The Pandemic strengthened the resolve to fight obesity.
By Nick Corbishley for WOLF STREET:
Since Mexico’s government has passed one of the strictest food labeling laws on the planet in October last year, all soft drinks cans and bottles, bags of chips and other processed food packages must bear black octagonal labels warning of “EXCESS SUGAR”, “EXCESS CALORIES”, “EXCESS SODIUM” or “EXCESS TRANS FATS” — all in big bold letters that are impossible to miss. Many states have also introduced legislation making it much more difficult for retailers to sell junk food and sugary drinks to children.
Evidence from other countries suggests that warning labels can be effective. Chile started requiring them in 2016. It also limited cartoon food packaging, prevented schools from selling unhealthy foods, restricted TV adverts, and banned promotional toys. Over the next two years, sugary drink sales in Chile plunged by 23%. According to one study, the labels reduced the likelihood of people choosing sugary breakfast cereals by 11% and sugary juices by almost 24%. A nightmare for the companies affected.
The prospect of something similar transpiring in Mexico, a country almost seven times larger than Chile and that consumes more processed food than any other country in Latin America, unnerved global food and beverage companies. The United States, EU, Canada and Switzerland, home to some of the world’s biggest food companies, tried to derail the new legislation. But to no avail. The arrival of Covid-19, which has proven to be particularly lethal to people with three comorbidities — obesity, diabetes, and hypertension — has strengthened the government’s case and resolve.
Over a dozen of Mexico’s 36 state governments have banned or are in the process of banning the sales of soft drinks and junk food to children. In Mexico City, the local government has proposed a law that would ban the sale, delivery and distribution of packaged foods with a high caloric and energy content and sugary drinks to children. The law will also ban the presence of soft drink vending machines in schools.
Mexico’s Senate also recently passed a law that will compel educational authorities to prohibit the sale of foods with low nutritional value and high caloric content in the vicinity of school facilities while promoting the establishment of healthy food outlets. There are also moves afoot to restrict the advertising of foods high in fat, salt, sugar and saturated fats on children’s television channels.
These moves have raised concerns that the government is overstepping its bounds. The business lobby group Coparmex said that banning the sale of junk food and sugary drinks to minors represents a frontal attack on commercial freedom and freedom of choice. It will also have serious economic consequences for businesses in the retail sector.
But those consequences are dwarfed by the economic and health impact of widespread obesity. This is particularly true in the time of Covid when the risk of death from the virus is about 10 times higher in countries where more than half of the population is overweight, according to a report released in March by the World Obesity Federation. Data has shown that while age is the predominant factor affecting risk of hospitalization and death from Covid-19, being overweight comes a close second.
In Mexico obesity reached epidemic proportions after it joined NAFTA with the United States and Canada in the early 1990s, making processed food more easily available. Diets quickly changed as many people, particularly those on lower incomes, replaced largely healthy traditional staples (corn tortilla, frijoles, Jamaica Water) with highly processed alternatives (hotdogs, nuggets, sodas). Sugar consumption soared and waistlines exploded. In the past 20 years the number of obese and overweight people has tripled, with 75% of the population now overweight.
Mexico also has the sixth highest mortality rate from Covid-19, which has spurred the government to escalate its war against obesity. But for the global businesses that manufacture ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks, that war could end up posing a serious threat to their business models, especially if it other countries take a leaf out of Mexico and Chile’s book.
The American Bakers Association (ABA) recently warned that Mexico’s new labeling laws are causing difficulties for US manufacturers trying to export food and beverages to Mexico. In a letter sent to Katherine Tai, head of the United States Trade Representation, the lobbying group complained that the Mexican government is applying regulatory actions that it says are not based on science and are not aligned with the work of the Codex Alimentari Commission, the global body responsible for all matters regarding the implementation of the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme. ABA also argues that Mexico’s new labeling laws may contravene some provisions contained in the USMCA, the updated NAFTA agreement, particularly Mexico’s commitments under Chapter 11 (technical barriers to trade).
The problem for ABA and the companies it represents is that critical issues of human health — in particular that of diet — tend to take on greater import and urgency during a global pandemic. What’s more, the Mexican government is not alone in its fight against obesity. It has the support of some pretty powerful allies including the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), a regional branch of the World Health Organization (WHO). And PAHO is calling for the use of front-of-packaging warning labels almost identical to Mexico’s throughout the Americas, which would suggest that the war against obesity has only just began. By Nick Corbishley, for WOLF STREET.
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