India’s food safety regulator is likely to mandate online marketplaces to prominently display key health and nutritional alerts alongside the retail price for packaged items sold on their platforms, multiple people aware of the matter told ET.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is evaluating a proposal to enforce front-of-the-pack nutritional labelling to alert consumers about high fat, sugar and salt foods in a bid to curb consumption of unhealthy foods, they added.
If these rules are notified, ecommerce companies as well as quick commerce sites such as Swiggy Instamart, Dunzo, Blinkit and Zepto may be required to provide this information “below or next to the market retail price,” according to a person associated with FSSAI. “Discussions are ongoing but the regulator is yet to arrive at a decision,” said the person.
Currently, nutritional facts are shown as a separate picture along with the main display picture of the products on ecommerce platforms.
Star rating system
It is already mandatory for all portals and mobile apps to display the calorific value and information related to nutrition and allergen of packaged food items.
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Last September, FSSAI had issued draft regulations for front-of-the-pack nutritional labelling (FOPNL) for packaged food companies. It proposes to introduce the concept of five-star ratings to provide information about the nutritional value of the products to consumers.
“One part of it (the recent notification) has been silent on how ecommerce buyers know the health aspect. This is something that has come up as feedback and FSSAI is looking at how to enforce it,” said a person aware of discussions, adding that “they should not find it difficult to implement because calorie count is already mentioned separately on online platforms.”
So far, FSSAI’s draft proposal on star ratings to identify high fat, sugar and salt foods (HFSS) has been resisted by health groups and non-government organisations, the view being that such ratings will not be effective in curbing consumption of unhealthy foods such as packaged chips and biscuits.
The proposal comes when the government is increasingly looking at regulating the ecommerce sector.
Industry seeks clarity
Global food industry executives point out that online grocery portals, especially quick commerce, are fast-growing sales channels. “Any additional declarations on ecommerce platforms, over and above what is already mentioned on the packs, will be a deterrent to consumption,” according to a senior executive on the condition of anonymity.
“There needs to be complete clarity on what the additional labelling will require and we will put across our views once this comes up for consultation with the foods industry,” the person said, adding that his company was aligned to its global mandate of reducing salt and sugar in its products “significantly.”
In 2021, the food safety regulator mandated Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, to prepare a detailed report on FOPNL for packaged and processed foods. This was the first time an external entity was roped in for this. All new proposals are based on the IIM report.
Oliver Mirza, India and South Asia managing director at German packaged foods company Dr Oetker, which makes mayonnaise and desserts, told ET, “We have streamlined our processes and systems to implement new labelling; we are ready. But there remains a lack of clarity on what is required.”
ET reported on January 11 that the majority of Indian consumers are in favour of front-of-the-pack red labels to identify ultra-processed foods, as well as clearly visible red labels next to the listings on ecommerce sites and apps.
The issue has been at the consultation stage for over seven years, with packaged food companies resisting changes and health activists seeking the strictest possible norm. While there have been multiple discussions with stakeholders, FSSAI is yet to take a decision.
Mirza of Dr Oetker said, “There could be some temporary impact on consumer buying behaviour with the new labelling on online and offline channels, but we expect that to be very short-term. Whatever is in the interest of the consumer, we will do.”
According to a recent study conducted by Indian Council of Medical Research, there are multiple ways for consumers to read FOPNL, such as nutri-score, health star rating, warning labels, multiple traffic lights and nutri-star rating.
It found that any format of FOPNL can work to identify the healthiest or unhealthiest variants.
However, for promoting healthier food choices among available variants, summary indicators nutri-score or health star ratings work better. To deter consumption of even moderately unhealthy foods, warning label formats or nutri-star ratings appear to be a better option.
In a separate survey conducted by Local Circles, 77% respondents want at least ultra-processed foods to be identified with a front red label.
FSSAI came out with labelling and display regulations for food service establishments in 2020, making it mandatory for ecommerce players to display the calorific value as well as information related to nutrition and allergens of packaged food items sold on their platforms, including mobile apps.
Ecommerce food business operators are stipulated to get the requisite nutritional information from food business operators and provide it on their websites, wherever applicable.
(Additional reporting by Shambhavi Anand)