Mexico City – Mexican consumers will soon be confronted with warning labels on food and beverages that contain too much sugar, fat or calories, as changes to the country’s health regulations aimed at reducing the country’s obesity and diabetes epidemics advance towards finalization.
The new regulation will require a front-of-pack (FOP) warning with icons that highlight excessive content of calories, sugars, saturated fats, trans fats or sodium in products, and identifies caffeine- and sweetener-containing products as not recommended for children.
The compulsory labeling system, which has passed regulatory hurdles and is expected to be in place this month, also imposes severe restrictions on marketing and use of some intellectual property. This means we’ll soon be saying “adiós” to Frosted Flakes’ Tony the Tiger, the Lucky Charms leprechaun, the Trix rabbit, Fruit Loops’ Sam the Toucan, and any other cartoon creature used to entice children.
Food giants who make hefty profits in Mexico – a world leader in soda consumption – say that the Mexican government has not yet demonstrated that this FOP system will result in the intended health outcomes for Mexican consumers, and that the measure would be counter-productive. “It’s an ideological crusade against the processed food industry,” said Mexican Council for the Consumer Goods Industry president and former North American Free Trade Agreement negotiator, Jaime Zabludovsky.
International food and beverage companies are also concerned due to the multiple ways this regulation conflicts with international standards and trade agreements, including the newly ratified USMCA, which seek to ensure that technical regulations do not create unnecessary trade barriers or be more restrictive than necessary to achieve the objective.
“The industry hasn’t realized that we’re in the midst of an obesity epidemic in Mexico. Mexicans get a quarter of their daily calories from sugary drinks and junk food and eat more ultra-processed food than anywhere else in Latin America. 75% of adults and 35% of our children and adolescents are overweight or obese,” said Dr. Juan Rivera, director-general of the National Institute of Public Health. “The state has a duty to protect public health,” he added.
In an effort to deal with increasing rates of obesity and diabetes in the country, Mexico imposed a 10% tax on sodas and sugar sweetened beverages, and an 8% tax on junk food in 2014 by researchers at the University of North Carolina and Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health.
According to a 2016 study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina and Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health, consumption dropped most among the lowest socioeconomic group, who drank 9% fewer sugary beverages in the first few months of 2014, and 17% less by the end of the first year, compared to pre-tax trends.
But the government’s latest National Health and Nutrition Survey found diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol are still on the rise. The survey found that 8 out of 10 Mexicans, including children aged 1-4, are still consuming sugary drinks.
In 2018, Mexico was the world’s fifth largest per capita consumer of energy dense foods and drinks, and in 2019, around 13.5 percent of people in the country had type-2 diabetes.
Sceptics say that there are no labels in the world that can resolve the problem of obesity, but according to Dr. Rivera, the UN, the World Health Organization, and the World Public Health Nutrition Association have all supported the food labeling initiative.
Even consumers who like the idea are uncertain if the warning labels will be effective.
“People won’t pay attention to them, even if they know it’s bad for them, as long as it’s tasty,” said Olin López, a 20-year-old teaching assistant in Mexico City.
“I don’t necessarily read labels on the packets,” said Lina Blum, who was shopping at a supermarket in Mexico City. “But when it’s so visible, it’s going to make you think.”
“But that’s not the point,” Dr Rivera said. “For the generation of obese Mexicans, these measures won’t have a big impact,” he conceded. “Where we are pinning our hopes on our children… a new generation and new culture,” he added.