Information about the Issue
In India, the food labeling policy is regulated by the Food Safety And Standards (Packaging And Labelling) Regulations, 2011. The Regulations provide that there should be a distinct declaration on the pre-packaged foods about their vegetarian (through green dot) or non-vegetarian (through brown dots) content in the form of visible marks. The regulations classify any food article that is not ‘non-vegetarian’ as ‘vegetarian’. In doing so, they exclude animal-derived milk or milk products (commonly referred to as dairy products) from the scope of the non-vegetarian food category. Therefore, presently, for any consumer purchasing food products in India, it is nearly impossible to distinguish dairy products from vegetarian products. The problem with the policy of categorizing dairy products as vegetarian lies in the fact that dairy products are not plant-derivatives but derivatives of milk which is a product obtained through milch animals such as cows and buffaloes.
More importantly, vegetarian products, in the scientific community, do not include food items that are not derived from plants. Such labeling is also problematic because of the following reasons:
- The labeling of dairy products along with their plant-based alternatives in the vegetarian category conveys a nutritional equivalency that is not accurate. Such categorization also misleads consumers who want to avoid dairy in the interest of maintaining a sustainable and plant-based diet.
- The list of ingredients written in one standard language (which is most commonly English) on the packaged food becomes useless for a person who cannot comprehend the said language because of issues like illiteracy, or unfamiliarity with the type or quality of dairy products.
- Dairy consumption has also been found to have some adverse health consequences. In a study in 2015, researchers at Sanjay Gandhi Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences concluded that the incidence of Lactose Intolerance in the country is 74%. Thus, a large segment of the Indian population that needs to avoid dairy products cannot do so in the absence of their ability to comprehend the list of ingredients in packaged food products without any other access method.
- Vegetarians who do not support animal slaughter and cruelty get misled because they believe that a ‘green dot’ designates products not associated with animal cruelty or exploitation.
For the aforementioned reasons, the need for a distinction of all dairy items that are derived from animals from plant-derived food items becomes extremely important and the practice of a “green dot” representing both such items is misleading for the consumers. It was also pointed out in the 2019 Session of the Codex Committee on Food Labelling, that the innovation in the food industry has resulted in diversity in food products to the extent wherein the simple listing of allergens such as dairy products in the list of ingredients is not sufficient to inform a concerned consumer since the consumer might not even be familiar with the particular form of a dairy product. It must be highlighted here that in the marketplace, animal-derived milk and associated dairy products exist in varied forms which include whey, casein, and lactose among others. As mentioned already, many consumers, even after reading the list of ingredients are not able to recognize the listed form of dairy product and end up consuming it inadvertently, believing it to be a plant-derived product given the green dot, whereas it has substantial quantities of animal-derived products. Thus, a distinctive representation of the contents of a product must warn and/or inform the consumers regarding its ingredients.
Constitutional Principles and International Standards for Food Labelling
The current policy of including dairy products within the ambit of vegetarian products is deleterious to the consumers’ right to make an informed choice. In Ozair Hussain vs Union of India, the Delhi High Court ruled that a consumer has a right under Articles 19(1)(a), 21, and 25 of the Constitution to be aware of the composition of the food products they consume as it ensures the adequate utilization of their right to effectively make an informed choice. Therefore, the current policy of representing dairy products is against constitutional principles.
Moreover, the current policy is also in contravention of certain international standards that state that milk and milk products (lactose included) are one of the categories of food that are known to cause hypersensitivity and thus, must always be recognizable, in a legible manner on packaged food items. More specifically, the General Standard for the Use of Dairy Terms defines dairy products as one that is animal-derived to the exclusion of any ‘plant-derived milk products’.
What are we doing in this regard?
We have written to the Hon’ble Minister, Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution, Hon’ble Minister, Ministry of Food Processing Industries; Chairperson, Food Safety And Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and Chief Executive Officer, FSSAI.
Elucidating on the concerns related to the use of a common symbol for packaged dairy and plant-based products and its effects on consumers’ right to choice and health, we emphasized that drawing a clear distinction between dairy products and plant-derived products is the need of the hour. We have suggested creating a separate color mark to symbolize and clearly distinguish dairy products from vegetarian food items. This will bring India’s policy of food packaging and marking in conformity with international standards while significantly enough also being the correct recourse to uphold the right to informed choice and health of the Indian consumers.
How can you help?
- You can share our updates regarding the issue, to help us increase the outreach of this campaign.
- If you can help us identify any other such policies that need provisional improvements, write to us.
- You can volunteer to support our advocacy efforts, as per your skill set.
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