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AACI asks the government to recall its role as a food regulator and focus on health policies

The Alliance Against Conflict of Interest (AACI)—an alliance of organisations and individuals working in various sector aimed at having a legal protection from conflict of interests in all sectors in public policy – has asked the government and the Food Safety & Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to recall its role as the regulator and move away from voluntary pledges and self-regulation towards stronger public policies and programmes to protect public health; including a law to identify, prevent and manage conflicts of interest.

As the private sector is well represented on the Authority by law, so there is no need to have other formal arrangements with private companies in fulfilling the mandate of FSSAI.

Responding to the Executive Director (Compliance Strategy), FSSAI on the Authority’s draft of the ``Working with the Private Sector’’, the Alliance has said the Authority should be focussed on preventing an undue influence of business sector /private sector on public policies. ``FSSAI should follow basic set of principles enshrined in the constitution of India, guidelines for prevention /management of conflicts of interest and follow its own law. By not doing so, its credibility will be put at stake. Keeping independent from commercial interests is an important task for FSSAI,’’ it said.

Having read the draft of the “Working with the Private Sector”, the Alliance has said: ``it sounds more like a facilitating the work of private sector to interfere in the public policy making rather than protecting the health and wellbeing of the consumers. Here we give the example of Singapore, which is very fresh action banning the advertisements that promote high sugar drinks; a more clear action expected from a regulatory body. With the proposed participation partnership with the food industry in the regulatory planning, is a fundamental and institutional conflicts of interest.’’

We find this guideline in present form creates conflicts of interest at FSSAI, the response said while pointing out that the current draft fails to provide an answer to prevention of conflicts of interest at all, which is worrying. ``Food industry has no business to be part of implementing nutrition action. Going by this principle food industry should not be sitting on any table that talks about HOW nutrition/food/diet action be implemented,’’ the AACI has said.

Drawing attention towards the studies mentioned in the draft note of FSSAI, the Alliance has said that the analyses were conducted in 2014. Findings indicated that no significant improvement in the overall nutritional quality of foods marketed to children has been achieved since industry self-regulation was adopted. In 2013, 80.5% of all foods advertised to children on TV were for products in the poorest nutritional category, and thus pose high risk for contributing to obesity.

``The lack of significant improvement in the nutritional quality of food marketed to children is likely a result of the weak nutritional standards for defining healthy foods employed by industry, and because a substantial proportion of child-oriented food marketers do not participate in self-regulation. The lack of success achieved by self-regulation indicates that other policy actions are needed to effectively reduce children’s exposure to obesogenic food advertising.”

AACI believes that FSSAI may in fact ‘interact’ with or sought opinion from food industry on some minimum standards e.g. to facilitate implementation of the regulations such as labelling or marketing or else related to maintaining safely of food and ensure that no damage is done to public health. Therefore, to keep public interest in the centre, and ensure full accountability and transparency, we like to quote here “FSSAI is responsible for protecting and promoting public health through the regulation and supervision of food safety”.

Drawing attention to the Supreme Court of India’s order directing that scientific panels of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) should not have representatives of the industry but independent experts in consonance with the section 13(1) of the FSSAI Act 2006, the Alliance has said honouring the spirit of the judgement, therefore, question does not arise that FSSAI violates its own law by including representatives of the food industry in the CAC or other frameworks.

Pointing out that the FSSAI’s primary role is to ensure availability of safe foods to the consumers through development of robust standards and monitoring their compliance, the Alliance has asked the Authority to work according to these principles and ensures that conflicts of interests are avoided by a process in writing in its functioning. When FSSAI assesses that conflicts of interest is not avoidable, it must manage it to protect public health. The food industry continues to make pledges, but is reluctant to follow regulations. With increasing evidence of risks to public health due to high sugar and high salt foods as well as ultra-processed foods, there is a need to have a non-partisan, uncompromised regulator of food Safety and standards in India. This is crucial to thwart the market’s influences on the way people eat by having adequate safeguards on package labeling, advertising and pricing, it said.

Further, FSSAI should not only follow the public interest principles, it should seem to follow as well. Having any partnership of any kind with food industry is highly troublesome for public health. Such association is normally meant for manipulation by the food industry.

To resist, FSSAI can only work through sound principles of avoiding conflicts of interest but not partner with the industry. The FSSAI and other Government of India departments have to ensure regulation for safety of food and inform people what is right.

The FSSAI should strengthen its institutional capacity to identify/ assess potential conflicts of interests as well as manage by exclusion from participation. When a Public Private Partnership or any committee decides to invite partnership with the private sector, FSSAI should ensure an independent assessment and evaluation of the work done and make it transparent, it said.

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