Product labels are important – they tell us what we are getting and provide information that guides our purchases. Imagine buying a product and not being aware of what it is made from or what it contains! As consumers, we have a right to know this information, especially when it comes to food and beverages.
Some of the most common items we purchase, such as tinned food, cereals and sugar-sweetened beverages, do not have labels that tell us exactly what is in these products. Consumers in Jamaica and across CARICOM are facing this very issue, and without easy-to-read front-of-package warning labels, Jamaicans are essentially being denied their rights as consumers. They have the right to make educated and informed choices for their health, safety and environment. By contrasting these rights with our current food environment, it is clear we must demand action and measures from our Government that ensure we have access to healthy food through clear labels.
Jamaican consumers have the right to safety – to be protected against products, production processes, and services that are hazardous to their health or their lives. In Jamaica, like the rest of the world, our diets are now dominated by imported processed and ultra-processed pre-packaged foods, many of which have high levels of added sugars, sodium, saturated fats, and refined carbohydrates. These nutrients are linked to increased obesity and chronic nutrition-related diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended reduced consumption of these foods to tackle the growing obesity epidemic, which is a real threat to our country’s health. More than a half of Jamaican adults are overweight or obese and the obesity rate among our children is on the rise.
Last year, the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech) conducted a study for the Ministry of Health and Wellness which showed that almost 40 per cent of commonly consumed foods contain trans fats above the recommended levels: 83 per cent of confectionery, 71 per cent of cooking oils, 56 per cent of desserts and 50 per cent of dairy products. Most of these foods also contain more sodium than is recommended.
Consumers also have the right to be given the facts needed to make an informed choice and to be protected against dishonest or misleading advertising and labelling. However, the Caribbean currently doesn’t require mandatory or standard nutritional labelling on food and beverage products. As a result, Jamaicans are faced with a vast number of food products that have a wide variety of nutritional labels, including claims that are unverifiable, a complete absence of nutritional information or labels in other languages.
ACCURATE, CLEAR INFORMATION
Our citizens should be able to choose from a wide range of products and services that offer accurate, clear and easily understood information on the package to help make informed choices. It is common that consumers believe they are educated and making healthy purchases, but they don’t have all the information needed at their disposal.
This is why the Latin American and Caribbean Council of Consumer Organizations (OCLAC) supports the call for effective front-of-package labelling to help consumers realise their rights to safety, health, information and informed choices. The OCLAC is a network of the most recognised consumer associations in Latin America and the Caribbean that, among other objectives, seeks to build a common regional agenda for the benefit of consumers in our countries through research, information dissemination and advocacy actions. We are calling for easy-to-read information about unhealthy foods to be put on the front of all processed and ultra-processed packaged foods – whether they are produced locally or imported from overseas.
Warning labels that indicate foods are “high in” or contain “excessive” nutrients are growing in popularity in Latin America and globally where countries have recognised the importance of taking steps to introduce policy to reduce or prevent obesity. These policies are already in place in in Chile, Israel, Peru, Uruguay and are under consideration in Brazil.
In the Caribbean, CARICOM has proposed front-of-package warning labelling using the black octagonal warning for adoption by countries in the region. The food and beverage industry in Jamaica has been pushing back against this proposal, despite a recent study by the health ministry, the Pan American Health Organization, the World Health Organization and UTech in Jamaica which found that for local consumers, octagonal warnings on packaged foods were most effective compared to other front-of-package warning label designs.
While a majority of stakeholders had initially indicated support for the proposed black octagonal warning label, an unexpected turn of events has resulted in a change of positions and resistance with requests for additional FOPL models to be included in the draft standard, despite the plethora of evidence available on the proposed model’s efficacy. The industry is also active in other Caribbean countries with a view to deflect the arguments supporting the octagon warning label, delay the process, or deny the efficacy of the black octagon warning label, when it is expected that the choice of system would be based on the extensive scientific research already conducted.
Jamaican consumers have rights – to safety, information, good health and informed choices. Front-of-package warning labels are a tool we need to help us realise these rights.
Crisologo Caceres is general coordinator, Latin American and Caribbean Council of Consumer Organizations (OCLAC). Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.