Nutrition labels ‘not bad for business’, food, drink makers told

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Food and beverage makers were Friday given assurances that new front-of-package labelling standards won’t harm their businesses when introduced, according to the Ministry of Health.

The assurances came from Government following a recent meeting with manufacturers who were said to have raised concerns about the timing for a requirement of the nutrition label, saying it will severely affect their bottom line.

They were also said to have complained that the labelling as proposed would have a negative trade impact and have adverse implications relating to World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations.

The nutrition label indicates basic nutrition information on the food or drink product, such as the level of sugar, sodium or fat.

Responding to the concerns on Friday during the Estimates hearings on the Ministry of Health and Wellness appropriations, Dr Arthur Phillips, Senior Medical Officer of Health with responsibility for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) told the House of Assembly he was comfortable the necessary research was carried out and that officials are ready to move full speed ahead with implementing the front-of-package labelling.

He said: “We believe, and we have actually taken steps to ensure we are well-advised that the front of package labelling as proposed by the Ministry of Health, by CARPHA, by regional academics and by extension by CCROSQ, can be implemented in a way that will be beneficial to the publics across the region without having significant negative impacts on our local or regional businesses.

“We believe it should be done in a phased manner and it needs to be guided by the evidence of what is effective – what actually informs the consumer and helps them to make useful decisions for their health.”

Dr Phillips said Ministry of Health officials continued to engage with key industry players to give input on the labelling plan. But he insisted the ministry held a “firm position that front-of-package labelling as currently proposed by the Ministry of Health is guided by the evidence and we would wish that our industry colleagues would partner with us and work to advance this”.

Expressing concern that manufacturers were still not fully supporting the move, Dr Phillips pointed out that the nutrition label was simply to ensure that consumers were in a better position to make a more informed health choice especially given the prevalence of NCDs in Barbados and the region.

He insisted that “neutral trade policy opinions” were garnered during the process of coming up with the proposed front of package labelling, and said officials were “comfortable that it can be done without offending WTO or other trade commitments”.

He said the Ministry of Health was willing to have further discussion with stakeholders in relation to imposing some form of restriction on items that were deemed unhealthy.

“So yes, we are willing to continue to engage and discuss on the trade interactions with health. I think we have made good efforts in doing this and we will continue to advance,” the senior medical officer said. “We are concerned about the apparent lack of support for front-of-package labelling that we are seeing from the industry.”

Minister of Foreign Trade Sandra Husbands, who raised the question regarding the progress of the nutrition labelling plan, said she too was trying to get manufacturers fully on board.

Husbands said: “Rest assured that we were able to reassure the private sector that, from the perspective of foreign trade, we will be examining the very best way to make the transition so as to minimize the impact on business and ensure we are WTO compliant, but most assuredly that we will be moving forward without any unnecessary delay to take the necessary steps in order to protect our population from the impact of sugar, salt and fats in their diets and to ensure that we are able to provide a very healthy diet for the people of Barbados and the region.”

The labelling proposal was developed into a draft policy with input from each Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member state. The plan was then presented to the Council for Trade and Economic Development and then became a document of the CARICOM Regional Organisation for Standards and Quality (CROSQ).

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