Centre must fight junk food menace, writes Dinesh C Sharma

Centre must fight junk food menace, writes Dinesh C Sharma

Dinesh C Sharma | Mail Today | New Delhi, September 10, 2014 | UPDATED 10:29 IST

Dinesh C. Sharma Dinesh C. Sharma The Union Budget presented a few weeks ago made a bold health statement by imposing a a hefty tax hike on tobacco and by increasing excise duty by five per cent on sugary, aerated drinks for the first time in recent years. Both tobacco and unhealthy food (rich in sugar, salt and fat), together with physical inactivity, are key risk factors for heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases.

The hike in taxes on these two unhealthy product categories was welcomed by health experts. It was seen as an indicator of the new government's resolve to fight the rise of lifestyle diseases.

The expectation was the tax hike would be followed by more steps to reduce the impact of various risk factors. Now it appears such expectations were premature. Food Processing Industries Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal wants junk food makers like Pespi to expand their operations in the country. Not just this, she is keen that the cola-and-chips company becomes a partner of the government in its endeavour to provide nutrition and health to the poor. Specifically Kaur has asked Pepsi to develop "such food products that can be supplied as part of the mid-day meals in rural India." A junk food company being asked to be a nutrition provider may sound weird but this is exactly what the cabinet minister has said.

PepsiCo chief Indra Nooyi (right) with Food Processing Industries Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal at a meeting in New DelhiPepsiCo chief Indra Nooyi (right) with Food Processing Industries Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal at a meeting in New DelhiTo the nutrition and health community, such a statement is blasphemous. It undermines the spirit of several resolutions of the World Health Organisation (WHO) - to which India is a party - that have specifically called for reducing the impact on children of marketing of junk foods.

The world body has stated that risks presented by unhealthy diets start in childhood and build up throughout life. In order to reduce future risk of non-communicable diseases children should maintain a healthy weight and consume foods that are low in saturated fat, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, and salt." Allowing food companies to provide mid-day meals is also against WHO recommendation which exhorts member-countries to "keep settings where children gather free from all forms of marketing of foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, or salt."

With the noose tightening on home turf in North America and Europe in the form of soda and candy taxes, big food companies are seeing hunger and malnutrition as their new market. They are spending millions of dollars for lobbying against such taxes and to prevent restrictions on advertising of junk food, which is targeted at children.

Tougher measures are on the card with the WHO recently setting up a high-level "Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity", co-chaired by Peter David Gluckman, a pediatric biologist and science advisor from New Zealand and Dr Sania Nishtar, a cardiologist from Pakistan. Dr K. Srinath Reddy, President of the World Heart Federation, is among members of this commission.

In the backdrop of such developments, an unconditional invitation to join India's nutrition programme is nothing less than a godsend for a food company like Pepsi.





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