U.S. wants to block explicit health warnings on junk food

cup of sugar with nutrition facts
© Food Facts: The U.S. would like to leave labels like this -- ambiguous, confusing to read, and requiring calculations.

In NAFTA talks, the U.S. has shown that it's more worried about not hurting the junk food industry than it is about improving public health.

In the heated negotiations over a new North American Free Trade Agreement, the United States is now attempting to limit Canada's and Mexico's abilities to warn consumers about the health dangers of junk food. Such warnings, the U.S. administration argues, would hurt American manufacturers.

The obvious problem, however, is that limiting warnings on unhealthy food undermines these nations' attempts to curb obesity, and it conflicts with advice from the World Health Organization. The New York Times reports that Mexico has been advised by the WHO to

"pass regulations to help combat diabetes, which claims 80,000 lives a year there. That is one of the highest rates in the world — and more than double the record number of homicides in the nation in 2017."

This tug-of-war between trade industry representatives and public health representatives is a curious one. Camila Corvalán, a nutritionist at the University of Chile, which has recently introduced the most aggressive food-labelling system in the world, with black stop signs on foods that are considered harmful to health (shown below), says what's shocking is that the U.S. administration is backing the junk food industry's stance, rather than prioritizing the health of its citizens.

Alejandro Cavillo, founder of El Poder del Consumidor, or Consumer Power, a health advocacy group in Mexico that was illegally targeted with government spyware when it fought for a soda tax in Mexico, told the Times:

"It is one of the most invasive forms of industrial interference we have seen. The collusion between the industry and the government is not only at the level of spying — it reaches the level of the renegotiation of Nafta and the nation’s own policy against obesity."

Food manufacturers are feeling highly threatened -- which, in a way, is a good thing -- because clear warnings on food labels are known to work. When packages show confusing charts that require time and math skill to decipher, few shoppers are inclined to do so, or are misled by numbers that are presented as overly complicated. One study at Mexico's National Institute for Public Health found that only 17 percent of shoppers bother to look at the front-of-pack labels now mandated by law.

This particular NAFTA-related fight is important because it would influence future trade policies. When countries back down and agree to something like what the U.S. is demanding, it creates "regulatory chill," deterring other countries from pursuing aggressive warnings on food packages. Chile is unusual in that it has stuck to its decision to fight obesity in this highly visual and effective manner.

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