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Junk food ban- Legal responsibilities of School Authorities

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 38 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2019 and over 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight or obese in 2016. The statistics are alarming because obesity is just one of the myriads of health problems that result from continuous consumption of a poor-quality diet high in junk food. Plus, obesity is an external manifestation of the problem, but the harmful effects of these zero-nutrition foods fester within the body and cause permanent damage. The repercussions are far worse when the habit is inculcated at a tender age. Junk food can cause memory and learning problems as well as fatigue and weakness among children. Further, advertisement specifically designed to influence young minds into making unhealthy choices is another grave cause of concern.

Since schools are the temples of learning and the place where children spend most of their waking hours, initiating a healthy eating environment in and around the school premises was crucial. Towards this end, regulations have been passed by the Government to ensure that children are exposed to wholesome meals and proper guidance that instill good eating habits.

Background

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by an NGO in 2010 seeking a direction banning the sale of junk food and aerated drinks in and around schools (Uday Foundation for congenital defects and rare blood groups Vs. Union of India & Ors.). Pursuant to the PIL, the Hon’ble High Court of Delhi issued a direction to the Central Government to draft detailed guidelines to regulate the sale of junk food and aerated drinks in and around school premises in the country.  

In light of the directions, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has notified the Food Safety and Standards (Safe food and balanced diets for children in school) Regulations, 2020 (“the Regulations”) that prohibits the sale, marketing and promotion of junk food within the school premises and the surrounding vicinity. The said Regulations apply to –

  1. Schools (pre-primary, primary, elementary, secondary, day-care) that provide food within the campus.
  2. Shops/stalls or food outlets which sell food products within fifty meters of the school gate in any direction.
  3. Food Business Operator (FBO)* /Food caterers who supply mid-day meals.

This Regulations inter-alia outlines the roles and responsibilities of the School Authority to ensure safe food and balanced diets on school premises.   

Licensing requirements

  • The School Authority shall get registered as an FBO to sell/provide catering of school meals by itself on the school campus.
  • The School Authority shall mandatorily enter into a contract or transaction with the registered or licensed FBOs under the provisions of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (“The Act”).
  • The Central or State Department of School Education shall ensure that FBOs contracted by it for the operation of the mid-day meal scheme are registered or licensed under the provisions of the Act.
  • The provisions of Regulations shall be duly complied by FBOs with effect from 01st July 2021.

By registering under the Act, the School Authority shall be liable for the compliance of provisions of the Act and the Rules and Regulations made thereunder. Any violations or non-compliance by the school authority under the Act shall attract penal provisions and penalties including imprisonment.

Prohibition of Junk Food 

  • The School Authority shall ensure that no person shall sell or offer for sale including free sale, or permit sale, of food products high in saturated fat or trans-fat or added sugar or sodium [High in Fat, Salt and Sugar (HFSS) ** or Junk food] in school premises or campus.
  • The School Authority shall ensure that there shall not be any advertisement, banner or wallpaper or direct/indirect promotion of Junk food in school premises or campus.
  • The School Authority has to display a board containing the warning “Do not sell, including free sale or market, or advertise Junk food within school premises or campus” at the entrance gate or gates of the school.
  • No person shall directly or indirectly advertise or market or sell or offer for sale including free sale, or permit sale, of Junk food products in the school campus or to school children in an area within fifty meters from the school gate in any direction.

The School Authorities are made responsible to ensure the sale, advertisement, and promotion of Junk food do not take place even by a third party.  Shops/stalls and food outlets which are running within school premises or within fifty meters of the school gate in any direction shall stop selling all kinds of Junk food products. The Regulations with respect to prohibiting and promoting of junk foods in and around school premises shall come into force only from such date as the Food Authority may, by notification in the Official Gazette, appoint.

Sanitary and hygienic practices

  • The School Authorities shall encourage to adopt a comprehensive program for promoting safe food and balanced diets amongst school children and meet specified benchmarks to convert school campus into ‘Eat Right Campus’ and also follow guidance from “Dietary guidelines for Indians – A Manual” issued by the National Institute of Nutrition and other expert institutions or authorities.
  • The School Authority shall ensure that the FBOs supplying prepared school meals in the school premises are identified and selected food that can be served or sold on the basis of the broad guidelines given in the Schedule to Regulations and as per the directions, issued by the Food Authority or the Commissioner of Food Safety of the State. The School Authority may appoint a Health and Wellness Ambassador or Health and Wellness team, who shall act as the nodal persons to monitor the availability of safe, balanced, and hygienic food.
  • The School Authority may engage with nutritionists, dietitians, nutrition associations or seek parental support to assist in the drafting of the menu for the children, periodically.
  • The crèches or day-cares for infants or children up to the age of twenty-four months old are also expected to serve safe and balanced diets to them. 

Implementation, Monitoring, and surveillance

  • The School Authority/ State Food Authority/ Any public authority like Municipal Corporation or any other local body or Panchayat in an area shall have a system of regular or periodic inspection of school premises to ensure that safe, balanced and hygienic food is served to children.
  • The State Level Advisory Committee (SLAC) constituted under the Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses) Regulations, 2011 shall create a subcommittee consisting of representatives from the Department of School Education, and public health professionals in the field of food and nutrition to monitor the implementation of these regulations and to ensure availability of safe and wholesome food to school children.
  • Implementation of these Regulations is achieved by action or complaint of the School Authorities to concerned Food Safety Authorities.  

PROS:

CONS:

Undoubtedly, Junk food is addictive by nature and spoils children’s physical and mental health at an early age. Objectives of the prohibition of unhealthy Junk food and also monitoring hygienic/nutritious food for children are well appreciated. The Regulations also encourage schools to implement and monitor a balanced food menu for children. Junk food manufactures may change/restrict ingredient limits/compositions of saturated fat or trans-fat or added sugar or sodium in their products to escape from the labeling of their products as Junk food. The Regulations will address all serious problems arising from undernutrition and malnutrition in children who are living in rural areas.

Implementation and enforcement of the Regulations is not easy unless School Authorities create awareness among children about the side effects of eating Junk food and the necessity of nutritious food. It is not easy to label food as Junk food and it requires a regular monitoring system. Some parents will provide Junk food in lunch boxes and the same will defeat the purpose of the Regulations. Majority of shops and outlets near schools sell Junk food to attract children. Small vendors and shopkeepers who keep and sell Junk products would be badly affected by the regulations. Small businesses/manufacturers of food products such as fried chips, bakery items, chocolate bars, candies, chocolates, peppermints, sweet gums, wrapped sweets that cannot be sold near the school would face losses and may also result in closure.  

 Conclusion

The FSSAI has notified and implemented the Regulations after conducting various surveys, research, and consultation with the public, nutritionists, various organizations, and medical experts. Now, the Regulations must be implemented and followed by the School Authorities in letter and spirit without any further delay. 

Manufacturing and Best Before dates to be mandatorily displayed on sweet packages

The FSSAI has also issued Orders on 25th & 30th September 2020 for mandating the compulsory display of Manufacturing date and Best Before date on non-packaged and loose sweets containers/packages/tray holding sweets at the outlet sale.

Image Credits:  Photo by Fábio Alves on Unsplash

The FSSAI has notified and implemented the Regulations after conducting various surveys, research and consultation with the public, nutritionists, various organisations and medical experts. Now, the Regulations must be implemented and followed by the School Authorities in letter and spirit without any further delay.

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