Nutrition labels and healthy reformulation in Latin America

26 Jun 2020

Mexico’s front-of-pack warning nutrition label has entered into force. Will healthy reformulation follow?

In March 2020, Mexico became the latest Latin American country to give the official green light to a warning nutrition label.

Nutrition labels and healthy reformulation in Latin America

If a food or drink product exceeds certain nutrient thresholds, it must warn consumers it contains excess amounts of sugar, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and calories, as well as caffeine and sweeteners. The mandatory labels warn parents that children should avoid caffeine and that sweeteners are not recommended for children.

The nutrient thresholds are based on nutrient profiles established by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the regional branch of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The legislation will be enforced in three stages, beginning in October 2020 and running until 2025.

Ready for reformulation?

The public health stakes are high in a country that has declared obesity to be an epidemiological emergency. Overweight and obesity affects 72.5% of adults, or approximately 56 million Mexicans, according to a recent review led by Giovanni Díaz-Zavala.

However, the big question is, will manufacturers make their products healthier by reducing levels of salt, sugar, and fat in order to avoid a negative label, or simply hope that the label will not significantly impact sales?

Consumer rights association, El Poder del Consumidor, which lobbied in favour of the legislation, believes some actors in the food industry will initially try to thwart the labelling rather than reformulate.

"We know that more [legal tactics] will come; the industry will use all kinds of strategies to block the warning labelling, as they have done systematically to maintain their profits at the expense of the health of the population,” said the campaign group’s director, Alejandro Calvillo, referring to a legal request to suspend the legislation that was submitted earlier this year by the Confederation of Chambers of Commerce, Concamin, and business trade group, CCE.

Some experts have expressed concern that the financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis could limit manufacturers’ ability to invest in reformulation.

Eugenia Muinelo, manager of regulatory affairs at Buenos Aires-based consultancy EAS Strategies said: “Certain type of products would be able to consider reformulation, however, others, even with a reformulation, will be impacted by the front-of-pack scheme. In both cases they will need to invest some money, even reformulating the product or adapting the labels.

“Of course, the global financial crisis is impacting all fronts, and the cut of budgets is one of the main measures taken by companies, and that would always affect the research and developments of new products or substances. In my opinion, companies will prioritize keeping their products already positioned rather than launching new ones.”

For public health campaigners, even if the label does not drive reformulation, it is still important in providing easy-to-understand nutrition information to the public.

Ana Larrañaga, coordinator of the non-profit ContraPESO network said the regulation would guarantee that Mexicans had access to clear information about what they eat or drink, which was an important tool to combat obesity.

Front-of-pack labelling in Latin America

When Chile introduced its front-of-pack warning nutrition label in 2016, it was seen as a radical tool to encourage healthy eating and reformulation of packaged food.

The black-and-white octagonal stop sign warned consumers when a product was high in sugar, salt, fat, saturated fat or calories and accompanying legislation on marketing to children caused some high-profile disappearing acts: cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s was forced to remove Tony the Tiger from its high-sugar Frosties (Zucaritas), for instance.

Since then, several Latin American countries have brought in similar nutrition labels or are in the process of doing so. In 2018, Peru introduced warning labels based on the Chilean model.

Brazil’s food safety authority ANVISA proposed a rectangular-shaped warning label which is currently being studied and, earlier this year, the Colombian government revealed its warning label, designed in partnership with food industry associations.

Uruguay’s warning label, also based on the Chilean design, was supposed to enter into force but has been stalled by the current government until July 2020.

Since 2014, Ecuador has used a red, amber, and green traffic light system, similar to the UK’s.

Despite winning praise from public health campaigners, the multitude of different nutrition labels has attracted criticism from some commentators, who warn against the fragmented nature of the region’s labelling laws. They argue that the lack of harmonization makes it difficult for food manufacturers to be compliant in several markets and creates barriers to trade.

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