Mexico’s war on obesity pushes global junk food and sugary drink giants to scramble


The pandemic has strengthened determination to fight obesity.

Through Nick corbishley for LOUP STREET:

Since the Mexican government passed one of the toughest food labeling laws on the planet in October of last year, all soda cans and bottles, bags of chips, and other food packaging processed must have black octagonal labels indicating “EXCESS SUGAR”, “EXCESS CALORIES”, “EXCESS SODIUM” or “EXCESS TRANS FATS” – all in large bold print that is impossible to miss. Many states have also introduced legislation making it much more difficult for retailers to sell junk food and sugary drinks to children.

Evidence from other countries suggests that warning labels may be effective. Chile started requiring them in 2016. It has also restricted cartoon food packaging, stopped schools from selling unhealthy food, restricted TV commercials, and banned promotional toys. Over the next two years, sales of sweetened beverages in Chile fell 23%. According to a study, the labels reduced the likelihood of people choosing sugary breakfast cereals by 11% and sugary fruit juices by almost 24%. A nightmare for the companies concerned.

The prospect of something similar happening in Mexico, a country almost seven times the size of Chile and consuming more processed foods than any other country in Latin America, has pissed off global food and retail companies. drinks. The US, EU, Canada and Switzerland, home to some of the world’s largest food companies, have tried derail the new legislation. But in vain. The arrival of Covid-19, which has proven to be particularly deadly for people with three comorbidities – obesity, diabetes and hypertension – has bolstered the government’s case and resolution.

More than a dozen of Mexico’s 36 state governments have banned or are in the process of ban process selling soft drinks and junk food to children. In Mexico City, the local government proposed a law that would ban the sale, delivery and distribution of high calorie and energy packaged foods and sugary drinks to children. The law will also prohibit the presence of soft drink vending machines in schools.

The Mexican Senate also recently passed a law that will oblige education authorities to ban the sale of foods with low nutritional value and high calorie content near school facilities while promoting the establishment of healthy food outlets. There is also moves on foot restrict the advertising of foods high in fat, salt, sugar and saturated fat on children’s television channels.

These measures have raised fears that the government is going beyond its limits. The Coparmex business lobby group noted that the ban on the sale of junk food and sugary drinks to minors represents a frontal assault on commercial freedom and freedom of choice. It will also have serious economic consequences for businesses in the retail sector.

But these consequences are overshadowed by the economic and health impact of widespread obesity. This is especially true during the Covid era where the risk of death from the virus is around 10 times higher in countries where more than half of the population is overweight, according to to a report released in March by the World Obesity Federation. Data has shown that while age is the predominant factor affecting the risk of hospitalization and death from Covid-19, being overweight comes next.

In Mexico, obesity reached epidemic proportions after joining NAFTA with the United States and Canada in the early 1990s, making processed foods more readily available. Diets quickly changed as many people, especially those on low incomes, replaced largely healthy traditional staples (corn tortilla, frijoles, Jamaican water) with highly processed alternatives (hot dogs). , nuggets, sodas). Sugar consumption skyrocketed and waistlines exploded. Over the past 20 years, the number of obese and overweight people has triple, with 75% of the population now overweight.

Mexico also has the sixth highest death rate from Covid-19, which has prompted the government to step up its war on obesity. But for global companies that make ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks, this war could end up posing a serious threat to their business models, especially if other countries take inspiration from Mexico and Chile’s book.

The American Bakers Association (ABA) recently warned that Mexico’s new labeling laws are causing difficulties for US manufacturers trying to export food and beverages to Mexico. In a letter sent to Katherine Tai, head of the United States’ trade representation, the lobby group complained that the Mexican government is enforcing regulatory measures that it says are not based on science and are not aligned with the work of the Codex Alimentari Commission, the global body responsible for all matters relating to the implementation of the Joint FAO / WHO Food Standards Program. The ABA also argues that Mexico’s new labeling laws may violate certain provisions contained in the USMCA, the updated NAFTA, in particular Mexico’s commitments under Chapter 11 (Technical Barriers to Trade).

The problem for ABA and the companies it represents is that critical human health issues – especially food – tend to become more important and urgent during a global pandemic. Moreover, the Mexican government is not alone in its fight against obesity. It has the support of a few fairly powerful allies, including the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), a regional arm of the World Health Organization (WHO). And the OPS is calling for the use of front-of-package warning labels almost identical to those in Mexico across the Americas, suggesting that the war on obesity has only just begun. Through Nick corbishley, for LOUP STREET.

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