Shajoe Lake | The role of policies in the protection of consumer rights
The eight main rights of consumers have been well documented in the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection: the right to satisfaction of basic needs; to safety; to be informed; to choose; to be heard, to redress; to consumer education; to a healthy environment. However, it is important to realise that these rights, although largely accepted by governments, are not automatically considered to be government policies. It is the responsibility of government and society to ensure adherence these rights through the development of appropriate legislative framework and policies.
Consumer organisations are critical to developing policies as they interface directly with consumers and possess a unique advantage for engaging all stakeholders (academic institutions, NGOs, etc.) to create a network of advocates. They advocate for policies by lobbying the government and decision-makers, and by running mass media campaigns. Notably, the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms protects consumer organisations’ right to seek, receive, distribute or disseminate information, opinions and ideas through any media. Research conducted by consumer organisations on various consumer issues can also support strong evidence-based policies.
As part of our existing policy framework, Jamaica’s Consumer Protection Act should provide for consumer protection. The question is whether there needs to be additional policies for the protection of consumer rights. Let’s take a closer look at one aspect.
Implicit in the right to the satisfaction of basic needs is the right to access to safe and nutritious food, which is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed. The Jamaican Constitution provides for the right to “enjoy a healthy and productive environment free from the threat of injury or damage from environmental abuse and degradation of the ecological heritage”.
A public opinion survey conducted in 2018 showed that 90 per cent of Jamaicans want the government to take swift action to tackle the country’s obesity epidemic. Jamaicans are eating less fresh fruit and vegetables, and more pre-packaged, ultra-processed foods and drinks high in salt, fat and sugar. Research links the increased consumption of ultra-processed foods and drinks to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure (hypertension). Jamaica currently has one of the highest obesity rates in the Americas in teenagers aged 13-15 years, and one in two Jamaicans aged 15 years and over are overweight/obese. In Jamaica, heart disease, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes account for nearly four out of every five deaths.
FOOD PACKAGE REGULATIONS CRITICAL
Food package regulations are critical to any plan to decrease unhealthy diets and NCDs. Labels that allow consumers to correctly, quickly and easily identify products containing excessive critical nutrients would be a key element in an effective food policy. Consumers have the right to know what is in their food, and food labels are an effective way to provide that information. Strong food labelling policies would restrict product labels that imply that certain foods are healthy, thus misleading consumers. Educated and empowered consumers can make healthier choices. However, nutrition information is often complicated, and studies show that consumers typically spend less than 10 seconds when making purchasing decisions. According to PAHO, information needs to be presented quickly, easily and correctly if they are to make healthier choices. One way is to include warnings on the front of food products that contain excessive amounts of nutrients of concern to health, such as fats, salt and sugar. Front-of-Package Labels (FOPL) are proving to be effective in protecting consumer rights so that consumers can make informed choices.
Jamaica does not currently have a FOPL system, but Jamaica and the Caribbean region have commenced the review of the standard for labelling of prepacked foods to include FOPL. Currently, the only law that deals with food labelling is the Standards Act and its attendant regulations, which requires that processed food labels must be in English and must state the name of the food and brand, the manufacturer’s name and address, the country of origin of the food, its ingredients, how it should be handled, stored and prepared, the expiry date, and net contents. The Jamaican Standard for Labelling of Pre-packaged Foods has similar requirements. While these documents also include requirements to ensure the label does not have any claims or information misleading to the consumer, enforcement gaps may mean that manufacturers may include claims such as “healthy”, “nutritious”, or “wholesome”, when in fact the processed foods are not as nutritious as advertised.
The food and beverage industry argues that FOPL should be voluntary, but this does not adequately protect consumer rights. Not only is compliance usually low, but evidence indicates that companies selectively avoid using FOPL warnings on food that contain excessive amounts of critical nutrients, which is intended to enable consumers to make healthier choices. Consumer rights remain unprotected.
The argument that mandatory FOPL will have significant cost implications on traders and exporters, especially small businesses, remains unsubstantiated as evidence from the UK shows that companies, including small businesses, frequently change their labels for promotional and other purposes. Labels are frequently changed to meet legislative requirements, and to meet international, regional, and domestic labelling standards. The cost is no justification for refusing to relabel goods to comply with FOPL.
Another attempt to avoid compliance and protect public health is the claim that FOPL will be a barrier to free trade, and that other countries having less stringent standards would have an advantage in overseas markets. But, companies generally have to meet standards in whichever country they seek to trade. Jamaica currently does not require nutrition facts panels (not to be confused with FOPL), but they are required by the USA regulations. Local manufacturers comply as they must abide by the rules in order to trade.
Consumer organisations are well placed to spotlight consumer health issues, collect relevant data from consumers, provide information about consumers rights and craft a sustainable consumer rights-based narrative that can bolster support for food policy implementation. For this reason, consumer organisations worldwide are increasingly dedicating greater effort to food policy: from advocating for FOPL, restriction of the marketing of unhealthy food to children and lobbying for sweetened beverage taxes. The value of the work being done by consumer organisations as the world grapples with high rates of NCD mortality and morbidity cannot be overstated.
The key to ensuring and maintaining the protection of the consumer and fundamental consumer rights lies in strong national consumer protection policies, which warrants a review of existing policies and expansion of the policy framework for consumer protection.
Shajoe Lake is a master of law candidate in Global Health Law, at Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.