Cos get 3-month breather to comply with regulations.

Packaged food manufacturers must declare on their product labels nutritional information to enable consumers make ‘informed’ choices while purchasing.

Our Bureau

New Delhi, March 21 Bowing to industry pressure, the Centre has ‘requested’ State Governments not to book cases against companies not complying with the Health Ministry’s recently notified nutritional labelling provisions on packaged foods for the next three months.

“Since these are path-breaking provisions in the food sector, it is essential that they are carefully enforced through persuasion and education of the manufacturers…rather than through penal action... It would, therefore, be necessary to advise the health authorities not to book cases for violation of the provisions of the notification during the initial period of three months,” the Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Mr G. Balachandran, has said in a letter addressed to all State health secretaries.

The Ministry had, on September 19, 2008, notified the Prevention of Food Adulteration (5th Amendment) Rules, 2008, mandating packaged food manufacturers to declare on their product labels nutritional information to enable consumers make ‘informed’ choices while purchasing.

Under the rules – which were to come into force six months from the notification date, i.e. with effect from March 19 – the manufacturers were to provide nutritional details (on a per 100 gm or 100 ml or per serving of the product) pertaining to “energy value in kcal; the amounts of protein, carbohydrate (specify quantity of sugar) and fat in gram; the amount of any other nutrient for which a nutrition or health claim is made”.

Further, in cases where manufacturers made fat-related health claims on their product, the labels had to clearly specify the amount of saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fatty acids (in grams) and cholesterol (in milligrams). Claims regarding ‘trans fat free’ or ‘saturated fat free’ could be made only if their respective presence was less than 0.2 gram and 0.1 gram per 100 gram or 100 ml of the food.

Also, packaged food prepared using vanaspati and other hydrogenated oils had to contain a label declaration stating ‘hydrogenated vegetable fats or bakery shortening used – contains trans fats’.

“Currently, most manufacturers get away by making vague declarations, such as the product contains so and so ingredients (sugar, wheat flour, oil, etc), permitted colours, flavours, and so on. There is no proper quantification or communication of the claimed health benefits to the consumer,” noted Mr Vijay Sardana of ARPL Agri Business Services, a New Delhi-based food safety consultancy.

The new rules, however, would force companies to comply with global food safety standards based on self-declaration that is subject to testing in analytical laboratories. “Any variation in product composition from what is declared on the label will invite prosecution,” he pointed out.

But with the Centre receiving numerous industry representations seeking deferring of the implementation of the rules, the Health Ministry has now decided to provide a three months-breather. The rules involve “additional commitment from the manufacturers, who may apprehend some commercial implications in terms of sales of their product”, Mr Balachandran’s letter has said, adding that the Government is “not oblivious of the ground realities in respect of immediate implementation of the provisions of the said notification”.

The letter has asked States not to initiate penal action for a period of three months and focus instead on “collecting information about the manufacturers who violate these provisions” and issuing “advisory letters” that would “request compliance”. Such a persuasive strategy “could go a long way in facilitating smooth transition to the new nutritional labelling regime”.

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(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated March 22, 2009)
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