As Caribbean Community (CARICOM) states begin voting to adopt a new regional standard for the labelling of prepackaged foods, a prominent health advocate has called on regional trade ministers to back the standard.
Renowned cardiologist Sir Trevor Hassell, the head of the Healthy Caribbean Coalition (HCC), said nutrition labelling is necessary as the Caribbean continues to tackle obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and accelerates efforts to address regional food security.
At the same time, the Caribbean Association of Nutritionists and Dietitians (CANDi), said it was throwing its full support behind the new labelling standard.
The final proposed draft of the front-of-package labelling standard, which has raised several questions for food and beverage makers here, uses an octagonal-shaped warning label on the front of their items.
This nutrition warning will require manufacturers to indicate if a product is “high in” sugar, fats or salt.
In a statement this week, Sir Trevor praised Minister of Foreign Trade Sandra Husbands for her stance on the issue.
Husbands last Friday told Parliament that she had assured the private sector that officials were “examining the very best way to make the transition so as to minimize the impact on business” and ensure that it was World Trade Organization-compliant.
But she said that despite the concerns raised by manufacturers, “we will be moving forward without any unnecessary delay to take the necessary steps in order to protect our population from the impact of sugar, salt and fats in their diets”.
In addition to the new labelling requirement’s likely impact on their bottom line, the manufacturers have expressed concern about what standard would be in place for other products that are pre-packaged, as well as the possible backlash from international trade. They argued that the same standard would be required for imported products, some of which do not currently comply.
The Barbados Manufacturers’ Association, while indicating that manufacturers supported a front-of-package warning, said it wanted evidence-based research to support the label.
Caribbean nutrition experts, represented by CANDi, said in a statement the octagonal front-of-package warning label “will make it easier for consumers to quickly and correctly identify foods high in sugars, fats and salts”. They pointed out that the labels have been effectively implemented in several Latin American countries and have been deemed effective.
A recent study in Jamaica showed that the proposed style of labelling was “most effective in identifying packaged products that were detrimental to consumer health when compared to other front-of-package labelling schemes”, the association said.
CANDi declared: “It is the most effective and simplest labelling system that allows all consumers, regardless of literacy levels, to correctly, quickly and easily identify products that are harmful to their health.
“The board and members of CANDi from across the region, encourage key stakeholders and Caribbean leaders to vote to adopt this standard and pave the way for the Caribbean to join a growing number of countries fighting back against obesity and NCDs with warning label regulations protecting the rights of their citizens to know what is in their food.”
Sir Trevor said that while support from major industry players across the region was strong, the support from trade ministers has been somewhat “lukewarm”.
This, he said, was “due to scientifically baseless fears of negative impacts on trade and the economy, promulgated by the regional processed and ultra-processed food and beverage sector”.
The HCC president said: “Front-of-package warning labels will not present a barrier to free trade as it represents a necessary public health measure, based on the best available independent evidence.
“Front-of-package warning labels will, without discrimination, apply to all operators, domestic and international, and companies will continue to be capable of trading their products anywhere, once they meet the nutrition warning standards.”
CARICOM member states have until April 14 to adopt the final draft of the proposed CARICOM Regional Standard for Specification for labelling of pre-packaged foods.
Once the voting is complete and in favour of the new standard, it will go back to the CARICOM Regional Organization for Standards and Quality (CROSQ) Council, and then onto the regional trade ministers, meeting as the CARICOM Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED), for endorsement.
CARICOM states will still need to put the national legislation in place to accommodate the new standard.