February 3, 2016

Trade Agreements Could Stymie Nutrition Labeling

Krycia Cowling

Krycia Cowling

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Health Minister of Ecuador Carina Vance, shows graphic labeling on nutritional content. Photo: Andes

Health Minister of Ecuador Carina Vance shows labeling on nutritional content. Photo: Andes

Last month, a Baltimore City councilman proposed legislation to require warning labels on sugar-sweetened beverages. This move by Councilman Nick Mosby follows similar proposals in California and New York and aligns with broader efforts to mandate more prominent nutrition labels on packaged foods and beverages. National laws of this type have passed recently in Chile, Indonesia, Peru, and Ecuador.

As a group, these are referred to as “front-of-package” labels and have been endorsed by the Institute of Medicine. In contrast to the nutrition facts labels that Americans are familiar with, these are intended to alert consumers, not just to convey information. Just as the proposed legislation in Baltimore seeks to warn against the health risks of sugar-sweetened beverages, Chile’s policy requires labels specifically for items high in saturated fat, salt, or added sugars. Ecuador uses another alternative, “traffic light” labels, which use color-coding to indicate an item’s fat, sugar, and salt content.

As these policies gain popularity, a seemingly unrelated issue may prove problematic: countries’ commitments as members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other trade agreements. Both the WTO and regional and bilateral agreements include provisions governing the use of product labels, which may conflict with a front-of-package nutrition labeling policy. (See the end of the article for links to pertinent blogposts.)

The key commitment in trade agreements is to treat all foreign and domestic products equally. By their nature, front-of-package labels apply only to packaged foods and beverages and discriminate against less nutritious items. To the extent that a country disproportionately imports its packaged, unhealthy food items, such a policy may begin to look like discrimination against those foreign products. This is most likely to be an issue in smaller and lower-income countries that import more of these items, in contrast to the U.S., which produces most of its own junk food.

While such a concern may seem alarmist, one only has to look as far as reports of the U.S. Trade Representative to find evidence that these policies are already being monitored for effects on trade. Both Chile [1] and Thailand [2] have amended their policies under pressure from trading partners. For those convinced that the evidence establishing the health benefits of these labels will ensure they are upheld, recent trade disputes over tobacco labeling policies serve as a sobering warning.

A hypothetical trade dispute would hinge on two critical components: defining what products are comparable and whether imported products are given less favorable treatment. Any amount of discrimination against foreign products would then be weighed against the importance of the policy’s objective (in this case, to promote nutrition and health) and the effectiveness of the policy in fulfilling that goal.

The good news is that this provides a way forward. Scientific evidence and international standards are considered when evaluating the rationale for and effectiveness of a policy in a trade dispute. Thus, more research establishing the significance of poor nutrition for public health and the effectiveness of front-of-package labels in improving nutrition, as well as adding these labels to the Codex Alimentarius or other international standards, could help to settle a dispute. In addition, pressuring the food and beverage industries to voluntarily use these labels, or to develop healthier product formulations, would reduce the impacts of any policy mandating label use. This would then lessen industry’s incentive to contest such a policy.

It is possible that Big Food will follow in Big Tobacco’s footsteps and use trade agreements to attack health policies. The public health and nutrition communities should heed lessons of the past and work now to ensure mechanisms are in place to uphold nutrition policies in the face of potential challenges under the guise of trade commitments.

More blogposts on the impact of trade agreements on food systems:

How the TPP Trade Deal Could Affect Food and Public Health – Krycia Cowling

Food Sovereignty at Stake in New Trade Deals – Karen Hansen-Kuhn

What does trans-Atlantic trade have to do with antibiotic resistance? – Christine Grillo

[1] United States Trade Representative (USTR). 2014. 2014 Report on Technical Barriers to Trade, pg. 54-55. Washington, DC: Office of the USTR.

[2] United States Trade Representative (USTR). 2010. 2010 Report on Technical Barriers to Trade, pg. 109-110. Washington, DC: Office of the USTR.

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