Caribbean countries push for front-of-pack warning labels

26 Apr 2021

Warning nutrition labels are needed to tackle the Caribbean’s rising obesity rates, according to a coalition of public health groups that is lobbying the region’s governments.

Called ‘Now More than Ever: Better Labels, Better Choices, Better Health’, the campaign to raise awareness and promote warning labels is being coordinated by the Healthy Caribbean Coalition, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), and UNICEF, among others.

Caribbean countries push for front-of-pack warning labels

Non-communicable diseases, such as high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, overweight and obesity, are the leading cause of death and disability in the Caribbean and are associated with an excessive intake of sugars, saturated fats, trans fats and sodium.

The Pan-American Health Organization attributes this excessive intake to the availability, affordability and promotion of unhealthy processed and ultra-processed food and drink.

“Against this backdrop, an essential part of the solution requires the use of laws and regulations to reduce the demand for and offer of processed and ultra-processed products that contain excessive amounts of critical nutrients,” it says. “Front-of-package warning labelling represents one of the key policy tools of a comprehensive strategy to regulate obesogenic environments.

“Scientific evidence shows that octagon-shaped front-of-package nutritional warnings indicating if a product is ‘HIGH IN’ on or more critical nutrients, is the best performing system to allow consumers to correctly, quickly, and easily identify products with unhealthy nutritional profiles.

Front-of-pack warning labels have been adopted in many Latin American countries. Chile was the first country to make the black-and-white, octagonal stop signs, which warn consumers if a product is high in sugar, sodium, saturated fat, and/or calories, mandatory in 2016.

Since then, the front-of-pack warning labels were adopted in Peru in 2019 and Mexico in 2020 while policy makers in Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and Uruguay are all at various stages of implementing similar logos. However, there has been significant corporate pushback in many of these countries, with food industry trade associations lobbying government to water down the measure by changing the logo or lowering the nutrient thresholds.

Expert view: ‘This could be approved in the very near future’

Francisco Jiménez, a Buenos Aires-based regulatory affairs consultant and Latin American food industry specialist, indicated that manufacturers should prepare for the measure, which could be introduced via the regional bloc CARICOM, by determining the potential impact of mandatory warning labels on their businesses.

Addressing food-makers online, Jiménez said: “It is worth remembering that since 2018, the CARICOM Regional Organization for Standards and Quality is undertaking the revision of the CARICOM Regional Standard for Specification for labelling of pre-packaged foods – CRS 5:2010 – which, among other points, also incorporate front-of-pack labelling. If the final draft, dated from January 2021, is supported by at least three quarters of all CARICOM Member States, the final text would be approved and issued in a very near future.”

Caribbean obesity reduction targets ‘grossly off track’

The Healthy Caribbean Coalition had set a target of achieving a zero increase in obesity prevalence between 2010 and 2025. Last year, however, the Coalition said 13 out of 14 CARICOM countries were “grossly off track” and had less than a 6% chance of meeting the 2025 target.

Currently more than one in 10 children in many Caribbean countries are considered obese, with prevalence reaching 17.3% in the Bahamas, 13% in Jamaica, 12.3% in Barbados, Saint Kitts and Nevis, 11.5% in Antigua and Barbuda, and 11.1% in Trinidad and Tobago.

Obesity among adults is even higher. One 2015 national survey in Barbados estimated that around 34% of Barbadian adults were obese.

The scale of the problem has prompted some CARICOM countries to introduce other measures to reduce the consumption of unhealthy food and drink products. Barbados introduced a 10% ad valorum sugar tax on carbonated soft drinks, juices, and sports drinks, resulting in a 5.9% price increase, according to some studies conducted after the introduction. Bottled water, 100% fruit juices, coconut water, unsweetened milk, and powdered drinks are exempt from the tax.

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