'No' to Health Star Ratings on junk food, say experts at CSE conclave

FSSAI’s pro-industry move will harm consumers 

  • Experts gathered to discuss the front-of-pack labelling on packaged foods,appealed that FSSAI must not go-ahead with ‘Health Star Ratings’on packaged junk foods as they are misleading and can do more harm than good for the consumer 
  • Echoed that the consumerneeds to be warned about junk foodsthrough ‘warning’ labels, if the government is serious to slow down the epidemic of obesity and non-communicable diseases 
  • FSSAI must come forward and show that they care for the Indian consumer and public health: Sunita Narain, director general, CSE 

Find the details of the conclave: click here 

April 20, 2022:Experts from public health, medical fraternity and consumer groups gathered to discuss the issue of front-of-pack labelling (FOPL) on packaged junk foods on April 19, 2022. The deliberation was part of the three-day ‘National Conclave on Sustainable Food Systems’ which is being organized by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) at the Anil Agarwal Environment Training Institute (AAETI), Nimli, Rajasthan. 

“India can’t afford the epidemic of obesity and non-communicable diseases. It is time,the Indian consumer is warned about how bad and unhealthy is junk food”, said, Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment, while leading the expert deliberation on the ‘Need for front-of-pack warning labels on ultra-processed junk foods’. 

“Health Star Ratings are designed by the powerful food industry to mislead the consumer. By pushing these, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)will give license to glorify junk foods, which is the opposite of what should be done”, she added.  

The deliberations included about 50 experts from across the country. The expert speakers for this session included: Amit Khurana, programme director, Sustainable Food Systems, Centre for Science and Environment; George Cheriyan,director, CUTS International, Rajasthan; Vandana Prasad,community pediatrician, Public Health Resource Network, Delhi; andSanjay Pandey,lead advisor, Global Health Advocacy Incubator, India. 

Front-of-pack labelling on packaged foods was first recommended by an FSSAI-led committee formed in 2013. CSE was part of this committee. FSSAI then came up with a draft regulation in 2018, which had strict thresholds – limits to know unhealthy levels – based on those developed by the WHO for countries like India in the South-East Asia Region. Due to the industry pressure, FSSAI came up with another draft in 2019. The food industry was still not pleased and this draft was repealed. From Jan-Jun 2021, stakeholder consultations were held on the labelling design to be adopted, thresholds to made applicable and nutrients to be displayed. CSE has documented all delays and dilutions until June 2021 in a Down to Earth Cover story. The latest consultation took place in Feb, 2022, when it was made clear that FSSAI plans to go ahead with the ‘Health Star Rating’. 

“The sole objective of the stakeholder consultations,which were heavily dominated by the packaged food industry, was to come up with a labelling system, which is industry-friendly” said Amit Khurana, programme director, Sustainable Food Systems at the Centre for Science and Environment, who was part of these consultations. 

“All this while, FSSAI has been insensitive to the information needs of the consumer. It also ignored global best practices and evidence around them. Instead, in an orchestrated way,through the scientific panel and commissioned studies, it is now getting ready to adopt a labelling system which is considered least effective and rejected across the world”, added Khurana 

Health Star Rating is a labelling system which includes depiction of 1 to 5 stars on packaged foods. These stars are depicted based on an algorithm at the back-end, which is not known to consumers. It is only adopted voluntarily in few countries such as Australia and New Zealand and only a part of food products carries it. It has been rejected in several other countries as it can mislead the consumer and be easily manipulated by the industry. For example, its algorithm includes scores for positive nutrients i.e., fruits, vegetables and nuts etc., which is a carefully crafted industry strategy to sell ultra-processed foods as good foods. It also does not tell the consumer, if a particular product has high level of salt or sugar as it only gives a summary indicator in the form of a star. For example, a hypertensive will not get to easily know if a product has salt or not. It will also not help in building long-term consumer awareness about unhealthy levels of salt, sugar and fat. It was meant to compare foods within a particular food category. 

“Given all the evidence, if front-of-pack labelling are to cater primarily to public health goals, they must take the form of warning labels and not health star ratings”, said Vandana Prasad, community pediatrician, Public Health Resource Network, Delhi. “We hope the FSSAI will withstand the pressure of food processing companies and meet this requirement urgently”, she added. 

George Cheriyan, director, Consumer Unity and Trusts Society (CUTS) International and a member of the FSSAI, strongly advocated for a FOPL that is simple and easily interpretable by a consumer, thereby helping them identify unhealthy products. “Voluntary Health Star Ratings allows industry to use it selectively. Hence it is used on products that are already healthier than others. It is important that Indian regulators choose a simple and interpretive label that aids consumer to choose between healthy and less healthy products”, he said. 

The proven best practice in front-of-pack labelling is nutrient specific ‘warning’ labels. They have been simple and effective in discouraging junk food consumption. Several Latin American countries, Canada and Israel have already adopted warning labels. Many other countries are considering them. Among them, the best known are symbol-based warning labels such as that of Israel. These will be most suitable for India, as it would transcend the literature and language barriers.  

“We have submitted our concerns to FSSAI. It can’t allow a system that will effectively nudge the consumer to make unhealthy choices. It will mislead the consumer because of its design, algorithm and inclusion of positive nutrients in the calculation.It can’t allow relaxed limitsand voluntary adoption”, said MsNarain, while concluding.  

“FSSAI must come forward and show that they care for the Indian consumer and public health. They will have to act strongly to counter the industry pressure and fulfil the mandate given to them”, added Narain.   

Read the Down To Earth story on front-of-pack labelling here. 

For details, interviews etc, please contact Sukanya Nair of The CSE Media Resource Centre: sukanya.nair@cseindia.org, 8816818864