Sunday 8 April 2012

Food Labels: The devil lurks in the detail

CSE calling? Go by ethics Mr.CEO!

CSE calling? Go by ethics Mr.CEO! Late last week, the Centre for Science and Environment hit headlines again. It claimed that of the 16 food brands that underwent scrutiny in its labs, all of them were found to contain more harmful elements as the brands publicly report.

The brands tested included the likes of Maggi, Top Ramen, McDonald's, KFC and Haldiram’s. What the CSE claims is this – that these brands have either misreported or not reported the presence of contents like trans-fats (which causes coronary diseases and reduce the level of good cholesterol), salt (which effects a rise in blood pressure) and sugar (we all know what simple sugar can do!), and therefore these are harmful for the nation’s youth. Take for example the case of an accused.

According to the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), the maximum quantity of salt an individual can consume per day is less than 7 grams (5 grams as per WHO). As per CSE’s findings, the Rs.10 packet of Maggi noodles contains close to 4 grams of salt, and the company doesn’t even report this on the package. This, therefore, means that during the course of the day, a youngster (Maggi is especially loved by the young) isn’t informed that he/she should not consume more than 2 grams of salt. Legible claim by CSE.

Take for instance another set of accused – Haldiram’s, PepsiCo’s Lays, Nissin Foods’ Top Ramen, and McDonald’s. I wouldn’t want to churn out numbers here proving CSE’s stance, but what is important to know is that each of these brands have been accused for delivering more trans fats than they are allowed or they report.

As per WHO, the trans-fat intake limit for an adult ranges between 2.1 grams to 2.6 grams per day. However, the lab reports have proven that these multinational brands are selling products that contain more trans-fat than they should. Again, the claims made by CSE stand legible and in the interest of the nation’s health and youth.

But the question really is – what has CSE done in all these years in the field of food safety to let us to believe that this time around, its findings will actually be able to force some of the nation’s biggest multinationals to take corrective steps? And can it convince the nation’s youth that besides reducing this matter of food hazard to a heated discussion on a news channel, CSE will perhaps even convince authorities to force the multinationals to hold collaborative testing with it?

Remember the year 2003 when the CSE first reported high levels of pesticides in colas? That created a lot of buzz. I was in my final year of graduation then. For about a couple of months I was careful not to buy a bottle of carbonated liquid. As expected, by the end of that year, I had forgotten that Coke or Pepsi can harm me. Perhaps the whole of India had.

In 2006 again, the labs at CSE spoke and revealed that despite its warnings three years back, the levels of pesticides in colas had not fallen. This time, I had passed out of a b-school and happily employed. Again, the buzz was created – the media elements went loud, known experts criticized the cola companies for not taking necessary action over the years and exposing their brand equity to dangerous winds, parents across the country again got careful about encouraging their children to have fresh fruit juices, and as for me, I again got careful about not drinking colas.

Twice in a matter of four years, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola had been criticized, slammed, reported against, and their brands stood the chance of being boycotted from the Indian market. Today, I am a happy consumer of colas and I not just love the recent ‘Change the Game’ ad of PepsiCo featuring Ranbir Kapoor, but I think the social campaign of Coca-Cola is also very sweet.

So will this recent allegation by CSE make any difference to the ethos of the accused multinational companies? Nothing much will change, nothing much needs to change. In terms of ethics, the right strategy on the part of the companies (in case they do not want to participate in a collaborative test with CSE) should be to reveal the right levels of contents on the package. It wouldn’t be right for them to stick to their claims that their products have permissible levels of dangerous elements (as allowed by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, FSSAI). But the question is – in the past decade, if two of CSE lab reports couldn’t affect the cola-vending machines of two multinationals, what will happen with one report involving about 6 multinationals?

At the end of the day, the companies will deliver what they will till the time the consumer is the king. And they should, but ethically. [Isn’t poison and sleeping pills sold in the market?] Remember, when you’re ordering a bottle of Coca-Cola, you know it’s unhealthy. And given the rate at which India is getting educated, am pretty sure, every college-goer knows that a burger or a packet of chips isn’t healthy food either, irrespective of the claims made in TV commercials or by the healthy brand ambassadors!

For the accused MNCs, it’s time they turn to ethical advertising and strategy of selling their products. This way, neither will their noodles or wafer lovers run away and nor will their revenues take a dip! When was the last time you read the content of that chip or noodle packet, or asked for the chemical content of that burger or cola?  Your answer, answers it all!