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Labelling Regulations not violated if ‘relevant information’ traceable from Barcode

October 13, 2020

By Vikrant Rana and Priyanka Batra

The Supreme Court of India, on September 04, 2020 gave a landmark judgement concerning the labelling regulations in India. The Apex Court, in the case of, Raghav Gupta v. State (NCT of Delhi)[1], reversed the decisions of the lower Courts’ setting a more practical precedent in the area of food adulteration laws in India.

The three-Judge Bench , comprising of Hon’ble Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, Justice Navin Sinha and Justice Indira Banerjee, closely interpreted Rule 32(e) of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, 1955 (hereinafter referred to as “the Rules”) framed under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954 (hereinafter referred to as “the Act”) wherein it was held that relevant information under Rule 32(e) of the rules with regard to the lot/code/batch number are available via the barcode and quashed the criminal proceedings initiated against Raghav Gupta & Ors.

Prior to delving into the case analysis of the case, one ought to understand the meaning of the term ‘lot / code / batch number” which is defined  under section 2 (5) of the Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and labelling) Regulations, 2011: Lot number” or “code number” or “batch number” means the number either in numericals or alphabets or in combination thereof, representing the lot number or code number or batch number, being preceded by the words “Lot No” or “Lot” or “code number” or “Code” or Batch No” or “Batch” or any distinguishing prefix by which the food can be traced in manufacture and identified in distribution[2].  

Rule 32 of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, 1955 reads as follows

  1. Contents of the label.-Unless otherwise provided in these rules there shall be specified on every label-

(a) the name, trade name or description of food contained in the package,

(b) the name and business address of the manufacturer or importer or vendor or packer,

(c) when any permitted class II preservative and/or permitted colouring agent and/or permitted antioxidant and or vitamin is added, a statement to the effect that it contains permitted class II preservatives and/or permitted colouring agents and/or permitted antioxidants and/or vitamins,

(d) the net weight or number or measure or volume of contents as the circumstances may’ require ,except in the case of biscuits, confectionery and sweets where the weight may be expressed in terms of either average net weight and/or minimum net weight,

(e) a batch number or code number either in Hindi or English numericals or alphabets or in combination

Provided that in the case of food package weighing not more than 60 grams particulars including the statement under any clause need not be specified.

Provided further that in the case of:-

(a) aerated water containers, and

(b) a package containing more than 60 grams but not more than 120 grams of biscuits, confectionery and sweets, particulars under clauses .(d) and (e) need not be specified.

Explanation.-The term ‘label’ means a display of written, printed, perforated, stencilled, embossed or stamped matter upon the container cover lid and/or crown cork of any food package.][3]

The above provision, makes it mandatory to mention all the details of the including but not limited to the name of the manufacturer, batch number of the product, description of the food etc. on the label. A contravention of the said provisions attracts penalty.

In light of the above provision, the Food Inspector in the case at hand inspected the Snapple Juice bottles. The facts of the case are as follows:

Facts of the case:

Raghav Gupta & ors (hereinafter referred to as the ‘Appellants’) directors of M/s V&V Beverages imported ‘Snapple juice drinks’ from United States and supplied to their distributor company, M/s A&M Enterprises, which in turn distributed the same to M/s Barista Coffee Company Limited, the end vendor ((hereinafter referred to as the ‘Respondents’)

On May 3, 2011 food officials including Food Inspector and Field Assistant under the supervision of the Local Health Authority (LHA)/SDM inspected the premises of M/s Barista Coffee Company Ltd., Connaught Place, New Delhi and lifted 6 sample bottles of ‘snapple juice’ which were stored for sale in sealed glass bottles of 473 ml each.

The samples were given to the LHA and the Public Analyst who reported on May 30, 2011 that the product conformed to the standards; however, the sample products were in contravention of the rule 32(e) of the of the Prevention of Food and Adulteration Rules 1955, as amended, as the declaration regarding ‘batch number/ code number’ were missing on the label.

After the report, a complaint was filed against the respondents in violation of Section 2(ix)(k) of the Act along with Rule 32(e) of the Rules, and punishable under Sections 5, 7, 16(1)(a) of the Act.

The Case before the Delhi High Court

Contentions by the Appellant – Delhi High Court:

  • The Appellant argued that the sample of the “Snapple” juice was not misbranded as the necessary information as per Rule 32(e) was made available in the barcode, which was sufficient to comply with the requirements under Rule 32(e).
  • It further prayed for quashing the complaint and contended that the Respondents failed to show any material as evidence to the fact that the Appellant was responsible for the day-to-day conduct of the business.
  • Additionally, it was submitted that the Appellant had already resigned before the samples were seized by the concerned authorities. It was also submitted that scanning the barcode would release all relevant and necessary information about the manufacturer, nature of the product, batch number, etc.
  • It was argued that the information by scanning of the bar code is a labelling standard recognized globally and is instituted to make the entire system supply and billing speedy.

Contentions by the Respondent- Delhi High Court

  • It was argued that no definition of “batch number” or “code number” has been laid out in the Act or the Rules. Additionally, through literal interpretation of Rule 32(e), the batch number or the bar code ought to be mentioned in Hindi or English or numerical or alphabets or a combination.

Decision of the Delhi High Court:

The Hon’ble Delhi High Court analyzed the language of Rule 32(e) of the Rules prior to 2006 amendment and after it. It held that the distinction is in the purpose of having a batch number or a code number which was missing in the provision before the amendment.

Additionally, the Court held that if the batch number or code numbers of the product is not mentioned on the bill/invoice, then it may be difficult to track the supplier/distributor of a particular product, which may have been found to be misbranded or adulterated.

The Court upheld the decision of the trial court, holding in favor of the respondent and holding that it ought to be essential that the manufacturer/packer mentions a batch number or a code number to his product so as to identify the distribution chain.

The Case before the Hon’ble Supreme Court

Aggrieved by the decision of Delhi High Court an appeal was filed before the Hon’ble Supreme Court. The Appellant submitted that the necessary information as per Rule 32(e) of the Rules was available through the barcode on the product and all information can be revealed by scanning the barcode. The contention could not be countered by the Respondent.

Judgement by the Hon’ble Supreme Court:

The three-judge bench of the Apex Court held that having the barcode is an undisputed fact. What is to be observed is the fact that whether or not the relevant information as per Rule 32(e) of the Rules, which would trace back to the manufacturer. If the relevant information concerning the manufacturer, the product, etc. can be extracted by scanning the barcode labelled on the product, then there is no violation of Rule 32(e) of the Rules or any other regulation in this regard.

The Bench, quashing the orders of the lower courts, was of the opinion that having to take this case ahead would be a sheer waste of time and the barcode is sufficient to trace the relevant information.

Conclusion & Analysis:

The decision of the Hon’ble Supreme Court balances out the modern yet authentic approach of the law. While it is necessary to ensure that the products made available to the consumers are of an optimum quality, it is also necessary to acknowledge the digital age we are living in.

The approach is a more modernized approach and considering the dynamic changing environment, restricting such basic, yet necessary information due to the way of obtaining information, is only a restriction of one’s right to be aware of the relevant distribution chain and other significant information. [4]

[1] Criminal Appeal No. 562 of 2020.

[2]http://dhsr.hp.gov.in/?q=compendium-packaging-labelling-regulations-22012019

[3] http://extwprlegs1.fao.org/docs/pdf/ind10950.pdf

[4] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/61800811/

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