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Delhi High Court directs schools to ban junk food

MUMBAI: It is almost universal that kids love to munch all kinds of junk food and not surprisingly, junk food brands take advantage of kids’ love for unhealthy food. But all this might change, with the Delhi High Court issuing a directive to ban junk food in schools.

The HC order comes on the heels of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) sounding the alarm about the health hazards junk food poses for kids. The FSSAI has also called for a self-regulation of ads on junk food.

In its direction, the bench of Chief Justice Gorla Rohini and Justice Pradeep Nandrajog has asked the amicus curiae NK Kaul to file a detailed response within three weeks separating the enforceable submitted guidelines from the suggestive. The court also stressed the need to specify the junk food items that should be regulated in schools. The next hearing is scheduled for 6 August 2014.

The case can be traced back to 2010 when Uday Foundation, a Delhi-based non-profit organisation, filed a public interest litigation (PIL), seeking a ban on junk food sold in schools and their vicinity, regulation of junk food promotion and advertisement, and development of a school canteen policy.

In response, the court had asked the FSSAI to set guidelines on the same. In March 2014, the FSSAI submitted a set of guidelines to the court for ‘making available quality and safe foods in schools’. The guidelines were developed by an expert group set up by the FSSAI as per directions of the court in September 2013.

In its guidelines, the FSSAI called for strict control on promotions and advertisements that are targeted at children across all media. It also made strong recommendations against celebrity endorsement of junk food and ready-to-eat food items.

However, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has pointed out that the food industry has worked to influence the expert group’s guidelines and as a result, a diluted set of guidelines has been submitted to the court.

The key last-minute changes in the working group guidelines, which, the CSE alleges, were incorporated under pressure from the food industry, were of restricting/limiting availability of ‘junk food’ in schools and nearby areas, instead of a complete ban that was suggested by the Working Group. Besides, the regulatory area near schools was reduced from 500 yards to 50 meters limiting the purpose of it.

Moreover, there was no recognition of the term ‘junk food’. But the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition defines junk food as food that contains little or no protein, vitamin or minerals but is rich in salt, fat and energy. Physical activity is also over-emphasised by suggesting that the problem is not junk food but lack of physical activity.

The submitted guidelines also reveal minor tampering of content, but these could lead to bigger outcomes favouring the industry.

Instant noodles are replaced with ‘ready-to-eat’ noodles in the list of most common foods that are to be restricted or limited. Moreover, addition of disclaimers prevents the extension of traffic light-based framework for canteen policy into labelling of products. There was also omission of text that establishes the need for mandatory self-regulation of advertisements.

The Working Group also suggested a framework for canteen policy to categorise foods as ‘Green’ category (healthy) that would constitute over 80 per cent of the choices available; ‘Orange’ category that would be available sparingly in the canteens and subject to ‘greening’ through better ingredients and cooking mediums; and ‘Red’ category food which is common junk food and would not be available at all.

They further suggested strict control on promotions and advertisements that are designed and targeted at children and adolescents across all media, with strong recommendations against celebrity endorsement.

Moreover, the nutrition fact and front-of-pack labelling on foods should specify how much fat, sugar or salt it contained in relation to the daily diet.