CARICOM’s top public health official has recommended Caribbean leaders address the issue of front-of-package food labelling with the same urgency they approached the COVID-19 pandemic.
Insisting that the time is now for action against non-communication diseases (NCDs) caused by poor eating habits, Executive Director of the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) Dr Joy St John said all had a role to play.
Health advocates are hoping that CARICOM member states will vote to adopt a newly proposed octagonal front-of-package warning nutrition labelling standard. They have until next Wednesday to do so.
Dr St John, once this country’s chief medical officer, recalling her tenure at the Ministry of Health said: “At that time in analyzing Barbados’ statistics it was clear that we had a really bad problem with obesity and NCDs, and I have, unfortunately, lived to see that as bad as it was, it got worse.
“We are at a stage where we have to do something differently. We can’t walk the same walk, [and] we can’t talk the same talk. We have to do something differently. The front of package labelling is one of those things that is different.
“It is not that difficult. If the Caribbean could get together, and as one, fight COVID-19, I think that we can work together – government, private sector and consumers – so that front of package labelling gives everybody the best chance.”
Dr St John was speaking as a panellist on a seminar hosted Wednesday by the Healthy Coalition Caribbean (HCC) and Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), in partnership with the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and UNICEF.
The discussion formed part of the regional pro-labelling campaign, Now More Than Ever: Better Labels, Better Choices, Better Health.
Stating that “one of the most effective points of inflexion for COVID-19 was the solidarity of the technical, ministerial and prime-ministerial decisions on how to proceed to fight COVID-19”, Dr St John insisted that the same approach could be taken with front-of-package labelling.
She suggested this could serve as a study so the region would be able to have its own scientific evidence on the impact of healthy eating habits on national and regional lifestyle disease levels.
Dr St John told the forum: “If we could get a few countries to come together and show that this works we could even have it for a project for the University of the West Indies for the Masters of Public Health students to study the effects of introducing front of package labelling on the reduction of obesity.
“If the Caribbean can show they can make changes with the front of package labelling by coming together, I think we will have the same scrutiny that the Caribbean is having now in terms of the successes of its policies in fighting COVID-19.”
Barbadian manufacturers have given qualified support for a front-of-package labelling standard, saying they could not back the move if it hurts businesses.
The standard, if accepted and adopted by CARICOM, would require packaged food and beverages to have an octagonal-shaped warning on the front indicating “high in” sugar, fats or sodium.
The Barbados Manufacturers’ Association (BMA) has argued that in addition to an impact on input costs due to the new labelling, the manufacturers are concerned about the impact on trade. They have queried whether imported products would be subject to the same standards and about policing of the new standards.
OECS Director General Dr Didacus Jules told the forum the business community should see the new standard as an opportunity.
He said: “We urge Caribbean manufacturers to see the huge opportunity for them to adopt these standards and position themselves with products that are reflective of healthy eating, because, for manufacturers, there is a global niche for healthy food which they can comfortably occupy by joining these efforts.” ([email protected])