Barbados and other countries in the region are being told to put policies in place to ensure that healthy food options are more affordable and accessible to everyone, and especially children.
This advice has come from Dr Aloys Kamuragiye, UNICEF Representative for the Eastern Caribbean, as discussions continued on the need for urgency among Caribbean Community (CARICOM) states to adopt new standards which include the introduction of front of package warning labelling on packaged food and beverages.
Kamuragiye was speaking as a panelist on Wednesday during a seminar hosted by the Healthy Coalition Caribbean (HCC) and Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), in partnership with the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and UNICEF.
The discussion formed part of the HCC-led regional campaign Now More Than Ever: Better Labels, Better Choices, Better Health.
Dr Kimuragiye said the region was suffering from a health crisis where one in three children was either obese or overweight, adding that a lot of the foods they were eating were leaving them with a range of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
Stating that this was a “child’s rights issue”, Kamuragiye insisted that all children were entitled to healthy food and adequate nutrition and it was therefore the duty of countries that have signed on to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child “to ensure that children are protected from unhealthy food environments that undermine their rights to healthy food and adequate nutrition”.
He said it was about time, therefore, that Caribbean “duty bearers” create an environment where children and young people are not exposed to the threats of NCDs from eating unhealthy foods.
“It means of course, having the right standards. I think the front of package warning labels is a great step, but it is not enough.
“They have to ensure that healthy food is affordable, accessible. It is possible. It is a matter of policy,” he insisted.
“Of course, we have to ensure as part of the enabling environment, there is no marketing promotion of unhealthy food. .. It is unacceptable to have that kind of marketing promotion in schools. The duty-bearers extend to the ministry of education, the principals, teachers – they should protect the children . . . So I consider that this is really a critical moment and a period for the Caribbean countries to make the difference and do the right things and fulfill their obligations,” he said.
Dr Kamuragiye said he was aware implementation would not be overnight and there were several challenges facing the region, but insisted that it was doable.
“It is a daunting prospect but we are not powerless,” he said. “There is much we can do to vigorously challenge a food environment which damages our children and blights their future.
“Let us take this opportunity to lobby our leaders to make sure we are heard and to challenge them to do the right thing. We need action and we need it now.”
CARICOM member states have until next Wednesday to vote on the adoption of a new CARICOM standard which includes the proposed octagonal front of package warning labelling.
During Wednesday’s webinar, officials shared regional and international studies on the effectiveness of various types of front of package warning labelling, with all the findings suggesting that the octagonal one was more effective.
President of the HCC Sir Trevor Hassell also pointed to the urgent need for a reduction in the region’s NCD burden, which he said was reflected in poor individual and population health, reduced productivity and delayed national development.
He said the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted the significantly increased vulnerability of people living with NCDs and the inequities and shortcomings in implementation of comprehensive national responses to NCD prevention and control.
“This is particularly evident in the area of food consumption where the overconsumption of widely accessible, cheap, heavily-marketed, poorly-labelled, processed and ultra-processed packaged foods, high in sugars, salt and fats, contribute to unhealthy diets,” he said.
Sir Trevor said this situation has led to some 60 per cent of adults being overweight, a high prevalence of hypertension and diabetes with associated significant health challenges and 40 per cent of premature deaths due to NCDs in the Caribbean.
Reaffirming the HCC’s support for the proposed “high in” octagonal nutrition warning labelling standard, he pledged the association’s continued campaigning efforts to make it a reality. ([email protected])