Regional officials are calling on lawmakers in Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean to make it mandatory for manufacturers to place front-of-package warning labels on food and beverage items.
Insisting that it is a human rights issue, they have suggested that a regional approach is needed.
Moreover, Executive Director of the Healthy Caribbean Coalition (HCC) Maisha Hutton and representative of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Secretariat Douglas Slater have suggested that the matter may require putting increased pressure on policymakers if not addressed soon.
The front-of-package issue was highlighted on Monday during a webinar session titled The Human Rights Approach to Front-of-Package Labelling in the Caribbean.
A front-of-package label indicates basic nutrition information on a food or drink product, such as the levels of sugar, sodium and fat.
Hutton said while civil society organisations have been advocating for these warning labels for some time, the greatest challenge has been “interference” from the private sector.
She explained that the food and beverage industry, supported by the wider private sector in the region, was “well-coordinated, well mobilised, well-resourced and have strong political influence and lobbying power, creating a situation where most of the interference is behind the scenes”.
“So it is very challenging for us advocates to expose and to counter,” Hutton said.
However, she pledged continued awareness campaigns, adding that the HCC was eager to see a unified response from regional leaders.
“I think the media has a potential to play a significant role,” she said.
“There are many competing priorities at the moment, competing issues, but it is certainly something we have been working on, and I think it is probably going to be one of the most effective tools in our toolbox to build public support to put pressure on policymakers.”
Hutton said she was pleased to see the recent statement from the UN Special Rapporteur urging countries to promote frameworks whereby the food and beverage industry convey accurate, easily understandable, transparent and comprehensible information on their products in an effort to help tackle the issue of non-communicable diseases.
“Front-of-package warning labelling regulations are much needed in this regard,” the UN said in its July statement.
Concerned about the growing number of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), the UN insisted that front-of-package warning labels could help to address diet-related risk factors and protect the right to health.
Slater agreed that the warning labels on food and beverage items were necessary and that a regional approach was needed.
However, he said one of the main challenges with a united approach was that each country was still required to carry out various implementation of policies.
“It is not always easy to get a common regional response. It is going to be a challenge, but we have to find ways . . . to put in some pressure on the member states, the policymakers, to adhere to their responsibilities of human rights,” said Slater.
“That is a role, I think, the civil society has to play. But we will do our best at our level to remind the policymakers and to encourage them to so do.”
Nicole Foster, Deputy Dean of Academic and Student Affairs in the Faculty of Law at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, added: “I agree that certainly, a collective approach is what we have to take because of the nature of the challenge of NCDs.”
The CARICOM Regional Organisation for Standards and Quality (CROSQ) is expected to review a draft document for the implementation of the long-awaited standards for front-of-package nutrition warning labels on locally and regionally manufactured food and drink products.
A technical team was expected to deliver a final draft document between late October and early November.
After careful review and final comments, it is expected that another draft document would be sent or, if there is a consensus on the first document, there could be national voting.