Alexandra Jones, Global health lawyer and PhD Candidate at The George Institute for Global Health and the University of Sydney
Dr Anne Marie Thow, Senior Lecturer in Health Policy at the University of Sydney
Dr Carmen Huckel Schneider, Senior Lecturer, Health Policy at the University of Sydney and co-lead of the Health Governance and Financing Group and the Menzies Centre for Health Policy
Food labels hit the New York Times recently when leaks from North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations suggested the US was being urged by big American food and soft-drink companies to limit the ability of the pact’s three members – Mexico, Canada and the US – to implement warning labels on unhealthy foods.
There is no escaping the health imperative here. Obesity has nearly tripled since 1975 worldwide: 41 million children under 5 are now overweight, while 1.9 billion adults are overweight or obese. Spiralling health and economic costs mean governments are turning to evidence-based policies to prevent and control diet-related diseases like obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and dental caries.
Better nutrition labelling – including front-of-pack labels that interpret nutrition information through symbols, colours or words – are part of the comprehensive package recommended by the World Health Organization. Over 20 countries already have policies in place – they include the UK’s traffic lights, France’s Nutriscore, Chile’s ‘stop sign’ warnings (which Peru appears set to follow), and Australasia’s Health Star Rating.
This proliferation and diversity poses trade and commercial challenges, and calls for some degree of consistency in global approach have been made.
Cracking the Codex (Alimentarius Commission)
This is where the international food standards body – the Codex Alimentarius Commission – comes in.
A UN body created by the WHO and UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Codex has a dual mandate: to protect consumer health, and promote fair trade practices.
Codex standards and guidance are voluntary, but in practice frequently act as a touchstone for countries looking to develop national policies. As Codex enjoys recognition as an international standards setting body by the WTO, guidance it develops also has potential to show up in trade discussions around food.
In short: what happens at Codex matters for public health nutrition.
Done well, Codex could bolster countries to take action. Left unchecked, there’s a risk outcomes could deter countries’ from implementing policies desperately needed to stem the rising global tide of non-communicable diseases.
As Codex is also notoriously slow – there’ll be a general meeting 2-6 July in Rome, and a further discussion paper for feedback later this year – it’s critical that the process itself not be used as a ‘brake’ on growing global momentum to implement strong front-of-pack labels.
Time for public health to assume a seat at the Codex table
Industry Observers have been quick to jump on opportunities to provide input into new Codex work on front-of-pack labelling. The first working group included representation from 13 international organizations representing the food industry, particularly the sugar and beverages sectors. Only two consumer groups were there.
It’s now critical we ensure public health bring their perspective to the table.
What you can do:
Read our briefing note for more information, and
- Get involved – contact your national Codex Contact Point or join an Observer organization
- Speak up about the public health priorities, like:
- the importance of a definition of ‘front-of-pack nutrition labelling’ that supports schemes most likely to be effective in achieving public health objectives – and not, for example, industry preferred options such as the Guideline Daily Amount that aren’t backed by evidence
- preserving policy space for strong and innovative measures – evidence is rapidly evolving but currently suggests for informing consumers and improving diets, this may include mandatory labels that use interpretive elements like colours, symbols or words, underpinned by robust and transparent criteria for scoring foods
- Encourage continued action at a national level – remember, nothing in the current process prevents interested countries from pursuing front-of-pack labelling
Want to read more?
- Background paper: Public health nutrition and front-of-pack nutrition labelling at Codex
- Paper: Kanter et al, Front-of-pack nutrition labelling policy : global progress and future directions
- Paper: Thow et al, Nutrition labelling is a trade policy issue: lessons from an analysis of specific trade concerns at the World Trade Organization
- World Cancer Research Fund, ‘NOURISHING’ database of implemented policies
This piece was originally posted on the PLOS Global Health Blog on 25/06/2018, and has been re-posted with author consent.