The People of the Caribbean have a right to know what is in their food

Dr Joy St. John

“The people of the Caribbean have a right to know for themselves and their families what is in their food. Further, research in the Caribbean has shown that Front of Package Warning Labels such as octagonal front-of-package warning labels (FOPWL) is the best performing system for allowing consumers to correctly, quickly, and easily identify products that contain excessive amounts of the critical nutrients sugar, sodium, total fat, saturated fat and trans fat.  It is also important for consumers to have the ability to compare foods in order to make the healthiest choices for foods which contain the most nutritional value,” stated Dr Joy St. John.  The Executive Director of CARPHA was delivering opening remarks at the start of a webinar hosted by the Caribbean Public Health Agency.

Last week Wednesday, a panel of experts came together to discuss “Critical actions for food labelling…to save lives and livelihoods.  The webinar, part of the CARPHA COVID-19 Health Rounds, sought to raise awareness of the importance of food labels, including FOPWL and highlight activities to engage Governments and consumers.

Since the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic, CARPHA has embarked on a series of webinars aimed at imparting knowledge about the virus.  The issue of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) is being given attention and priority, as it has been widely documented that people with underlying conditions, especially NCDs, are most at risk for death and severe illness from COVID-19.

In his welcome remarks, Mr Dean Chambliss, Sub-Regional Program Director, Caribbean Program Coordination PAHO stated “To date, the Caribbean population still does not have access to clear information on whether a product is excessive in sugars, sodium, saturated fats, trans fats or total fats. In the absence of clear, easily understood warning labels on the front of packages, people will continue to blindly buy products without knowing whether they contain an excess of these nutrients. This is even more relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic when it is crucial to help consumers at higher risk avoid products excessive in unhealthy nutrients. Without effective measures to prevent unhealthy diets, the rise of NCDs will remain unstoppable, with irreparable consequences on health, as well as economic development and productivity.”

In the session, Mr Rashad Brathwaite, Human Rights Attorney, addressed the transformative space for food laws and policy, as it may now be possible to expect Governments to approach the health of consumers from a holistic standpoint. Therefore, the transformative space looks at the obligations of Governments to act, where the right to health is concerned, and this may include FOPWL. He stated,

Mrs Laura Roberts-Hall, President, Trinidad and Tobago Association of Nutritionists and Dietitians, explained the difference between food labels and nutrition facts labels. Persons during supermarket tours typically find food labels to be confusing so Mrs Roberts-Hall expressed the need for FOPWL with the octagonal warning signs, as these are simple and the easiest for consumers to understand.

Ms Elizabeth Orlan, Associate Director, Research for the Food Policy Program Global Health Advocacy Incubator highlighted the work of her agency, and its support to advocacy campaigns calling for healthy food policies at the national level, given the confusion consumers may encounter, as foods high in critical nutrients may still be labelled as healthy.