Two Mexican states ban junk food sales to children: A taste of things to come?

28 Sep 2020

Two Mexican states have moved to ban the sale of junk food to children and a national ban may be on the cards, according to one expert. Could this be a taste of future food policy around the world?

Last month, the Congress of Oaxaca State in Mexico approved a bill to prohibit the sale of products high in salt, fat and sugar to children and minors.

Two Mexican states ban junk food sales to children: A taste of things to come?

The bill, which amends the state’s law on children and adolescents’ rights, prohibits the distribution, sale, donation, or supply to minors of unhealthy food and drink, allowing the sale only to parents or legal guardians. Offenders can be fined and have their businesses closed while repeat offenders risk jail. Less than two weeks later, Tabasco state policymakers voted to bring in the same measure.

The reform was praised by health campaigners as a historic milestone to tackle the problem of childhood overweight and obesity in the country, which has been declared a national epidemic.

Analyst view: A national ban could be on the cards

According to Eugenia Muinelo, manager of regulatory affairs at Latin American consultancy EAS Strategies based in Buenos Aires, more states could follow suite.

“The recently approved National Strategy for Healthy Diets presented by the national government foresees policies to reduce the consumption of industrialized foods, meaning that banning the sale of ‘junk food’ to children could be on the radar.

“Outside Mexico, there are no examples of such a measure,” she said. “However, other measures to restrict the offer of ‘junk food’ to children, for example, inside schools or areas around educational institutions, have been approved across almost all the Latin American region. Mainly that measure is linked to front-of-pack labelling schemes, where products bearing a front-of-pack [logo] are not allowed to be marketed inside schools.”

“As usual, Latin America [is] leading the discussion on health and nutrition issues,” Muinelo added.

‘Mexico has set the bar’

Details of the bill have yet to be drafted but it has already caught the attention of health campaigners around the world.

Fran Bernhardt is coordinator at the Children’s Food Campaign, a non-profit organisation based in the UK, where one in three children leaving primary school are either overweight or obese.

“We welcome this development,” she said. “It’s hard to comment on detail because we haven’t yet had sight of any yet but it’s brilliant to see Mexico taking strong policy action in this area. They’ve set the bar for tackling child obesity and we hope the UK government takes note.

“A lot of these policies often seem extreme when they are first talked about,” Bernhardt told The Ingredients Network. “The sugar tax got the same reaction when it was first discussed a few years ago but health advocates in many countries have congratulated Mexico for this strong and much needed action.”

Bernhardt said that junk food marketing bans could be seen as “a way in” to a wider ban on the sale of junk food products to children but that this would require more careful analysis.

Mandatory reformulation targets, however, were a useful tool to set a level playing field for all manufacturers in a given category, she added.

“[Food manufacturers] have shown themselves to be incredibly creative at reformulating their products […] so as long as governments set strong, clear lines for all manufacturers to work towards, they don’t need to be concerned.”

‘Lynching the food industry’

Mexican food manufacturers, however, have slammed the Oaxacan and Tabascan measures. Francisco Cervantes, president of the Confederation of the Chambers of Commerce (Concamin), called it “a lynching against the industry [that] generates a black market and does not solve the underlying problem”.

“They call food junk and seek to ban it, instead of thinking about developing policies to educate the population and generate a culture of good food,” Cervantes told El Universal, adding that the measures would negatively impact Mexico’s economy, specifically around one million family-owned convenience stores that sell the products as well as 9.2 million food industry jobs.

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