Minister Shaw has some questions to answer...Tuesday, September 21, 2021
COVID-19 has cemented firmly in our minds, as never before, the protective benefits of a healthy lifestyle. The novel coronavirus pandemic has confirmed the importance of knowing your numbers by getting screened regularly for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer – the non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
These represent the leading cause of death and disability in Jamaica, but also increase mortality and the severity of morbidity from COVID-19. Consuming an unhealthy diet is a main contributor to developing an NCD and, in today's fast-paced environment many of us rely on pre-packaged processed food for convenience.
However, unlike the main diet of our grandparents, which consisted mostly of fresh provisions, nowadays we are consuming highly processed pre-packaged foods and beverages, which are drastically different from their natural forms.
Regardless of which nutrient profile model is used – the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) or otherwise – the majority of pre-packaged products have excess nutrients of concern. The profile will not be applied to minimally processed foods and natural foods. However, we note that Minister Audley Shaw admits to the poor quality of products available to the Jamaican consumer.
Where food labels exist on these products, they are not easy to understand, resulting in consumers not having the information with which to make healthy choices. It is against this background that the Heart Foundation of Jamaica (HFJ), and other health advocates, have been lobbying the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) to vote in favour of the “High In” black octagon front-of-package label (FOPL). Jamaican consumers, in a PAHO/Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW)/University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech) study, have identified this model as being the easiest label to understand when compared with other models from Jamaica's trading partners.
On the face of it, the implementation of the High In FOPL seems like a no-brainer. One would anticipate that the GOJ would readily and emphatically support this public health measure that would benefit the Jamaican population. But, unfortunately, this has not been the case.
Minister Shaw, in an article in the Jamaica Observer on September 12, laid out the GOJ's position on FOPL, stating, “The position of the Jamaican Government remains that other FOPL labelling models must be included, along with the High-In Octagon Model in the Caricom Standard.”
Several unanswered questions remain that we would like Minister Shaw to address for the sake of clarifying important issues related to this decision. These are:
1) Why is the GOJ ignoring the results of the PAHO/MOHW/UTECH study, which found that Jamaican consumers overwhelmingly chose the High In black octagon as being the most easily understood and, therefore, the most effective model? This blatant disregard for evidence from your own health ministry and a leading global health organisation is certainly concerning. Who will benefit from this? Certainly not the Jamaican consumers.
2) Given that the Consumer Affairs Commission is an agency of Minister of Industry, Investment and Commerce (MIIC), shouldn't MIIC also be protecting the interests of Jamaican consumers, rather than choosing the economic interests of the producers? What has MIIC done in support of consumers in relation to FOPL?
3) Why is the role of the MOHW being usurped in this matter by MIIC? FOPL is a public health tool. The justifications suggested in the article focused primarily on trade and profit, rather than health, which is the objective of implementing FOPL.
There have been extensive stakeholder consultations over the past three years. Delay by whatever means is a well-documented industry tactic to stave off public health measures that industries perceives could affect their interests. While the industries' response can be predicted, MIIC should not be complicit. It is the GOJ's responsibility to anticipate these tactics and to defend the interests of the population.
The complexities of world trade are governed by trade agreements which, notably, allow for countries to put in place public health measures that may have trade implications. This is because it is understood and accepted that these actions are necessary when there is a clear public health goal, in our case, the urgent need to reduce the suffering and death caused by NCDs in Jamaica.
There is no benefit to the Jamaican consumer to allow multiple models of FOPL, which is the plan of the GOJ, no doubt due to pressure from industry. This will only cause confusion and the objective of having FOPLs will not be achieved – only those with vested interests would benefit from such an outcome.
Implementing FOPL in Jamaica will not impact exported products which must only meet the requirements of the export country. We are cognisant that Jamaica imports products from across the globe which may inevitably have other labels. However, in the same way that foreign language labels are adjusted before sale in Jamaica, it is expected that the black octagon High In FOPL can be placed on these packages – for example, as stickers. This is already done for products in Jamaica.
We take cold comfort from being told, in effect, that the GOJ has the option to review this decision at a later time. This has already been a lengthy process and may drag on for many more years with the status quo being maintained. There is no guarantee whatsoever that this issue will be revisited. No doubt there is, and will continue to be lobbying by industries to delay or stop the implementation of effective FOPL.
Minister Shaw stated that the GOJ and MIIC are in support of the FOPL, but this seems to be only to the extent that the most effective model is not chosen. He also stated that the GOJ has never voted against the inclusion of the High In octagon model; however, voting to “not accept”, with comments, is tantamount to rejecting the High In model.
The most logical position for the GOJ to take is to support population health, given the economic burden and impact of NCDs on national development and health. Surely, this far outweighs impact on a few business interests. A healthy population can support business more than sick people can. We would like to commend those industry players who have already embraced reformulation in the interest of the nation's health and improving their company's portfolio of products.
The GOJ has the power to implement effective, evidence-based FOPL in the interest of the Jamaican consumer. We ask the GOJ to reconsider their position in the interest of the health of the population if they are truly interested in putting people first.
Dr Andrene Chung is chair of the Heart Foundation of Jamaica and a consultant cardiologist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer and firstname.lastname@example.org