Shelf to street, scanner on daily habits

New Delhi, Nov. 26: India's food regulatory agency has indicted several household brands, including Britannia biscuits, Horlicks health drinks and Kellogg's breakfast cereals, for what it says are misleading claims about some of their food products.

The Union government informed Parliament today that the health ministry's Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has initiated prosecution in 19 cases where companies have been charged with making misleading claims about their food products in either labels or advertisements.

The authority has also sent notices in 19 other cases in which various companies appear to have either made false or dubious claims or released misleading advertisements about their food products, the information and broadcasting ministry said in a statement laid in the Rajya Sabha.

Several of the complaints had been reported earlier but they have now been put in the public domain through the official statement in the House.

The FSSAI is expected to first send notices to companies that it believes have violated rules and wait for their responses before initiating prosecution. During the hearings, both sides ' the FSSAI and the company ' would have opportunities to argue their cases. The 19 prosecution cases were all filed earlier this year and most hearings are yet to begin.

The country's food standards laws impose certain restrictions on nutritional and health claims on labels and in advertisements to ensure that products are not mislabelled or promoted through exaggerated claims.

The safety watchdog is prosecuting manufacturers of several children's health drinks, including Complan Memory, Boost, Horlicks and Bournvita Little Champs, for what it says are "violations" of food regulations.

The agency said Complan Memory, produced by Heinz India, comes with a declaration that it contains "memory chargers" and the product label shows pictures of students with books which, the FSSAI said, "will mislead the public" into assuming that the drink will improve children's performance in studies.

Last year, Jay Karan, a pharmacologist at the Government Medical College in Surat, had written in the journal Indian Pediatrics that the claims relating to the growth of children made by the makers of Complan were "exaggerated".

The food regulator has also objected to GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare's claim that its drink called Boost "provides three times more stamina than sadharan chocolate drink". The FSSAI said this claim was misleading and the producer had not submitted a specific study on this product to substantiate this claim.

The FSSAI has said that GlaxoSmithKline's claim that Horlicks helps children become "taller, stronger, and sharper", is "misleading and deceptive in nature".

The agency has described the claim made by Kellogg that people who eat low-fat breakfast like its Special K cereals tend to be slimmer than those who don't as "misleading and deceptive".

An expert in human nutrition said that while children's health drinks are designed to deliver concentrated levels of nutrients, they typically do not contain the mix of fibre and range of nutrients available from wholesome food.

"The labels always show what a product contains, not what is missing," said R. Hemlatha, a senior scientist at the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad.

Wholesome food, Hemlatha said, is available through a standard mix of cereals, pulses, vegetables and fruits.

The FSSAI is also prosecuting the producers of two brands of edible oil ' Saffola and Engine Mustard Oil ' for what it says are misleading claims in advertisements.

"A claim about a food product needs to be clinically proven, supported by research published in peer-reviewed scientific or medical journals," said Kamala Krishnaswamy, former director of the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad.

The FSSAI has also indicted Abbott India for what it says is the company's misleading claim that its product, Pediasure, "helps in a child's growth and development".