Cracking the Codex: the new frontier for nutrition labelling

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?

 

This piece was originally posted on the PLOS Global Health Blog on 25/06/2018, and has been re-posted with author consent.

 

Consider yourself warned: Public health coming to a fast food menu near you

New York City’s Board of Health last week unanimously agreed to require ‘salt-shaker’ warning symbols on menu items with more than an entire day’s recommended limit of 2300mg of sodium. That’s around one teaspoon of salt.

Restaurants with more than 15 outlets nationally will display warnings from 1 December 2015.

Warning: the sodium (salt) content of this item is higher than the total daily recommended limit (2300 mg). High sodium intake can increase blood pressure and risk of heart disease and stroke.

Industry groups and the National Restaurant Association have been as swift in their (predictable) opposition as public health advocates have been to welcome the move. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has even begun a Pinterest board of qualifying items – a salt shaming parade of sorts.

Surrounding public debate has renewed attention on the health impact of salt. Sugar may have received more publicity of late, but population salt reduction is a World Health Organization ‘best-buy’ for public health.

Cardiovascular disease is now the world’s biggest killer, and high blood pressure the leading risk factor for these deaths. Links between salt and high blood pressure are so well established that in 2011, countries agreed to pursue a 30% relative reduction in population salt intake, aiming towards an average of less than 5 grams a day (approx. 2000mg of sodium) by 2025. In Australia, a 30% reduction could save around 3400 lives each year – that’s three times the national road toll.

Many are aware of salt’s potential harms, but it appears most people are failing to personalise their own risk – and thereby failing to modify their behaviour accordingly.

New York’s measure is built on figures that just 1 in 10 Americans are abiding by current guidelines. Most Australians aren’t aware of the daily recommended amount, yet believe their own intake of salt to be ‘about right’ (spoiler: it’s not!) People may not realise around 75% of salt intake comes from processed and restaurant foods – making it hard for even motivated individuals to reduce consumption alone, particularly without user-friendly information available on labels or menus. Ironically the source of the problem is not the salt-shaker itself. Not the one you keep at home, anyway.

Introducing a warning icon is a step in the right direction. Graphic and simple, it aligns with growing evidence from a packaging context that interpretive labelling helps consumers make healthier choices. Such measures also have broader impact by driving reformulation. If you were the maker of Jersey Mike’s Buffalo Chicken Cheesesteak – currently containing an astounding 7795mg of sodium – would you continue to invite adverse publicity via online ‘worst-of’ lists and in-store warning labels, or instead dial down salt, perhaps even phasing out the item from sale? Reformulated recipes rolled out by national chains may benefit millions of fast food customers far beyond New York City. Even before the potential ‘domino effect’ when emboldened health authorities elsewhere copy the measure, the little salt-shaker icon could have significant flow-on effects.

But what is an amount of salt worth warning us about? Burger industry representatives have been quick to proclaim most burgers in NYC wouldn’t be slapped with warnings under the current threshold. One whole teaspoon is a high bar if applied only to individual items. If a similar measure were applied in Australia, we may not see too many salt-shakers appear, though KFC’s Zinger Stacker burger comes dangerously close. Thankfully the law also applies to advertised meal combinations – in case you needed it, one more incentive not to ‘super-size me’.

Perhaps an entire day’s total is still an unreasonably high benchmark. If we allow food companies to market packaged foods as a ‘good source’ of positive nutrients like protein or fibre when containing just 20% of the daily recommended intake, and an ‘excellent’ source at 50% – why not apply a similar metric to a warning when the reverse is true?

Even if items don’t qualify for a salt-shaker, few would argue most products sold by these chains are ‘good for you’. Some point to limitations of focusing on single nutrient warnings, but such critiques miss the intervention’s place as only one component of a suite of complementary measures (including voluntary salt reformulation programs and trans-fat bans) which operate together to improve the food environment and enable consumers to make healthier choices.

In NYC – just as in New South Wales – total energy content is already displayed for all menu items. Results from NSW have been encouraging: the Food Authority found a 15% decrease in average kilojoules purchased. Despite a recent high-profile breach by McDonalds’ on its new digital menu boards, compliance has generally been high. Laws exist only in NSW, South Australia and the ACT, but many national chains have rolled out kilojoule information nationwide, delivering benefits to countless Australians.

As NSW considers extending menu labels to cover additional nutrients, New York’s salt-shaker provides global leadership. Perhaps better still, Australia has already developed a system combining information on a variety of risk factors (salt, sugar and saturated fat) with positive nutrients and total energy content into a single interpretive symbol. If ‘Health Star Ratings’ prove popular on front-of-pack of packaged foods in our supermarkets, why not extend them to fast food?

Further Reading: