Editorial | Warning labels, camels and horses
When , as the expression goes, the team that set about designing a thoroughbred came up with the camel, they produced quite a worthy animal – one well adapted to its environment. But camels do not win thoroughbred races.
Hopefully, Jamaica’s recent shambolic attempt at agreeing on the graphical design for delivering nutrition information at the front of food packaging won’t lead to an arrangement which, even if valuable elsewhere, is not fit for purpose. Two things are therefore important: policymakers should be driven primarily by science and what is good for Jamaica; and the Government must be clear about its priorities. That, in this case, will probably require a reconation of the interests of the Ministry of Health and Wellness and those of the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce. And perhaps, too, those of the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, headed by Prime Minister Andrew Holness.
Until the COVID-19 pandemic, Christopher Tufton, the health and wellness minister, staked his tenure on an assault on lifestyle-induced non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as hypertension and diabetes, and related conditions. The addition of ‘wellness’ to the ministry’s name was a nod to Dr Tufton’s policy focus.
The strategy makes sense. Like most Caribbean countries, Jamaica is facing a crisis of NCDs. According to Government data, a third (34 per cent) of Jamaicans are hypertensive, 12 per cent are diabetic, and 15 per cent suffer from chronic kidney problems. Of the Jamaicans who die annually, half (51 per cent) have high blood pressure, over a third (36 per cent) suffer from diabetes and one in 10 has a chronic kidney problem. While these may not be the specific cause of death, they are often related to the cardiovascular conditions that are the biggest killers of Jamaicans.
Treating these conditions is not only stressful to the health system; it is expensive. Two years ago, for example, the Government projected that it would have to spend around $30 billion over the next 15 years just in treating cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. The economy would also forego another J$47 billion in labour output because of these diseases.
Four years ago, Dr Tufton set his sights on sugar in foods, especially sugary drinks. He faltered in his bid to impose a tax on these drinks, but appeared to have coaxed a voluntary agreement out of food processors to reduce the amounts of sugar in their products. There are no studies, at least none whose findings are public, to show how these unspecified undertakings have been adhered to.
This year, though, in addition to his campaign to lower the amount of sugar and salt in the diets of Jamaicans, the health minister has targeted trans-fats and front-of-package labelling “in the interest of protecting consumers’ right to know and for good health”. Labels, he recently said in Parliament, must be “clear and easy to understand”.
The issue now is what such labels should look like. Apparently, as part of an attempt at a common regional approach to front-of-package labelling, Jamaica’s institutions, including Government agencies, agreed to octagonal, traffic sign-style notifications of certain ingredients and values. These arresting graphic elements, first used in Chile, are promoted by the Pan American Health Organization because of their effectiveness in delivering information to consumers. This, in the context of Jamaica, would appear to address two significant challenges: the complexity of food labels and educational/literacy issues.
However, this month a number of institutions retreated from their commitment to octagonal design. These bodies include:
- The National Consumers’ League;
- The Consumer Affairs Commission;
- The Scientific Research Council (SRC); and
- The National Compliance and Regulatory Authority (which polices compliance to standards).
The health ministry, notably, did not change its position.
Like private-sector groups, these bodies explain their change of mind as being in line with promoting labelling options and equity. Products imported into Jamaica were unlikely to carry these labels, while Jamaican manufacturers would have to incorporate them, at additional costs and to their competitive detriment.
“We believe it is important for manufacturers to have options in terms of how to design,” said Charah Watson, the head of the SRC, echoing the position of the consumers’ league.
What is in need of explanation is whether the groups that did the volte-face were not initially aware that they had these concerns, and what changed between the time of their original stance and early June. Further, given the lack of consensus among the Jamaican institutions, people must be assured that any front-of-label information that is implemented (should the idea survive) is not like entering a camel in the Jamaica Derby at the Caymanas Park race track.