Saraoja Sundaram, CAG Chennai: We all have a role to play in creating a safer and fairer marketplace

07 June 2020

Our blogs highlight a range of consumer issues from different perspectives. Unless otherwise stated they do not represent the position of Consumers International.

Guest blog: Saroja Sundaram, Executive Director and Director of Consumer Protection, Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (India)

As part of our blog series for World Food Safety Day 2020, we asked consumer advocacy leaders to share how they are taking action to protect our right to safe, healthy and sufficient food.

Saroja Sundaram, Executive Director and Director of Consumer Protection at Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (India), shares insight on why food safety and access to healthier diets is a key issue for consumer advocates in India, and calls for globally harmonised standards to protect consumers. 

Globally, food safety is a cause for major concern. One in 10 across the globe fall sick, around 420,000 people die and more than 33 million healthy life years are lost every year due to consumption of contaminated food, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Unsafe food practices lead to food-borne diseases and other health conditions such as malnourishment, anaemia, long term health and life risks such as cardiovascular diseases, obesity, infertility, and more. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists the reasons for several challenges to food safety that continue to emerge. These include changes in our food production and supply, including more imported foods, changes in the environment leading to food contamination, antibiotic resistance, and changes in consumer preferences and habits.

Large amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used in agriculture – their residue in grains, vegetables and fruits are harmful to health. Food manufacturers often fail to comply with norms, adding ingredients that are not permitted, and above prescribed limits and/or of sub-standard quality, with complete disregard for human health and the safety of their customers.

The dangers of Trans fats and unhealthy diets

High content of salt, sugar and fat in food is a major cause of several high-risk diseases. However, food companies continue to add them in large quantities for better taste and increased shelf life. This is more widespread in developing countries. Industrially produced trans fats (artificial) contained in shortening, margarine and vanaspathi, are used mainly because of their economic viability. Repurposing of reused cooking oil by restaurants is also common practice in many countries. Using and consuming heated cooking oil and artificial trans fats can, over time, accelerate and cause non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, stroke and cancer. Plastic materials used for food packaging are another key source of food contamination. Misuse of antibiotics in poultry to prevent onset of diseases is a serious emerging issue as this leads to antibiotic resistance.

Consumer protections are in place in some countries, but not always enforced

The relevant government departments are supposed to update standards and regulations in line with emerging changes in the food system, ensuring compliance and strictly enforcing the rules where necessary, to ensure safe food for its citizens at all times. But are some governments doing enough? While it may be so in some developed countries, there are some developing and emerging economies which either lack comprehensive laws, or are not doing enough to enforce consumer protections already in place.

Above all, consumers’ choice of food has changed over the years. Junk food culture is prevalent in many cultures today, especially among the younger generation, and processed foods such as pizzas, burgers and fries are widely available, and often promoted to children with carefully targeted advertising campaigns.

A shared responsibility to build safer and healthier food systems

With many complex issues to address, whose responsibility is it to ensure safe and nutritious food is accessible, supporting consumers to lead a healthy and sustainable lifestyle?

The answer is – it’s all of our responsibilities. The producers/ manufacturers, suppliers, consumers, government, consumer groups – we all have an equal role to play!

It is important to switch to traditional ways of farming, grow food organically using natural manure to avoid ingestion of pesticides into our body. Manufacturers should comply with standards and norms and act more responsibly. They should remember that while they manufacture one or few products, they are consumers of many others.

Harmonising standards globally

Businesses, especially the multi-nationals, should bear in mind that all consumers across the globe are humans of the same order, and should maintain the same quality worldwide, without compromise. I mention this because, very often, we find differences in the quality of food depending on the country they are operating in. Transparency is critical and all information related to the product should be displayed on labels in a legible manner to enable consumers to make informed choices. Research and innovation are needed to find alternatives for plastic packaging as we all know the kind of havoc plastics create to health and environment.

Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), an international standards body, established by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and joined by WHO, aims to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in food trade. It defines food safety as “the assurance that food will not cause harm to the consumer when it is prepared and/or eaten according to its intended use”.

Consumers can drive change – and key stakeholders must support them

Similarly, food safety should be a top priority with governments and they should make every effort to guarantee safe and nutritious food for their citizens. Standards, laws, and regulations should keep pace with the changing/emerging food systems. Monitoring and ensuring compliance should be a regular occurence. Stringent and timely action against those breaking the rules should be the order of the day.

As for consumers, they also play a pivotal role in making sure that the food they eat is safe. Consumer awareness is critical. They should develop the habit of reading labels before buying. If the required information is not available on the label, they should complain. Consumers should prefer food produced organically and avoid junk food. Cultivating their own vegetables in the back yard is a good option. As the saying goes, “We are what we eat”! Food is supposed to influence our physical, mental and emotional well-being. So, it is important to be conscious about our diet and eat healthy food.

None of the above is negotiable. Only if all stakeholders – from producer through consumer, including the government - act in tandem, will access to safe and nutritious food, which is essential for a healthy life and good health, be possible.