Richard Pandohie | Front-of-package labelling – the JMEA perspective
Using a very well-funded campaign, certain stakeholders – Healthy Caribbean Coalition (HCC), The Heart Foundation of Jamaica (HFJ), The Ministry of Health and Wellness, among others – have engaged in a campaign that has portrayed manufacturers as being against FOPL. This is simply not true. Let me lay out a few facts which I hope will clear the air and remove this veil of confusion and misinformation that is being unfortunately spun.
There is no doubt that non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are a massive issue in the region and are huge contributors to mortality and other health issues. High blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity are three of the big drivers of the health burden in almost every Caribbean Island. The scientific data link these NCDs to unhealthy diets caused by an excessive intake of sugars, total fats, saturated fats, trans fats, and sodium. When you overlay this with the genetic predisposition linked to some of the ethnicity within the region, then we have a problem that we cannot ignore. The Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association (JMEA) is aligned and supportive of the vision to reduce the disease burden in our country.
The FOPL is a tool to inform of the key nutrients on the front of pre-packaged food and beverages in a simple and easy-to -use format that provides consumers with information to help them make healthy and more informed purchasing decisions. The JMEA 100 per cent agrees that our consumers should have the right to be informed about the content of the food or beverage being presented to them. We fully support the notion that Jamaicans have a right to know what is in their food.
The PAHO-led campaign wants the Caribbean region to adopt an octagonal warning label system that was first introduced by Chile in June 2016. This system utilises High-In black warning labels shaped like stop signs for processed pre-packaged food and drinks exceeding PAHO Nutrient Profile Model criteria limits for sugar, sodium, saturated fats, total fat, and trans fats. Up to this time, although supposedly being considered by several countries, very few countries have introduced this type of warning label. The supporters of this Chilean model argue that their consumer research has shown this to be the most effective warning system. That may or may not be so, but the Caribbean does not exist in a vacuum. We import and sell many of our products through our major trading partners, particularly the US. The US does not use the Chilean model, neither does Canada, nor the UK, and the list goes on. The evidence shows that although the Chilean model has been shown to change consumption, up to this time, there has been no published evidence that it has changed the NCDs outcome.
Proponents argue that five years is too soon, and they need 10 years to see the benefit. This model is still unproven. So we have a group of influential and well-funded stakeholders pushing for an unproven system that has no commonality with our major trading partners. This lack of commonality is significant because as a region, we are a massive importer of everything, and that reality is not going to change anytime soon. So tell me, how is this going to be enforced? Are we going to tell the producers in these countries that their products are non-compliant and therefore cannot be imported into the Caribbean? Surely the expectation is not to regulate local manufacturers and turn a blind eye to non-compliant imports? It simply makes sense to consider other models (including the Chilean model) that will be compatible with our real trading partners. In that way, the region will be able to meet one of its health policy objectives, with a pragmatic and enforceable system in place.
CARICOM’s productive base is tiny, and it needs to grow. Choking it with unique requirements that are misaligned to global norms simply does not make sense. The sad reality is that we, the people of this region, keep being played by others who push for measures that they cannot get done in many of their own countries. This pandemic has stripped away the veneer of global cooperation and has laid bare the reality that it is every country for themselves. It is time we wake up to the reality that we must start thinking for ourselves. We can accomplish our health objectives without creating yet another barrier for the productive sector. I do not understand the drive to vilify an entire sector when there is so much alignment on the core principle.
The biggest contributor to unhealthy diet in Jamaica is poverty. Many persons cannot afford to buy the products that are healthier because they do not have the disposable income to so do. Warning label or no warning label is not going to change the disposable income in their pockets. We need to create higher-quality jobs with better incomes, change our consumption habits by utilising more natural products in place of processed foods, implement strong education campaigns, especially at primary schools, and continue to promote a healthier lifestyle. The pandemic has made the case for a healthier population even more acute. We all agree that we cannot continue with such high levels of NCDs, but let us cut the hypocrisy and deal with the real drivers of what has got us here.
The JMEA is fully on board and supports the drive to have FOPL for the food and beverage sectors, however, the models of our major trading partners should be included in the options available. This is the bone of contention. Forget about all the other noise that you hear. This single issue is the sole point of disagreement.
The JMEA does not have the funds to match the massive media campaign of our friends, and right now we are just trying to get through this pandemic and the myriad global disruptions it has caused. I hope that at a minimum, this article would have put the JMEA’s position squarely on the table. The gap on this issue is not insurmountable, and we can find common ground that will yield a win for our people, our health system, and our productive sector.
- Richard Pandohie is president of Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association. Send feedback on twitter @richardpandohie or on Facebook.