Wed | Feb 21, 2018

Fitzroy J. Henry | Scandalous attack on food industry task force

Published:Sunday | February 11, 2018 | 12:00 AM

When I accepted the role of chairman of the National Food Industry Task Force (NFITF), I expected robust discussion based on scientific facts, energetic negotiations from rock-hard positions, and even agreement to disagree when necessary. What I did not expect was character assassination, professional insults, and wholesale misrepresentation of the task force from two leaders in the industry. But that is exactly what happened on a recent CVM On Point programme - co-hosted by Dennis Chung and guests William Mahfood (Wisynco Group) and Dr Alfred Dawes (bariatric surgeon).

 

ISSUE #1 - HOW MUCH SUGAR IS CONSUMED IN JAMAICA?

 

Data for 2017 from The Sugar Industry Authority and SATIN (production-exports + imports) indicate that each person in Jamaica consumes just over 2lb of (raw) sugar per week. Note that this excludes the hidden sugar in our imported manufactured products, e.g., ready-to-eat cereals, dairy-based desserts, confectionery, etc, which make up an addition 1lb per week.

In the USA, for example, the rate is estimated at 2lb-3lb per week - and Jamaicans consume many more sugary drinks per person. Nevertheless, Mr Mahfood claims that his analysis shows just 1lb of sugar consumption per week for Jamaica. Then Dr Dawes states, with prompting from the co-host, Mr Chung, that based on the 'evidence' provided by Mr Mahfood, Professor Henry must have "fudged the data to misrepresent the sugar situation in Jamaica". This is a professional making a damning assertion about another professional on national TV. But the co-host is the cheerleader! What journalism!

While numbers are important, we should not get sidetracked or derailed from the central issue of combating the tsunami of obesity and chronic diseases. Even if we use Mr Mahfood's 'evidence' of 1lb per week, this is still double the global guidelines on sugar consumption.

So what is Mr Mahfood's solution? His main answer is that physical activity should be the priority. But this cannot be the main solution because studies have shown that if you drink a 12oz soft drink daily, it will require an average person to walk 1.5 miles or run about 15 minutes every day of the year to burn those calories.

Studies in Jamaica have shown that 65 per cent of persons (many educated) are not willing, ready, or able to change their high sugar and fat consumption habits, even those who are suffering from obesity and chronic ailments. This is because of the obesogenic environment we live in. I agree with World Health Organization (WHO) that reduction of sugar content in products must be a priority. Clearly, joint approaches, including physical activity and education, are warranted. But national TV and newspaper columns are not the ideal place to resolve these serious health issues. And not by slinging mud, especially when no mud is coming back at you.

Mr Chung stated: "If the Government does not accept your offer to fund a national caloric study that will show bias. Right?", Mr Mahfood replied: "That's right." What logic! Perhaps these gentlemen are unaware that the National Health Fund has already funded a national food-consumption survey.

 

ISSUE #2 - THE SUGAR TAX

 

Mr Mahfood repeatedly stated that the task force is now preoccupied with imposing a sugar tax in Jamaica. That is simply not true. A sugar tax is not the main focus of the task force.

Both national newspapers have called for dialogue with food industry partners in the search for solutions to the burgeoning and costly obesity and chronic disease problems. And the task force has been doing just that. Some argue that we have been doing too much consultation. In 2017, the task force had discussions on product reformulation, nutrition labelling, education,communication and advocacy and food marketing - particularly to children in schools.

We held more than 12 consultations with the largest and smallest food industry partners. Progress has been slow, but we are committed to extending these consultations, within limits, to accommodate industry requests and concerns.

In November 2017, more than 25 companies attended a consultation on all subthemes. Invited speakers were Dennis Chung (PSOJ), the minister of education, and the minister of health. The focus was not on a sugar tax - both Mr Chung and Mr Mahfood know this. Mr Chung was part of the task force that met with Cabinet last year, and he, as well as Mr Mahfood, participated in several task force committees.

But alas! Now as co-host of a TV programme, Mr Chung is prompting Mr Mahfood that our focus is on a sugar tax. Let me be clear: Only the Government can decide if, when, and for what reason it wishes to impose any tax. As a task force, we are assembling the facts, some of which were presented in a University of Technology, Jamaica, scientific symposium in January - how might a sugar tax impact consumption, obesity, employment, the poor, local sugar industry, imports, etc. We will then engage the stakeholders in dialogue before we make any recommendations on the tax issue.

 

ISSUE #3 - SO WHAT SHOULD JAMAICANS EAT?

 

The Ministry of Health has produced the national dietary guidelines - using local data and based on WHO and FAO models. However, Dr Dawes, on the same CVM programme contends, from his admitted 'limited' cohort of patients, that carbohydrates such as ground provisions and rice are fuelling the obesity epidemic. Dr Dawes needs to tell the nation what his guidelines are for eating a healthy say, 2400-calorie diet.

The task force will continue with its mandate to engage the wide cross section of stakeholders in search of healthy food options that can be offered to the public to combat the major health crisis of our times: obesity and chronic diseases. The expected pushback from the food industry will continue, but as a former US first lady said, "When they go low, we will go high."

- Professor Fitzroy Henry is chairman of the National Food Industry Task Force. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and fitzroy.henry@utech.edu.jm.