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.

 

Upcoming events: Engaging with Advocates

Advocates 1

On Friday the 28th of July, Sydney Health Law is hosting Engaging with Advocates, along with the Food Governance Node and the Healthy Food Systems Node at the Charles Perkins Centre.

This event aims to connect early career researchers with leading civil society advocates in order to foster collaboration and increase the impact of research. Representatives of organizations working on the sustainability of food systems, promoting healthier diets, and championing consumer rights will share personal experiences of using research in their efforts to improve policy, and offer insights for academics looking to strengthen the practical relevance of their research.

This event will feature keynote presentations by:

  • CHOICE
  • The Live Lighter Campaign (Heart Foundation Western Australia); and
  • Sustain: The Australian Food Network

The keynote presentations will be followed by a session where participants workshop “live” policy issues, and the event will conclude with networking drinks.

While the event is targeted at early-career researchers, academics at every level are welcome to attend, as are members of civil society and government organisations, and others who are interested. Further information can be found at this link.

We hope to see you there!

Sydney Health Law’s Food Governance Conference

 

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In the first week of November, Sydney Health Law will be hosting the Food Governance Conference. The conference is a collaborative endeavor between Sydney Law School and the Charles Perkins Centre, the University of Sydney’s dedicated institute for easing the global burden of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. The conference also has sponsorship from The George Institute for Global Health and the University’s Cancer Research Network.

The Food Governance Conference will explore the role of law, regulation and policy in addressing the key challenges associated with food and nutrition in the 21st century, including food security, food safety, and preventing diet-related disease such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It also engages with issues related to sustainability, equity, and justice in the food supply, with a strong focus on nutrition and diet-related health in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

In taking such a broad focus we hope that the Conference will highlight the interrelationships between the main challenges facing the global food system in the 21st century. The conference will also showcase the work of researchers in developing new, innovative solutions to these challenges, with the conference including presenters from across Australia, as well as from the UK, Canada, and New Zealand. Some of the issues considered at the conference include:

  • Taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Free range egg labeling
  • Urban farming
  • The role of business in improving nutrition and diet-related health, and
  • The influence of trade agreements on the global food system

A draft conference program and registration form are available on the conference website.

Public events

We have an exciting program of events around the Food Governance Conference, including two free, public lectures to open the conference.

Professor Corinna Hawkes will be giving the opening address for the conference on Tuesday the 1st of November at 6pm at the Charles Perkins Centre Auditorium. This lecture is free and open to the public. Professor Hawkes is the Director of the Centre for Food Policy at City University London and a world-renowned expert on food and nutrition policy. She’ll be speaking on the three biggest challenges facing the food system, and how we fix them. If you’re interested in this talk, you can register at this link.

Dr Alessandro Demaio will also be giving a public lecture at 1-2pm on Tuesday the 1st of November at Sydney Law School. Dr Demaio (from the World Health Organisation) will be speaking on the links between food, nutrition and cancer, and what the nutrition community can learn from the cancer community from its fight against tobacco. Further details about his talk are available at this link.

Workshop on food advocacy

Along with the Charles Perkins Centre, the Australian Right to Food Coalition is hosting a masterclass on becoming an effective food policy advocate, featuring Professor Corinna Hawkes. The purpose of this master class is to encourage debate among academics and civil society about the role of advocacy in food and nutrition policy, what it is, and how it can be used more effectively. Registrations for the master class can be made herePlease note that the master class is now full.

We’re looking forward to the inaugural Food Governance Conference at the University of Sydney, and we hope to see you there. We welcome any questions about the conference, which can be directed to Dr Belinda Reeve: Belinda.reeve@sydney.edu.au

Follow #foodgovernance2016 on Twitter for updates about the conference!

Upcoming Conferences: Governing Food

Governing Food

Governing Food: The Role of Law, Regulation and Policy in Meeting 21st Century Challenges to the Food Supply

Dates: Tuesday 1st November – Thursday 3rd November 2016

Venue: Sydney Law School

Sydney Health Law is hosting the Governing Food Conference in November this year, in conjunction with the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and with sponsorship from The George Institute for Global Health.

 Governing Food will bring together researchers and practitioners from a range of disciplines to explore the role of law, regulation and policy in promoting a healthy, safe and sustainable food supply. The conference will be opened by a public keynote address on Tuesday the 1st of November, to be delivered by Professor Corinna Hawkes from the Centre for Food Policy at City University London. The main days of the conference will be Wednesday the 2nd of November and Thursday the 3rd of November.

The call for abstracts and further details about the conference can be found at this address. You can also contact Dr Belinda Reeve in relation to any questions about the conference: belinda.reeve@sydney.edu.au.

We hope to see you there!

 

Is your summer barbeque under fire? Chewing over the evidence on meat and cancer, and digesting the implications for regulation

Corned beef

The report

We’ve now had a few weeks to chew over the latest report linking food and cancer. Only this time it wasn’t a puff-piece in your Sunday newspaper, but an extremely comprehensive report from IARC, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. After a systematic review, IARC’s findings on the links between red and processed meat consumption, and cancer, were published in a press release and in The Lancet in late October (the full findings will be published later as a monograph).

In brief, red meat (“all mammalian muscle meat, including, beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat”) was classified as being probably carcinogenic to humans. Processed meat (“meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation”) was classified as carcinogenic to humans. This means that, based on epidemiological studies, IARC found “convincing evidence” that meat products like ham, sausages, corned beef and biltong cause colorectal cancer.

Is meat the “new tobacco”?

Despite widespread media reporting that red and processed meats were now “as big a threat as cigarettes”, IARC did not actually make this comparison. Rather, it rated the strength of the evidence for the link as “Group 1”, meaning that the evidence is strong. So, the evidence linking tobacco and lung cancer is equally persuasive (Group 1) but this does not mean that eating meat is as dangerous as smoking. (This classification system is widely used in systematic assessments of nutritional evidence, including in the Australian Dietary Guidelines.)

Among those who denounced the comparison between eating meat and smoking cigarettes was Australia’s Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce. Clearly, Mr Joyce has an interest in dampening any concerns that might threaten Australia’s reputation as a nation of meat-eaters – but in this case his assessment of the evidence was correct.

Regulation of bacon: the next frontier for public health law?

All in all, you may want to consider throwing a few extra vegetable skewers on your next barbeque. But more interestingly for our purposes, what – if any – are the implications for law and regulation?

As countries such as India and China undergo rapid social and nutritional transitions, the demand for meat will only grow – worldwide, meat-eating is correlated with greater wealth. This has environmental as well as health implications. Together, these implications may eventually prompt countries to take regulatory action.

While there are currently no jurisdictions that regulate the consumption of meat, the following developments may be indicative of an early trend:

  • “Meatless Mondays” or “meat-free Mondays” campaigns have been springing up around the world since the early 2000s. These tend to be grassroots civil society initiatives aimed at making vegetarian food more acceptable and available.
  • In 2009, the Belgian city of Ghent became the first in the world to proclaim an official “Veggie Thursday”.
  • The most recent iteration of the US government’s dietary guidelines, “MyPlate”, refers to daily “protein” rather than “meat” consumption.
  • In the early 1990s, Ghana introduced food standards setting maximum fat limits for pork, beef, mutton and poultry, in response to concerns about diet-related NCDs. While not a curb on meat consumption per se, this regulatory response does speak to some of the concerns raised by IARC.
  • Perhaps most tellingly, the food industry has come to recognise the commercial potential of vegetarian foods, which are now said to have “gone mainstream” after decades on the hippie fringe.

This is where the comparison with tobacco control may be more salient. The evidence linking tobacco to cancer was recognised by some governments as early as the mid-1950s, but the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was not enacted until 2003. Biltong regulation will no doubt require a similar fermentation period. But the mix of voluntary, regulatory and commercial developments above suggests that the goal of curbing meat consumption is not far-fetched or conceptually unappealing. More controversial perhaps will be the methods of achieving that goal. Warning labels on a pack of sausages? A tax on bacon? A ban on quarter-pounders? We’ll get back to you in 30 years…

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:

Upcoming Conferences: Emerging Health Policy Research Conference 2015

The Menzies Centre for Health Policy is hosting its 10th annual Emerging Health Policy Research Conference on Tuesday, 21 July 2015, at the University of Sydney.

The Conference showcases the work of current masters, doctoral and early career research workers, as well as those new to the field of health policy research. This year’s keynote speaker is Professor Billie Giles-Cori, Director of the McCaughey VicHealth Community Wellbeing Unit, Centre for Health Equity, University of Melbourne. The conference includes sessions on healthy environments, research translation, health systems and workforce, policy analysis, and mental health.

The full conference program and registration form are available on the Menzies Centre website.