‘Eat Right’ to be the Most Ambitious New National Initiative of India’s Food Regulator
IN THE EARLY 1990s, when I used to be health writer, Dr K. Srinath Reddy, one of the country’s foremost public health advocates, used to lament the absence of any concern for ‘lifestyle diseases’, especially those that are diet-related and hence reversible, in the public sphere. He would refer wistfully to the Nordic model of reducing the burden of cardio-vascular diseases by rigorously introducing food labelling, cutting down salt intake at the population level, and introducing safe and nutritious food in schools.
Policy discussions in those days were still dominated by contagious diseases, from malaria to the new ‘pandemic’ (as it was then described by a number of vested interest) of AIDS, and barring few people, such as Dr Reddy and the eminent late nutritionist, Dr Vulimiri Ramalingaswamy, no one really cared to underline the potential dangers of the new diets (now covered by the umbrella acronym HFSS, or High Fat, Salt and Sugar) that were being introduced into the country by fast-food multinationals, cola giants and purveyors of breakfast cereals.
In the last 25 years, what were once lone voices of public intellectuals such as Dr Reddy, Dr Vandana Shiva, alter-globalisation crusader and founder of Navdanya, and Dr Sunita Narain, Director-General, Centre for Science and Enviroment (CSE), got amplified into a chorus for change, as informed Indians, influenced of course by the western debate on the subject sparked off by Fast Food Nation, the turn-of-the-millennium book by Eric Schlosser, started speaking up and acting against junk food, sugar-laden colas and breakfast cereals, genetically modified food, chemically altered ‘low fat’ food, and ‘high-yielding agriculture’ propelled by an overload of potentially life-threatening chemicals and fertilisers.
Multiple factors have ensured that food will finally find its place at the centre of the national health policy debate — and it will cease to be the sole concern of doctors, nutritionists and your friendly neighbourhood dietitian.
The Food Safety & Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has issued a new set of progressive Draft Food Safety and Standards (Display and Labelling) Regulations, which have already triggered nationwide discussions on making it mandatory for sugar and added sugar to be mentioned specifically on product labels, for nutrition labels to be attached to junk food delivery boxes, and for film and sport celebrities to stay away from promoting colas.
The food regulator is also getting new, and realistic, standards in place for the certification of organic foodstuff, and it is all set to flag off its nationwide ‘Eat Right’ initiative on July 10. One of the pillars of the ‘Eat Right’ movement, which for the first time will cover food served at holy places and on the Indian Railways, will be the implementation of the national goal of freeing India from the scourge of ‘trans-fats’ (the real artery blockers, such as margarine and vegetable oil, or vanaspati, in packaged and fast foods) by 2022.
This movement is bound to gather momentum because of international initiatives such as the recently published, action-orientated ‘Solutions Menu’ of the Nordic Council, or the SDG2 Advocacy Hub‘s efforts to get chefs around the world aligned to sustainability issues, or the 20-member Lancet Commission‘s monumental work on healthy and sustainable diets (look out for its report on India).
Getting a country such as India to ‘Eat Right’ is not easy. No regulatory mechanism can be strong enough for a country where, as I learnt the other day, big food operators sell their used oil to small restaurants and street vendors for a profit! Unless all of us view ‘Eat Right’ not as just another slogan, but as a call for national action, we will all continue to wallow in the sea of lifestyle diseases.
ONE PRACTICAL STEP TO MAKE THE WORLD PLASTIC FREE
MAGNOLIAS is one of those richie-rich residential high-rises on Gurgaon’s Golf Course Road with 589 apartments. Like all these fabulous complexes, Magnolias, too, has an in-house restaurant catering to the needs of families that prefer to dine in and not eat out. That’s a nice thing to know, but guess how many units of plastic packaging does this privilege entail? Ten thousand per month — not one less.
Each food order is packed in as many as six to ten plastic containers. Even if these are bio-degradable, we have no reason to sit back and feel good. For, the life span of bio-degradable plastic is two years, not one day less — long enough to leave a trail of damage on our eco-system. On finding out the magnitude of their plastic footprint, the residents of Magnolias united to say ‘no’ to plastic, but that’s easier said than done. The apartment restaurant didn’t have any other means to send residents their food home.
Teaming up with the residents, the restaurant manager found a solution, which Mumbai’s dabbawallahs had discovered decades ago. The restaurant has bought 100 traditional tiffin boxes — the number corresponds with the peak number of food orders from residents — and it will deliver food to apartments only in these containers, which are good to be used again after one wash. Enthused by the experience, the residents have coined a cool slogan — don’t leave home without the three Bs: (cloth) bag, (tiffin) box and (glass) bottle.
SUCCESS RECIPES FOR GOOD FOOD POLICY
It is the most ambitious food policy initiative to be rolled out by a government agency in a long time, but how can the FSSAI turn ‘Eat Right’ into a success story, instead of becoming an enforcement challenge? It can learn from three Nordic examples listed in Solutions Menu: A Nordic Guide to Sustainable Food Policy, just released by the Nordic Council of Ministers.
ALIGN WITH CHEFS
WHEN 12 chefs signed the New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto in 2004, little did they realise their collective wisdom would carry so much weight that enlightened consumers not only in their part of the world, but elsewhere in Europe and North America too, would change to diets based on locally sourced seasonal fruits and vegetables, and steadily move away from fish and meats produced at a very high environmental cost. The popularity of kale shot up after the Manifesto and Rene Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen, whose menu was based the principles laid down in the document, became the world’s No. 1 restaurant.
IT WAS Finland that showed the world, back in 1979, how a population-wide reduction in the consumption of salt led to a drop in blood pressure levels and, consequently, in the incidence of lifestyle diseases. Some years back, Denmark got the industry and health professionals to form a Salt Partnership and oversee the salt content of all food products, starting with bread and breakfast cereals, served in hotels, restaurants, cafes, canteens, hospitals and homes. The vigil has brought down salt intake by 3 gm per person, which translates into 400,000 fewer people with high blood pressure. A similar intervention can save millions in India.
TELLING IT VISUALLY
NUTRITION LABELS can be a pain to read and understand. And if companies so wish, they can obfuscate labels and defeat the purpose of the Draft Regulations that are under consideration. Sweden introduced the front-of-the-package Keyhole Label in 1989, after widespread consultations with the industry, doctor and civil society leaders, to make it easy for consumers to identify food products that were safe and nutritious. Its Nordic neighbours were quick to follow and today, the label guarantees that the food products that carry it contain the right quantities of salt and sugar, and are high on dietary fibre and low on harmful fats.