#BTColumn – CARICOM wants a wholesome meals coverage
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by Hutton’s life
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a reckoning moment for world leaders. It has highlighted a weak global health system and various comorbidities that increase the risk of death and illness.
The global obesity and diet-related epidemic is just one of many exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a recent article published in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, leading global nutritionists urge governments to take immediate action to adopt evidence-based policies on healthy foods. Specifically, they recommend taxes, marketing restrictions, warning labels on the front of packaging, and guidelines for school food.
Over the past few decades, the significant increases in overweight, obesity, and diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the Caribbean have been caused in large part by rapid growth in the promotion and subsequent consumption of sugary beverages and ultra-processed products (UPP) , which are defined as industrially formulated mixtures that are high in added sugar, salt and fat, have little to no nutritional value, and contain little or no intact foods.
For laypeople, these are the potato chips, soft drinks, and prepackaged biscuits that we see in supermarkets every day. Grocery sales data shows that these products are the fastest growing segment of the global diet. Increased UPP consumption increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and all-cause mortality.
Obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other diet-related diseases are major risk factors for worsened disease outcomes and higher death rates from COVID-19. With one in three children in the Caribbean overweight or obese, this is a wake up call for our government to take steps to adopt proven guidelines that can stop the increasing consumption of these unhealthy and highly processed products.
Many countries have already adopted healthy food policies that successfully transform food systems while causing little economic damage. These guidelines encourage the public to choose healthier foods and beverages while expanding their knowledge of what is in the foods they consume.
Chile has implemented a policy package that includes marketing restrictions, warning signs in front of the package, and guidelines on school food.
The marketing restrictions prevent children from exposure to junk food marketing at home and in schools, which is likely to result in long-term nutritional benefits.
Tax policies, such as those implemented in Mexico and South Africa, have reduced the consumption of sugary beverages without affecting employment in the food and beverage sector, an argument often made by the industry.
Brazil has launched a potentially revolutionary school feeding program that is just being evaluated. A number of countries closer to home in the Caribbean have introduced taxes on sugary drinks (SSBs), including Bermuda, which is a 75 percent tax on those drinks.
Other countries like Trinidad and Tobago have introduced national bans on the sale of SSBs in schools. Preliminary assessments are showing positive effects and emerging data is encouraging.
As countries around the world advance actions to create healthier food environments for healthier populations, the food and beverage industries around the world have aggressively sought to disrupt these policy advances.
It continues to market unhealthy products while actively blocking healthy food policies. Well-known industry tactics are used, e.g. B. Questioning existing scientific data and continuously requesting additional evidence of positive health outcomes. The Caribbean is on track to accelerate the implementation of healthy eating policies to combat adult and child obesity and noncommunicable diseases – a mandate called for by CARICOM leaders.
If effective evidence-based action like the one called for here is to be accelerated, the region needs to learn from global experience in identifying, mitigating and managing conflicts of interest and countering interference in industry by putting in place mechanisms to ensure sound policy making in front of the EU protect potentially negative impacts from the regional ultra-processed food and beverage sector.
COVID-19 has highlighted the serious human health and safety inequalities and vulnerabilities that arise when our societies collectively fail to prioritize health over profits. and if we as citizens do not demand that our governments put people at the center of public policy.
Our toxic food environments make us sick, and perhaps the biggest victims are our children who are brazenly used as mini-profit centers that fuel the multi-million dollar UPP industry. We’re almost deaf to the data now – 33 percent of Caribbean children are overweight or obese.
But we must be deeply concerned. This is the epitome of the canary in the coal mine – warning of a health and economic crisis affecting entire generations predestined to develop early onset NCDs and premature mortality.
In the context of the right to health, states are fundamentally obliged to take regulatory measures to combat noncommunicable diseases, thereby regulating the activities of the food and beverage industry and decisively counteracting the inadequate influence of companies on government decision-making.
The evidence is clear: overconsumption of ultra-processed products is the single biggest factor driving the dual epidemics of obesity and NCDs. The HCC, along with these academic experts, is calling on Caribbean leaders to take swift action and prioritize implementation of the Healthy Food Guidelines, including the Octagonal Nutrient Packaging Warning (FOPWL).
Votes are currently underway in all CARICOM member states – until May 31st – on the adoption of the final draft of the CARICOM regional standard for the labeling of prepackaged foods (FDCRS 5: 2010), which includes the warning specifications on the front of the packaging and the PAHO Nutrient contains profile model.
Governments must take action now – we cannot afford to wait any longer.
Maisha Hutton is the Executive Director of the Healthy Caribbean Coalition