Junk food | Sunday Observer

Junk food

7 February, 2021

Food is essential for human life to be alive and lead a healthy life. As the human race developed gaining knowledge on food man became choosy and selective in food consumption which today has reached a developed phase with the advancement of science and food hygiene. In the modern world people are conscious of their food, health and the consequences on eating habits.

The educated are concerned and careful to avoid junk food which is substandard and unfit for consumption but tasty due to being oily and the use of artificial additions. Food should be prepared in hygienic conditions and cooked or roasted unlike eating raw as our ancestors did. As life became busier man got used to fast food prepared for convenience mainly for children and office workers. Cancer and non-communicable diseases are on the rise due to the consumption of fast food.

Junk food

Junk food is unhealthy and has poor nutritional value mainly due to the preservatives used. It contains high levels of saturated fat, salt, sugar, numerous food additives such as mono-sodium and glu-ta-amte. Junk food lacks in proteins, vitamin and fibre. It is popular with suppliers because it is cheap to manufacture and has a long shelf life and do not need refrigeration.

It is popular in the USA, the EU and the West, the trend spreading fast in the world, including Sri Lanka, encroaching poor and underdeveloped countries as it is easy to purchase with little preparation and lots of tasty flavours. Advertisements are plenty on tablets and packets containing substances such as ajino moto which are harmful and cancerous.

Restaurants use this powder in bulk for taste with little or no resistance from the food authorities, regulators or the consumer groups supposed to save the consumer. However, there is an emerging trend to use local home grown ingredients in traditional healthy food in the form of fast food which is good and should be encouraged. In the west the trend for junk food is changing with the decline of the market share on fast food chains as it has been proved to cause obesity, heart diseases, diabetes, dental decay, and many other diseases.

In Sri Lanka non communicable diseases such as obesity and diabetes are on the rise. Most junk foods are snacks, mainly consumed for enjoyment rather than for health. These habits are fast spreading all over the world due to the ferocious advertising mechanics by multinational companies targeting the future generation.

‘Pseudo Heroes’ and names such as ‘Parkman’ ‘Batman’ ‘Superman’ and thousands of computer games are used by supermarket giants with actors, cricketers and celebrities, with modern IT machines in the background and many other forms of artificial enjoyments to attract the young generation to fast food. Children get addicted easily and ruthless people gradually get them addicted to illegal drugs in schools and private tuition institutions.

Due to agreements with the WTO the restrictions and monitoring on advertising are facing difficulties and the media acts irresponsibly by promoting junk and unhealthy food with no proper scrutiny. Consumer and active social groups are busy with other matters of less importance leaving the junk food companies to have a field day to continue their business and the consumer partially blamed for not being alert or health conscious. In the UK, the Education Department increased government funding to schools for a balanced healthy diet devoid of junk food. In the UK some schools do not permit junk food sale in their vicinity.

In Sri Lanka there is a dangerous trend as small time traders in carts, bicycles and temporary mini hotels sell unhealthy homemade fast food.

There are also reports of drugs and illegal food items being sold around schools. It is a pity that the school administration and Public Health Officers have not taken notice of this though it has been frequently highlighted in the media.

In Sri Lanka, the main streets and even suburbs near schools are full of junk food stalls and expensive fast food advertisements with international symbols and all kinds of advertising techniques. Junk food is on parking bays and walking corridors with no monitoring. In other countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong street food is severely monitored for health safety.

Advertisements are freely exhibited in print and electronic media spending enormous sums with least attention from the food regulators and authorities headed by the Consumer Affairs Authority.

Non communicable diseases

Non communicable diseases are on the rise in Sri Lanka mainly due to the consumption of junk food. The irony is that parents are unaware of the danger, paying no attention due to pressure from the children and the ignorance of the home front opening the space for dialogue with the Education Department and health authorities.

Health authorities and monitoring bodies headed by the CAA should consider the imminent rise in non communicable diseases in the country leaving us a sick nation in the near future while other counties are taking prompt steps against the giant food chains. Today junk food chains have got the message and have started introducing salad and health food.

It is sad that our children and even adults consume soft drinks which are unhealthy without consuming young coconut, thambili, one of the best health drinks at a much lower price while saving the foreign exchange for the nation. The consumption of bottled water is not safe and it is costly.

There is no guarantee that the water is safe and pure as standards are not maintained properly and regularly by regulators who are not alert. The best method is to use boiled water in glass containers at all times. It is learnt that we have around 70,000 food outlets of which only a few are safe and adapt safety standards. It is the duty of the CAA, local authorities, PHIs and health authorities to monitor these food outlets. In this country anyone can start a food outlet with little or no legal and procedural requirements on health.

In other countries it is difficult and restricted with regulations. Junk food has become a style for the young and even the old to eat at these food chains at enormous cost.

They are now deserted in the West as consumers are health conscious. They study and look into the health aspects before consumption of any food, drugs or beverages. They spend time to read the information on the contents and ingredients.

They are backed by consumer societies and groups that are very active in the west but dead in Sri Lanka.

CAA main regulator

It is the duty of the CAA to initiate and promote consumer organisations. Fruits with medically treated outer covers/layers are sold on the streets with no checks or inspections by PHIs or health authorities. Even in supermarkets apples, oranges and similar fruits are treated or covered with outer layers for long storage. It is a crime going unnoticed by the authorities to alert consumers.

The main piece of legislation in this area is the CAA in addition to the, local authorities, PHIs, Standards Bureau, Health Ministry, consumer organisations and the media in the forefront.

The Consumer Act provides protections to the consumer while safeguarding the interests of the trader in the interests of the promotion of internal and external trade.

The Act provides the regularities of the trade and the process of goods and services to protect the trader and manufacturer against unfair trade practices and restrictive trade practices. The CAA is helpless before numerous multinational company giants Many companies stand firm against the regulatory powers of the CAA, ignoring decisions and have a field day due to the lacuna in the implementation process.

It is not possible for the government alone to implement the law which is unclear and needs amendments.

There should be more consumer organisations and consumer awareness and activism in all fronts of society. Schools and social organisations should play a main role on behalf of consumers and the victims of the giant food and Cola companies that spend enormous sums on advertising and political influence with funds thrown around.

The CAA has power to control prices of identified items and regulate trade by undertaking studies.

The execution and implementation is via ordinary courts. Consumer Courts is proposed which is prevalent in India and implemented successfully and the court is very liberal in public interest litigation.

Ultimate goal

The ultimate goal is to protect the consumer and maintain goodwill and equilibrium with the other players in the game of consumerism.

We need alert consumers, fair traders and effective regulators to protect the consumer and maintain effective trade. Consumer protection law is a part of public law, commercial law and general law that regulate private relationship between individual consumers and the business that sells goods and services. Within the law the notion of consumer is primarily used in relation to consumer protection laws and the definition of the consumer is restricted to living persons not corporate or business that includes commercial users.

Water and beverages

Water belongs to junk group if it is contaminated. Mostly tap water is derived from the river which is highly contaminated with waste including metals while the process of purification and treatment is alleged to be outdated in the absence of continuous and rigorous intermittent test random or regular from the CAA, Standards Bureau, local authorities or any other institution.

The origin of Colombo water is the Kelani river which is highly contaminated with waste from factories, local authorities and heaps of garbage, and treatment with outdated machines and the methods not safe. Water in the village is still consumed from wells and mostly from taps and the modern trend is bottled water which is expensive. What about the other Colas and beverages freely available in bright colours and full of sweet ingredients.

Some famous Colas banned in some countries are the main sponsors of sports in Sri Lanka with huge advertisements with celebrities and film actors. Many beverages are junk and are the cause for diabetes, obesity and many non-communicable diseases.

Way forward

The way forward for the happiness and protection of the consumer is keeping away from junk food. In the United Kingdom, Legal Aid systems, consumer organisations, NGOs protect the consumer with a network of consumer organisations and groups. They campaign hard against junk food and promote health to the citizen and the community. Consumerism and consumer protection models are effective in the socialist bloc and the commonwealth with separate legal systems.

The Sri Lankan model is a mixture of Australia, UK USA models and European concepts. In addition to the legal systems, it our duty to protect ourselves and the future generation from slow death and prevent society from becoming a sick nation due to the consumption of unhealthy food. The trader, the manufacturer and the regulator which is a part of the government should take appropriate steps for the entire society to live a healthy life. Health is wealth, and it is our duty to be safe by consuming healthy food. [email protected]

Sarath Wijesinghe is a former Ambassador to the UAE and Israel, former Chairman, Consumer Affairs Authority, President, Ambassadors’ forum, Solicitor in England and Wales.