On September 27, the United Nations General Assembly held its third High-level Meeting on the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in New York, USA. At the meeting, heads of state and government committed to a range of steps to tackle non-communicable diseases including cancer, heart and lung disease, strokes and diabetes, and pledged to promote mental health and well-being and reduce the number of premature deaths causes by NCDs by one-third before 2030.
NCDs currently account for seven out of 10 deaths worldwide (41 million); 15 million of which occur aged 30–69, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Reformulation, nutrition labeling and restricted marketing
The political declaration made by the UN during the meeting meeting called on global leadership to fight NCDs and, in particular, food manufacturers to take several actions: reformulate products to reduce salt, free sugars, saturated and industrially-produced trans fats; use nutrition labels on products to inform consumers; and restrict marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children.
Mario Montero, president of the Alliance of Food and Beverage Associations in Latin America (ALAIAB), said the food and beverage industry across the region supported these calls, especially the deadline.
“The establishment of deadlines are important for progress because they mark a clear political will to which all must be a part of,” Montero told FoodNavigator-LATAM.
“Achieving the goal of reducing NCDs will depend on the vision and the government's ability to bring together all the key actors and work under a mission in which each actor can run and play their role.”
Latin America's food and beverage industry, he said, wanted to be part of a “comprehensive” discussion on NCDs and was ready to continue its participation in policies for “a holistic vision for creating environments that promote active and healthy lifestyles”.
Collaboration needed, but not just any type...
Montero said policy proposals introduced to tackled concerns around NCDs would have to have a“valid scientific justification” and be “the product of reasonable, balanced and inclusive analysis”, including considerations around cost.
“When the actions come from ideological biases; of schemes that can't be held up with evidence or which are exclusive of private-public dialogue; or that try to ignore the institutionally adequate mechanisms, we have little feasibility to run actions as its cost is destructive to business,” he said.
Industry, he said, had to be a core part of collaborative discussions if actions and policies were to be effective. But also, he said for success across the Latin American region, it would be important each market was addressed individually.
“The NCDs are a common factor in the majority of countries in our region, but in each one the variables that explain them have different origin or magnitude. The food patterns or the factors that explain an increasingly sedentary society vary from country to country, even within regions of the same country.”
It was important, therefore, to “rethink those regulatory initiatives” that had been promoted for the entire region, he said.
'We are already doing it'
Montero said the food and beverage industry was already acting to improve health and lifestyle, with diversified product ranges to cater for nutrient needs, like reduced sugars, reduced sodium or low fat options, as well as a number of healthy eating school programs.
Specifically, front-of-pack labeling would continue to be a key initiative supported by Latin America's food and beverage industry, he said, with a focus on promoting informed and educated reading of nutrients. Industry would also continue to run “a more careful look” at how it marketed to children through additional regional commitments and promoting public-private efforts.
Taxes on sugary drinks and subsidies for fruit and vegetables – fiscal measures suggested at the UN's High-Level Meeting – may be considered, Montero said, but any changes would have to be realistic.
“It will always be desirable that all countries be rich in production of fruit and vegetables, so as to be highly available and affordable. However, our countries should seek realistic public policy consistent with fiscal or trade commitments of countries like ours, which mostly do not allow production subsidies.”
On taxation, he said there was no “empirical evidence” to show a correlation between taxes and obesity and that in Latin America, consumer choice tended to be steered by economical and budget concerns.
“Our priority is to create value in the society and the communities in which our businesses operate. We will achieve that with a competitive economic environment and an excellent climate for enterprise development; creating value for the protection of the environment; promoting the health of consumers through healthy nutrition; and participating in a food system which fully promotes active and health lifestyles,” he said.