The government's move to once again defer the enforcement of the notification for mandatory food labelling, with detailed nutritional information on the labels of packaged food, by another three months is incomprehensible.
Food labelling is in conformity with the best international practice and aimed chiefly at empowering consumers to make informed choices about what to eat. More importantly, it can prevent processed food producers from making exaggerated or false health claims about their products.
Vague or misleading product descriptions, such as 'low fat' or 'cholesterol-free' can be avoided to a large extent because such claims would have to be supported by declarations about the exact nature and amount of fats, cholesterol and energy levels contained in the processed foods.
If the intention behind keeping the measure in abeyance is to give the foods industry more preparatory time, it is wholly misplaced as enough and more time has already been given.
Making the disclosure of such information binding under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act began way back in 2006, but its implementation has repeatedly been deferred in the name of giving the industry sufficient time to prepare itself as also to address the concerns expressed by certain sections of the industry about some of the provisions of the order.
The final notification, issued in September 2008, was to come into force six months later, ie in March 2009, and is in fact a substantially diluted version of the original edict published in 2006. If the processed foods industry has been unable to get its act together in nearly three years, additional time of three months is unlikely to make much of a difference.
Many manufacturers have, in any case, adopted it voluntarily as good trade practice.
In its present form, the notification and the guidelines issued under it leave little room for the industry to come up with fresh excuses for not complying with what it has been asked to do.
Much of the small-scale sector, which it was feared would find it difficult to follow the new regulations because of the absence of testing facilities, has been kept out of the purview of this measure through exemptions granted to a wide range of articles. These include raw farm commodities like wheat, rice, cereals, spices as well as processed and pre-packed vegetables, fruits and products like pickles and papads.
Cooked and packed foods served for immediate consumption by hotels and food vendors or halwais have also been excluded from the purview of the notification.
Indeed, in an entirely unjustified decision, the government has gone the extra mile, even risking controversy, to spare soft drink manufacturers from disclosing ingredients, other than additives, which serve a technological function in the finished project (in the name of protecting the secret formulas of cola manufacturers).
However, on the positive side, it mandates, for good reason, that foods using hydrogenated fats or bakery shortenings must declare this on their labels and also mention that they contain trans-fats, generally considered bad for health.
The only valid point which the industry has for opposing the enforcement of the measure is the fact that it has been promulgated under the outmoded PFA Act, bypassing the new integrated food law and the newly-set-up Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, which is supposed to be the chief regulator of the food sector.
Under the PFA, nutritional information norms can be misused by the enforcement authorities (read: inspector raj), and thus create room for needless harassment under the threat of punitive action. But this issue is not going to be resolved by delaying the implementation of the new law by three months.