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Posted at: Dec 31, 2016, 2:30 AM; last updated: Dec 31, 2016, 2:30 AM (IST)

The right to know what we eat

With doubts raised over harmful ingredients in our foods, this year, we moved a tiny step closer to eating safe

Aditi Tandon

Consolidating its past gains on child and maternal health, India, this year, moved decisively to rein in the rising costs of healthcare, which are pushing close to 60 million people into poverty every year. Another focus area was wellness with the apex food regulator aggressively pursuing the industry to protect consumer interests. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) accordingly decided to revisit food labelling norms to check misleading claims, banned harmful ingredients in food, restricted the use of caffeine in high energy drinks and drafted fortification standards for staple foods.

To address the rising out-of-pocket expenditure on healthcare, the government opened a range of Amrit stores selling life-saving drugs at half the market price. These stores have been located at top central hospitals such as AIIMS Delhi, PGI Chandigarh and JIPMER Puducherry for anyone to access. Parallel to this, the central drug pricing body, National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority, lowered the prices of many anti-cancer and HIV drugs by 35 per cent. This it did by revising the ceiling price for 23 medicines in the National List of Essential Medicines. Anyone selling these drugs at higher prices would have to pay the overcharged amount to NPPA as penalty.

A major step forward in preventing child deaths, a massive Indian challenge, was the launch of indigenous Rota virus vaccine in March. The vaccine will prevent childhood diarrhoeal deaths, otherwise close to a whopping 78,000 annually. An important marker of the government’s good efforts in the direction of child and mother health was WHO’s official certification that India was now free of maternal and neonatal tetanus and also of yaws, a bacterial skin infection. Here’s a look at all that made news in the year ending today.

Fighting the bulge

The Left Front government in Kerala created history this year by imposing 14.5 per cent tax on restaurants selling foods high on saturated fats such as pizzas, burgers and tacos. Taking on food giants like Mc Donald’s and KFC, the state government’s attempt comes after the world’s first fight with the bulge that failed in Denmark some years ago. Denmark, the world’s first nation to impose a cess on all forms of food with saturated fats, including ready-to-serve categories, butter and cheese, had to withdraw its fat tax under pressure from grocers.

Just label it

The government, this year, decided to frame new regulations for food labelling and packaging to ensure thta companies don’t get away with misleading claims. The government also penalised six major food companies for selling products with misleading claims. A notice was even served to Baba Ramdev’s Patajali, which allegedly made false claims about the process of producing mustard oil.

All that fizz

Apex food regulator, this year, limited the use of caffeine in high energy drinks. The FSSAI said that beginning July 1, all companies selling caffeine-containing beverages would have to declare the content on products. Consequently, all non alcoholic beverages having caffeine over 145 mg per litre will now have to describe themselves as caffeinated. Interestingly, the US does not regulate this category of beverages.

Is your prasada safe?

In a first, the government came up with a draft manual for food safety at places of worship and conducted a workshop with the managements of top Indian shrines to ensure that the prasada they serve is safe. Under the FSSAI Act, being a catering establishment, any shrine, that serves food is liable for registration or licencing. The workshop held in September was well attended with representatives from shrines in Tamil Nadu expressing the highest interest in working with the government on improving food hygiene. The Siddhi Vinayak and Shirdi Temples in Maharashtra are already following the manual.

Your daily bread

After the Centre for Science and Environment found cancer causing chemicals in 35 per cent of India’s 85 bread brands, the Health Ministry banned the use of harmful food additive, potassium bromate, in breads. The chemical was hitherto used to enhance the texture of bread. The move came after CSE’s report devastated the bread industry, second in revenues only to milk, in India.

Fortified foods

The government published standards for fortification of five staple foods to address micronutrient deficiencies in the population. Although 89 countries globally mandate fortification of at least one industrially milled grain, India does not mandate fortified foods. In a first though, the Health Ministry laid down fortification standards for wheat flour, rice, salt, milk and edible oils and is now engaging food manufacturers to add value to their products by fortifying them. Next in line is tea fortification!


Year of achievement

Indigenous rota virus vaccine launched

In March 2016, the government launched the first indigenous rota virus vaccine to reduce childhood diarrhoeal deaths caused by the virus. Produced by Bharat Biotech, the vaccine was launched on a pilot basis in Haryana, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, to be followed up with a universal launch in 2017. The vaccine is expected to save close to one lakh newborns annually. Of the 1.5 lakh annual child deaths in India due to diarrhoea, close to 78,000 happen from diarrhoea caused by Rota virus alone.


India achieves infant mortality MDG

In September, India achieved the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on infant mortality by attaining the target of cutting infant deaths by two-third between 1990 and 2015. India’s Infant Mortality Rate (number of infants per 1,000 live births who died in the first year of their birth) stands at 39 per 1,000 live births. Statistics from Registrar General of India’s Sample Registration Survey (SRS), the most comprehensive data set on child health, show that India is set to achieve the MDG on under-five mortality by the next year. India’s current under-five mortality is 45 per 1,000 live births and the MDG target is 42.


Hosting world anti-tobacco meet

India, this year, hosted the seventh meeting of Conference of Parties that are signatories to the world’s first global public health treaty, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The meeting of around 180 member nations resolved to draft local laws to regulate the availability and sale of nicotine delivery systems, long marketed as substitutes to tobacco, but increasingly being proved almost as harmful to health as tobacco. This agenda was piloted by host nation India, where smokeless tobacco use is a far greater challenge than the smoking forms, like cigarettes. The convention irked pro-tobacco lobbies that alleged that the organisers (WHO) did not allow tobacco farmers' delegations to attend the conference. WHO, however, stood its ground saying tobacco promotion lobbies had no place on the FCTC table, which is focused on discouraging tobacco use.


WHO certifies India MNTE and yaws free

In July 2016, WHO officially certified India as free of maternal and neonatal tetanus (MNTE) and Yaws. Until 1989, India used to see two lakh neonatal deaths (occurring in the first 28 days of birth) annually due to MNTE. The elimination means less than one case per 1,000 live births in every district of the country and reflects improved institutional deliveries (now 75 per cent) and clean umbilical cord practices. MNT elimination is important for India, which makes up 22 per cent of the world’s 6.3 million annual under-five deaths annually and 16 per cent of the world’s 2.89 lakh maternal deaths annually.

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