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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

When ‘veg’ is ‘non-veg’: what Delhi High Court said

Delhi High Court has directed the food safety regulator to ensure that food business operators make full disclosures on all that goes into any food article. Who went to court, and why? What is the problem with the labelling?

Written by Sofi Ahsan | New Delhi |
Updated: December 16, 2021 7:44:04 am
The regulations also require manufacturers to display a list of ingredients along with their weight or volume.

Delhi High Court has directed the food safety regulator to ensure that food business operators make full disclosures on all that goes into any food article — “not only by their code names but also by disclosing as to whether they originate from plant, or animal source, or whether they are manufactured in a laboratory, irrespective of their percentage in the food article”.

The operators must comply strictly with Regulation 2.2.2(4) of the Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labelling) Regulations, 2011 “on the basis that the use of any ingredient — in whatever measure or percentage, which is sourced from animals, would render the food article as Non-Vegetarian,” the court said.

“Every person has a right to know as to what he/she is consuming, and nothing can be offered to the person on a platter by resort to deceit, or camouflage,” a division bench of Justices Vipin Sanghi and Jasmeet Singh said in an order passed on December 9.

What are the labelling requirements under the 2011 Regulations?

The Regulations define non-vegetarian food as containing “whole or part of any animal including birds, fresh water or marine animals or eggs or products of any animal origin, but excluding milk or milk products”.

All non-vegetarian food must be labelled with “a brown colour filled circle… [of a specified diameter] inside a square with brown outline having sides double the diameter of the circle”. Where egg is the only non-vegetarian ingredient, a “declaration to this effect [may be given] in addition to the said symbol”. Vegetarian food must be labelled with a “green colour filled circle…inside the square with green outline”.

The regulations also require manufacturers to display a list of ingredients along with their weight or volume. Manufacturers must disclose which types of edible vegetable oil, edible vegetable fat, animal fat or oil, fish, poultry meat, or cheese, etc. has been used in the product.

“Where an ingredient itself is the product of two or more ingredients”, and such a “compound ingredient constitutes less than five per cent of the food, the list of ingredients of the compound ingredient, other than food additive, need not to be declared”, the Regulations say.

Who went to court, and why?

Ram Gaua Raksha Dal, a non-government Trust that works for the safety and welfare of cows, filed a petition in October seeking implementation of the existing rules, and prayed that all products, including non-consumables like crockery, wearable items, and accessories, should be marked on the basis of the ingredients used. For food items, the petition sought on the label not just the ingredients, but also the items used in the manufacturing process.

The trust, whose members are followers of the Namdhari sect, submitted that the community strongly believes in following strict vegetarianism, and that their religious beliefs also prohibit the use, in any form, of goods containing animal products.

So, what is the problem with the labelling?

The court said that the law “very clearly intends and expressly provides for declaration on all food items…as to whether they are vegetarian or non-vegetarian”. However, “it appears, some Food Business Operators are taking advantage of — upon misreading of the Regulations, the fact that the Act does not specifically oblige [them] to disclose the source from which the ingredients — which go into manufacture/production of food articles, are sourced, except…specific express exceptions”.

The court gave the example of the chemical disodium inosinate, a food additive found in instant noodles and potato chips, which is commercially manufactured from meat or fish. “A little search on Google…shows that it is often sourced from pig fat,” it said.

When such ingredients are used, often “merely the codes of the ingredients are disclosed, without actually disclosing on the packaging as to what is the source, i.e. whether it is plant based, or animal based, or it is a chemically manufactured in a laboratory,” the court said. “Many food articles which have ingredients sourced from animals, are passed off as vegetarian by affixing the green dot.”

What directions did the court issue, therefore?

The court said the use of non-vegetarian ingredients, even in “a minuscule percentage”, “would render such food articles non-vegetarian, and would offend the religious and cultural sensibilities/ sentiments of strict vegetarians, and would interfere in their right to freely profess, practice and propagate their religion and belief”.

The failure of authorities to check such lapses is leading to non-compliance of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, and the Regulations, the court said.

It directed food business operators “to ensure full and strict compliance of Regulation 2.2.2(4)”, (“Declaration regarding Veg or Non veg”) and observed that “failure…to comply…would expose [them] to, inter alia, class action for violation of the fundamental rights of the consuming public and invite punitive damages, apart from prosecution”.

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