Maisha Hutton | The CARICOM member states now want a wholesome consuming coverage remark
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 school food guidelines.
Over the past few decades, the significant increases in overweight, obesity, and diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the Caribbean have been fueled in large part by a rapid growth in the promotion and subsequent consumption of sugary beverages and ultra-processed beverages (UPPs), which are defined as industrially formulated mixtures that are high in sugar, salt and fat, have little to no nutritional value, and contain little or no intact food.
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 consumption of UPPs increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and all of them 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.
CHANGE FOOD SYSTEMS
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 labels on the front of the packaging, 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 beverages (SSBs), including Bermuda, which levies 75 percent tax on those beverages. 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.
LEARN FROM GLOBAL EXPERIENCE
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 measures such as those called for here are to be accelerated, the region must learn from global experience in identifying, mitigating and managing conflicts of interest and countering interference in industry by putting in place mechanisms to ensure healthy political decision-making processes that potentially negate the potential negative influences of the regional ultra-processed food and beverage sector.
COVID-19 has highlighted the serious inequalities and vulnerabilities in human health and safety that arise when our societies do not collectively prioritize health over profits, and when we, as citizens, do not require our governments to put people at the center of them 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 and 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 NCD. The HCC, along with these academic experts, is calling on Caribbean leaders to take swift action and prioritize the implementation of a healthy food policy, including an octagonal nutrition label on the front of the package. Votes are currently underway in all CARICOM member states by 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 profile model.
Governments must take action now. We can’t afford to wait any longer.
Maisha Hutton is the executive director of the HCC, a regional alliance of over 100 NCD-oriented civil society organizations. Send feedback to [email protected]