Sunday, 9 May 2010

"Right to know what we are eating" VS "Business and Profit of Companies "

Did you know that your favourite ice-cream could actually be a non-vegetarian product? Or for that matter, your preferred Scotch whisky may have clarifying

agents like gelatine, egg white and charcoal made from bones; that breads and buns may be glazed with eggs or animal fat; biscuits may have animal-based enzymes; even the supposedly "pure veg" atta may have vitamins obtained from animal extracts? Even chewing gum may contain emulsifiers of animal origin.

Help is now at hand for resolute vegetarians before these revelations send them into a disoriented funk and they begin to starve.

Importers of packaged food fear that foreign manufacturers might not be willing to change their layout for India and may stop selling here.

In order to provide consumers with correct information about the food they consume, the government has amended the Prevention of Food Adulteration (pfa) rules to introduce the concept of labelling packaged vegetarian and non-vegetarian foods. The concept, which was cleared by the cabinet recently, was reportedly spearheaded by voluble animal rights champion and Union minister Maneka Gandhi. But this could also lead to more confusion and more gloom in Indian industry, already in the throes of stagnant-to-decreasing sales and market uncertainty.

From October 4, 2001, it has become mandatory for all packaged foods containing ingredients of animal origin to sport a brown dot encased in a brown box to inform consumers of what they are about to eat. A notification issued by the ministry of health and family welfare on September 26 said that if any article of food contained "whole or part of any animal including bird, fresh-water or marine animals, or eggs or products of any animal origin as an ingredient", its manufacturer will have to make a declaration by displaying the brown dot prominently on the product next to the brand name. Milk and milk products, if used as an ingredient, are, as of now, exempted from this order. The government order also clarifies that if any product contains only egg as a non-vegetarian ingredient, the manufacturer can declare that in addition to putting the brown dot on the product label.

The rule would apply equally to pharmaceutical companies who supply biopharmaceuticals and nutritional supplements derived from animal sources, to other companies. These are added to a large number of products, many of them pure vegetarian otherwise, to enhance their nutritional value. There's been an increase in biopharmaceuticals and other nutritional products obtained from animal sources in the Indian market in recent times. This rule is likely to dent the bottomline of companies who have launched nutritional products which were never measured in these terms before.

However, say sources, pharmaceutical products registered under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act would not come under the purview of the new rule.

Companies will have to display the dots prominently not only on the product but also on containers, pamphlets, leaflets and advertisements in any media. Says a health ministry official: "We feel that people have a right to know what their food contains. In a country with a sizeable population of vegetarians, it may be criminal to offer food with animal ingredients without their knowledge."

Two years ago, say industry sources, formulators of international food-safety guidelines approved by the wto asked India and South Africa to explore possibilities of separating vegetarian and non-vegetarian foods to arrive at a possible global marking system. However, on investigation, it was found that it was impossible to classify food into just these two broad categories.As there was a lot of confusion the world over about what was purely vegetarian and what was not, at least six marking categories were required. The plan died a natural death.

India has, however, decided to go ahead with it. Although this system of labelling is unprecedented in any part of the world, certain companies in the US, where vegetarianism is a growing trend, voluntarily mark their products as green or totally vegetarian.

Industry has complied quietly; most manufacturers started putting the brown dot on their packaged products before the October 4 deadline. Says a spokesperson of Hindustan Lever, India's largest food marketer: "It is a reassurance from manufacturers to consumers that the product they choose is as per their preferences. It should deter unscrupulous manufacturers from violating consumers' faith and belief." Some like Amul have even started declaring that their products do not have any animal ingredients. But others believe that this will just make marketing and advertising unnecessarily complex.

Importers of packaged foods, for instance, are aghast. Says Saswat Sengupta, ceo, Rai & Sons, exclusive importers of Ferrero chocolates, La Vache Quirit cheese and other food brands: "Why should a foreign company change or disturb its layout just for India? They will probably stop selling in India or exclude us from their third country marketing plans."

The brown dot has not had an easy birth, even in visual terms. Sources say that initially the ministry of food processing prescribed a crossed red circle to label non-vegetarian food. However, this had connotations of danger—it was similar to signs used for poison and other harmful substances and the industry was up in arms against it. The Committee for Food Specifications then arrived at the brown dot symbol. Ironically though, some products available in the market currently are sporting the crossed red-circle mark.

However, while dotting the carnivore variety is fair towards vegetarians, another ministry has issued a booklet cataloguing what is true-green vegetarian. If he were to avoid the long list of products that have animal-based ingredients, the scrupulous vegetarian would be condemned to a very simple life indeed, bereft of everything from safety matches to wine and condoms (see table).

Manufacturers are obviously worried stiff. Says a top official of a food company: "How far do you stretch it? Even curd has micro-organisms. Most biscuits would become non-vegetarian and vegetarians may move away from them. India has enough vegetarians to make a dent in the sales of any company in any product."

As if this was not enough, the government has circulated a draft notification to put a similar green mark on vegetarian foods to ensure that the consumer is left in no doubt on the vegetarian question. This comes into force in the coming months. The food industry, however, complains that this is uncalled for as any product not having the brown dot should automatically mean vegetarian.

Bureaucratic wranglings, indignation, alarm and confusion can be expected to reign for some months before things settle down. And the faithful formulate their new consumption patterns.