Proposed law to control celebrity food endorsements won’t have impacts

The government is considering amending the Consumer Protection Act to provide for five-year jail terms or a penalty of Rs 50 lakh to hold celebrities responsible for false and misleading claims. However, the same amendment stated that there will be no liability if precautions are taken and due diligence is needed before deciding to endorse a product. In other words, the amendment amounts to nothing.

This was stated by Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), in her opening address at Food Talk, a media briefing and public meeting organised in New Delhi by the Centre. Speakers at the briefing opined that celebrities should be banned from endorsing foods high in salt, sugar and fats, and advertisements for certain items, such as non-dairy, non-fruit-based sugar-sweetened products (soft drinks) should not be permitted.

The expert committee on the Consumer Protection Bill, 2015 has recommended a penalty of Rs 10 lakh and imprisonment of up to two years or both for a first offence by a celebrity responsible for false and misleading claims. The penalty is Rs 50 lakh and a five-year imprisonment for a second offence.

“But,” said Amit Khurana, programme manager, Food Safety and Toxins team, CSE, “there are two problems with this proposal – one, manufacturers have not been held equally guilty, and two, celebrities may not understand the science behind the claims and conduct due diligence.”

The speakers at the workshop included Sanjay Khajuria, head, corporate affairs, Nestle India; Ishi Khosla, nutritionist and founder, The Weight Monitor; Shriram Khanna, managing editor, Consumer Voice; Rajesh Sagar, professor and head, department of psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS); Pushpa Girimaji, senior journalist and author; Harish Bijoor, chief executive officer, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc; Santosh Desai, managing director and chief executive officer, Future Brands; Pawan Kumar Aggarwal, chief executive officer, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), and Hem Pande, secretary, department of consumer affairs.

As per the Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labelling) Regulations, 2011, energy, along with the amount of proteins, carbohydrates and fats, is required to be declared. The quantity of sugar is to be specified along with that of carbohydrates. The information could be mentioned as per 100gm or 100ml or per serving of a product. In case of per serve declaration, serving measure is to be mentioned alongside. Only two kinds of claims are approved, based on content of nutrients, but mentioned as health claims.

However, laws do not mandatorily require mention of are the amounts of salt/added sugar, dietary fibres, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and cholesterol (mention might be made only in case of a filing of a claim). Neither does India have a standardised serving size requirement – however, the condition for the claim trans-fat free has been based on serving size.
 
Khurana said, “In contrast to the best practices in other parts of the world, there is no mention of several other types of nutritional claims. There is no list of approved or non-approved health claims. Neither is there a mention of a need for an approval process, or the kind of scientific substantiation required.”
 
“There is a clear trend of focusing on a single attribute of a product while making claims, completely missing the concept of wholesome food or balanced diet. A look at the content of a few popular packaged food claims suggests that these could be unhealthy due to nutrients other than those claimed,” he added.
 
Advertising regulations in India
Food advertisements in India come under the purview of various government departments and agencies. However, it is largely self-regulated through the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), which has no punitive powers of its own. The Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, has provisions to prohibit food advertisements that are misleading in nature. It, however, has no power to approve or monitor food advertisements by itself. It has a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with ASCI, which primarily acts based on complaints through its code on food advertisements.

CSE called for the following:

  • Strengthening of the nutritional fact labelling system.
  • Making labelling of salt/sodium, added sugar, saturated fats and trans-fats, as well as serving information, mandatory
  • Developing an easy-to-understand front of pack labelling system
  • With reference to nutrition claims, ascertaining the nutrients for which claims can be made. Only authorised health claims should be allowed
  • Approval of food advertisements, particularly of those high in salt, sugar or fat, before screening
  • Banning celebrities from endorsing foods high in salt, sugar or fat, disallow advertising for categories, such as soft drinks on the lines of tobacco-based products
  • Restricting disguised promotion of foods high in fat, salt or sugar in schools and mass media, and
  • Instituting and enforcing stringent legal and financial penalties for misleading claims

 

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