Andrés Constantin | CARICOM’s front-of-package labelling conundrum
It has been four years since the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) began discussions on the adoption of a front-of-package labelling system to protect population health in the region. As a public- and global-health lawyer, I can confidently characterise this process as one that has only legitimised and prioritised the interests of private actors to the detriment of society.
For starters, the private sector has recently secured a privileged seat and further strengthened its power with the designation of the Caribbean Private Sector Organisation (CPSO) as an Associate Institution of CARICOM. This has, of course, facilitated corporate capture by giving them high-level policymaker access to lobby and delay the process of the adoption of a front-of-package nutrition labelling system. This additional avenue of participation, which is not available to other interested parties, such as regional civil society organisations, has fostered an unequal power imbalance that challenges the foundations of democracy and is at odds with public health policymaking best practices.
In April this year, the CPSO funded and conducted a research study “to determine an appropriate front-of-package nutritional labelling scheme for the CARICOM region” in spite of, and almost in direct opposition to, the parallel regional standards process being executed by the CARICOM Regional Organization for Standards and Quality (CROSQ).
Not surprisingly, the study concluded that two labelling models that are already being utilised within the region are best suited for achieving the regional population’s health objectives. Interestingly, despite these labelling schemes, CARICOM is still facing the highest rates of obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases in the Americas. It was precisely the region’s high prevalence of NCDs that inspired CARICOM Heads of Government’s commitment to address the epidemic of NCDs through the adoption of a comprehensive set of regulatory measures, leading the CROSQ to take a first step by revising the labelling of pre-packaged foods standards to include the octagonal front-of-package warning labels.
CASTING A DOUBT
Turning a blind eye to the need to prevent NCD morbidity and mortality in the region, the CPSO-funded study was clearly aimed at casting doubt on established scientific evidence by promoting loosely based data and making unsubstantiated claims to the industry’s advantage. It misrepresented the population of the region, particularly those who bear the heaviest burden of diet-related NCDs; it misleadingly framed the research question to avoid any reference to the intrinsic risks of harmful levels of sodium, sugars, and fats in the products; and it did not establish mechanisms to ensure data duplicates control and validation. According to scientific literature on conflicts of interest, corporate actors often resort to these tactics to introduce biases and frame their research findings in ways favourable to their business.
Ultimately, the private sector’s strategy is clear. First, delay the process by requiring the conduct of industry-funded impact assessments that do nothing but muddy the water with “evidence” that is completely inconsistent with scientific evidence free from conflicts of interest. And then, strong-arm the discussion to compromise on a labelling scheme that is simply not effective in achieving its public-health goal of discouraging the consumption of unhealthy foods high in sodium, fats, and sugars.
To be sure, it may be argued, as has happened in the Caribbean and elsewhere, the food and beverage industry should have a right to participate in all deliberations around the adoption of front-of-package warning labelling as they will be the most affected by the measure.
However, whereas industry participation may seem harmless at first sight, it is not. In fact, the trend towards multistakeholder governance has only served as a platform for an increase in unfettered corporate power and an associated dilution of democratic legitimacy.
In all countries where these public-health discussions have taken place, the industry’s participation has eroded democratic deliberation and institutions by encouraging power imbalances that have weakened governmental efforts to adopt public-health measures. If the industry succeeds in changing government imperatives, protecting the right to health and health-related rights will take a back seat alongside citizen deliberation and democracy.
INFLUENCE DECISION MAKING
It would be naïve for CARICOM to think that industry participation comes with altruistic intentions. These industries have significant influence over global and national policy and can easily influence government decision-making processes to their benefit. The food and beverage industry has repeatedly posed a direct threat to the right to health by employing a range of tactics to influence, prevent, or postpone CARICOM’s decision-making process on the adoption of a food labelling scheme to protect public health.
The window for adopting a labelling system that effectively protects consumers’ health is rapidly closing, but there is still a dim light at the end of the tunnel. If CARICOM member states take public health, democratic values, and the rule of law seriously, there are a couple of things that need to change now.
The Caribbean Community must not continue to fall into the industry trap and must expeditiously adopt the front-of-package warning labelling system, which is consistent with extensive evidence free from conflicts of interest and has been supported as an effective and right-compliant response to tackle NCDs. Additionally, it is time for the region to denormalise industry participation in committees tasked with regulating business activities and safeguard decision-making processes from private sector influence. And, lastly, CARICOM must establish clear procedures for public access to information about these processes and accountability in respect of the decisions reached, particularly where they are counter to public health and the interests of the society broadly.
One way or the other, change is inevitable, as societies increasingly become more cognisant and aware of the risks of unhealthy food products. It remains to be seen what side CARICOM member states will pick.
Dr. Andrés Constantin, is assistant director, Health Law Programs, at O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.