Sun | Jun 13, 2021

Label resistance

Consumer groups, regulators push back as fears swirl over business fallout

Published:Friday | June 11, 2021 | 12:15 AMNadine Wilson-Harris/Staff Reporter
Sample of Chilean front-of-package label.

A proposal to use Chilean octagonal warnings on food and beverage packaging throughout the Caribbean has been flatly rejected by local consumer advocacy and regulatory groups despite urgent calls for the implementation of front-of-packaging labels...

A proposal to use Chilean octagonal warnings on food and beverage packaging throughout the Caribbean has been flatly rejected by local consumer advocacy and regulatory groups despite urgent calls for the implementation of front-of-packaging labels (FOPL) to stem the alarming increase in non-communicable diseases locally.

The pushback is centred on counterproposals for less restrictive alternatives and fears that Jamaican manufacturers will be at a competitive disadvantage to rival importers.

The Consumer Affairs Commission, the National Consumer League, the Scientific Research Council (SRC), and the National Compliance and Regulatory Authority, which had all voted for the use of the FOPL at a meeting convened by the CARICOM Regional Organisation for Standards & Quality (CROSQ) on March 30, backtracked on that decision and rejected the proposal at another meeting on June 4.

Initially, only the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association (JMEA) rejected the proposed label.

The decision taken by the five groups has created a dead heat as the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW), The University of the West Indies, the University of Technology, the Diabetes Association of Jamaica, and the Heart Foundation of Jamaica have all voted in support of the label, which would become a standard requirement for all manufacturers in the region.

The octagonal warning, which is one of several labelling systems developed to indicate when food and drink products are high in sodium, sugar, sodium/salt, fats, saturated fats, and trans fats, has been endorsed by PAHO, the international health agency for the Americas.

A study conducted by the MOHW, the University of Technology, Jamaica, and PAHO indicates that the octagonal sign is most effective in helping people identify and choose healthier foods.

But there have been calls for other options to be made available.

Representatives from the groups that have opposed the model said they are in support of having an FOPL, but their recommendation for more options to be included has seemingly gone unnoticed.

Executive director of the Scientific Research Council, Dr Charah Watson, would like the group’s concerns to be taken into consideration. The SRC wants more standardised formats available for manufacturers since a “one-cap-fits-all” approach might not be feasible.

“The challenge we had is it was one specific option, saying it must be designed to that particular way. We believe it is important for manufacturers to have options in terms of how to design,” she said.

Watson continued: “So the information would still be there, but we wanted them to have flexibility with that design, so depending on their package size, depending on what the product is, it might not be facilitated in that definite design option that was being presented,” she said.

The Chilean black and white warning food label, which takes the shape of a stop sign, was introduced in the Latin American country in 2016 and has since been implemented in other countries that are within the remit of PAHO. Other types of front-of-package label signs have been implemented in other countries like the United Kingdom and the US.

The Gleaner understands that the UK version, which combines colour coding and percentage reference intakes, is being put forward as an alternative here.

“Everybody, in principle, supports front-of-packaging labelling,” said Trevor Samuels, immediate past president of the National Consumer League, before adding, “All we are asking for is a choice to reflect our Caribbean area.”

He said the groups are mindful of the country’s challenges with battling obesity, which places a burden on the health sector.

The Global School Health Survey (2017) indicated that 65 per cent of children between 13 and 17 years were overweight, and 26 per cent were considered obese. The Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey 2016-2017 indicated that one in two, or 54 per cent of, Jamaicans, was pre-obese or obese.

Dolsie Allen, chief executive officer of the Consumer Affairs Commission, said the commission supports FOPL on pre-packaged foods given its mandate to promote and protect the interests and economic welfare of consumers.

However, in its recent vote is evidence that it, too, is pressing for alternatives to the Chilean paradigm.

“Using CROSQ’s voting guidelines, the commission voted not to support the standard in its current form unless other FOPL models are included. By voting this way, it will ensure that other options are considered when determining the way forward,” she said.

CEO of the National Compliance and Regulatory Authority, Dr Lorice Edwards-Brown, said she would also like to see more options available and for consumer awareness on FOPL to be increased.

“As a regulator, we are not pushing for a particular model. We are not taking a preference. There are options out there, and all we are saying is give options,” she said.

Chairman of the Diabetes Association of Jamaica Lurline Less said that while she supported the use of the FOPL, she has concerns about equity. She wonders about the likely impact on local manufacturers if foods imported to Jamaica are not mandated to have FOPL labels as well.

In March, the JMEA sided with regional private-sector lobbies in registering concerns over the past two and a half years regarding the implementation of the High-In Octagon Warning Symbol with PAHO Thresholds.

“It is highly unlikely that large, imported brands will be willing to create unique labels for Jamaica, and with the limited resources to enforce the standard at the ports, it is quite likely that the playing field will be rendered unlevel for local manufacturers who would be the only ones forced to comply with the new FOPL requirement,” the group said.