torchbearers of junk food to influence India's food policies.

The India Resource Center (IRC), an international campaigning organisation based in Berkeley, California, has written a letter to Pawan Agarwal, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), FSSAI, and highlighted the conflict of interest in the FSSAI.

Amit Srivastava, Coordinator, IRC, has also marked the copy of letter to Union Health and Family Welfare Minister Jagat Prakash Nadda.

Citing a BMJ report entitled "Making China safe for Coke: how Coca-Cola shaped obesity science and policy in China", Srivastava apprises Agarwal of how Coca-Cola and other companies worked through the China branch of International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) to influence China's public health policies, including a "shift aligned with Coca-Cola's message that it is activity, not diet, that matters-a claim few public health scholars accept".

ILSI is a non-profit organisation founded by Alex Malaspina, former senior vice president at Coca Cola, and acts as a front group for food, beverage and agrichemical companies, says the letter.

However, ILSI Global website describes itself as a nonprofit, worldwide organisation whose mission is to provide science that improves human health and well-being and safeguards the environment.

Srivastava further adds that ILSI has a chapter in India as well, and counts Coca-Cola India's Director of Regulatory Affairs as its Treasurer, and representatives from Nestle and Ajinomoto among its board of directors.

"Not surprisingly, ILSI has organised conferences in India downplaying the role of sugar and diet, and promoting increased physical activity as the solution to obesity. What is particularly disturbing is the central involvement of key FSSAI functionaries - who are meant to regulate these junk food companies - in the ILSI organisation itself," says the IRC letter.

Mentioning the conflict of interest, the letter says the Board Member of ILSI-India Dr. Debabrata Kanungo is also on the FSSAI's Scientific Panel on Pesticides Residues and Scientific Panel on Food additives, Flavourings, Processing aids and Materials in contact with food.

ILSI- India website displays name of Kanungo as Member of Board of Trustees and introduces him as "Consultant (Medical Toxicology and Risk Assessment), CIB & RC. Govt. of India, (Retd.), Faridabad".

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The letter further states that Dr. B Sesikeran, who is on the Board of Trustees of the global ILSI as well as ILSI-India Board member, is also a member of FSSAI's Scientific Panel on Functional foods, Nutraceuticals, Dietetic Products and Other similar products.

In April last year, the FSSAI had come out with the draft of Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations 2018 that propose mandatory red-label marking on packaged food products containing high levels of fat, sugar and salt. But, the government had to put on hold the draft after some stakeholders expressed concerns.

The FSSAI then set up a group of experts to look into the issue of labelling and made B. Sesikeran head of the group. The other members are director of National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) Hemalatha, and Dr. Nikhil Tandon.

Srivastava has also questioned Sesikeran's appointment at the FSSAI's expert committee to look into the draft Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations 2018.

"The presence of these two individuals (Kanungo and Sesikeran) in such critical positions within FSSAI constitutes a significant conflict of interest. They are representing the industry front group, ILSI, and their inclusion in the scientific panel runs counter to the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006," the letter says and demands removal of Kanungo and Sesikeran from FSSAI panels.

Sesikeran's name has been displayed on ILSI Global website as well as ILSI-India website as Member of Board of Trustees.

Citing a 2011 Supreme Court, Srivastava writes that "the inclusion of the two members mentioned above violate the spirit and intent of the Supreme Court decision given the central roles that both members play as board members of ILSI".

The apex court had pulled up FSSAI for keeping Pepsi and Coca-Cola representatives on a committee looking into the alleged use of harmful chemicals in soft drinks and directed the food regulator to renotify all such panels within two weeks and remove names associated with industrial houses.

However, how seriously the FSSAI takes directions of the Supreme Court could be gauged by a news report of last year.

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FSSAI CEO Agarwal was quoted by PTI on August 17, 2018 as saying that FSSAI will go ahead with the labelling norms even if there is no consensus on the matter after the (Sesikeran) panel's suggestions.

Now, the ball is in the court of Union Health and Family Welfare Minister J.P. Nadda. It will be interesting to watch what action he takes on the matter that involves a larger public interest.

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