India has ruled out any change in its labelling or packaging requirements for imports of American food items, which mandate printing of the maximum retail price (MRP) and category of food item on the packet rather than putting on a sticker at the port as requested by the US.
In a meeting between the deputy US trade representative and India’s commerce secretary last week, India told the US that its labelling requirements are Codex-compliant and applicable to all countries without discrimination.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission is a joint intergovernmental body of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization that creates harmonized international food standards to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair trade practices.
“Our labelling standards are Codex-compliant. We have asked them to let us know where we are not Codex-compliant. Today, when we export to the US, it requires that we print the MRP in dollars. Will they accept if we print the MRP in euro?” said a government official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India also insists that the type of imported packaged food—vegetarian or non-vegetarian—needs to be printed on the packets rather than stickered on it to avoid tampering.
The official said the US also claims that India has a standard packaging size which is different from the one accepted all over the world.
“Our response was we have not done it for one country. This is the packaging standard for imports that are coming from the entire world. So, we are not discriminating against any one country. If one intends to export to a country, one has to abide by the requirements of the importing country,” he added.
The matter was discussed between deputy US trade representative Robert Holleyman and India’s commerce secretary Rita Teaotia when they met on Tuesday to discuss the agenda for the next round of ministerial-level meetings of the trade policy forum (TPF) in the US. India proposed to hold the ninth TPF meeting sometime by the end of October.
In the joint statement after the eighth TPF in New Delhi last year, both sides had signalled some progress on the packaging and labelling issue. “They (both countries) also noted the potential reconciliation of the definition of wholesale pack between departments, forthcoming rules to allow stickering of maximum retail price at the port, and timely implementation efforts concerning these issues,” a joint statement said.
Arpita Mukherjee, professor at the Indian Council for Research in International Economic Relations, said the issue has become a teething problem for European Union and US exporters of food items after some seizures were made in Indian ports in 2013 for alleged violation of packaging and labelling requirements.
“While for bigger firms it is not a problem, for smaller firms, packaging and labelling specific to India’s requirements poses a challenge especially because India is not a big market for them. Many foreign companies are also willing to package in India, but the packaging costs are very high in India,” Mukherjee added.
The US is India’s second largest trading partner, after China. India exported goods worth $42.4 billion and imported goods worth $21.8 billion in 2014-15. While exports grew 8.45%, imports contracted 3% during the same year.
While the relationship between both the countries have improved after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government took charge at the centre in May last year, significant differences in trade and economic policy issues remain. The US recently won a case against India at the World Trade Organization (WTO) for the latter not allowing its poultry imports. India has 15 months to implement the verdict.
The US is also fighting another case against India at the WTO on domestic content requirements under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission for solar cells and solar modules, the verdict for which is expected in a few days.
Both sides, however, worked together to correct the anomaly in the Bali WTO agreement last year to provide for an indefinite interim solution on public stockholding as demanded by India. The US conducted an out-of-cycle review of India’s intellectual property rights (IPR) policy and implementation last year but desisted from further downgrading India’s status to “priority foreign country”—a category of serious offenders that could invite US sanctions—from India’s current status of “priority watch” list.
The US has expressed satisfaction with India’s transparent process of forming a new IPR policy, for which an inter-ministerial consultation is on.
Trade minister Nirmala Sitharaman, however, in an interview in June, denied recent charges that India is under pressure to modify its IPR laws to suit the US.