Delhi is getting ready to host the Global Food Regulators Summit 2023, a G-20 event organised by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) on July 20-21. Bringing together representatives from over 40 countries, international organisations, and research institutes, this summit provides an unparalleled platform to tackle critical global issues surrounding non-communicable diseases (NCDs), mandatory front-of-package labelling (FOPL), and the regulation of ultra-processed foods.
NCDs such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity have become a grave global public health challenge. Unhealthy diet, particularly the consumption of ultra-processed foods, is a major contributor to the high prevalence of such diseases. The Global Food Regulators Summit seeks to prioritise strategies that promote healthier eating habits and empower consumers to make informed food choices.
NCDs spare no one, affecting individuals across all age groups, regions, and countries. About 17 million deaths globally occur before the age of 70 due to NCDs, with approximately 86% of these premature fatalities happening in low- and middle-income countries. Risk factors linked to NCDs, such as unhealthy diets and physical inactivity, impact individuals throughout their lives, spanning from children to adults and the elderly.
NCDs: An obstacle to SDGs
The NCD menace presents a significant challenge in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development seeks to reduce premature deaths caused by the four primary NCDs by one third between the ages of 30 and 70. However, the complex association between poverty and NCDs poses a formidable challenge. Rapid increases in NCDs are predicted to hinder poverty alleviation efforts, primarily due to the escalating healthcare expenses faced by households.
Vulnerable individuals from socially disadvantaged backgrounds face a higher susceptibility to illness and premature mortality, largely influenced by factors like exposure to harmful products, unhealthy dietary habits, and limited access to healthcare services. Consequently, healthcare costs related to NCDs can swiftly deplete household resources in low-resource settings, plunging millions into poverty and obstructing overall development. The need for urgent action to address NCDs and implement effective measures is undeniable.
Global Food Regulators Summit 2023
One critical area demanding attention during the Global Food Regulators Summit is the recognition of the imperative for stringent regulations that discourage the manufacturing and consumption of ultra-processed foods, supported by the implementation of mandatory FOPL systems. FOPL offers clear and easily understandable nutritional information on packaged foods, enabling consumers to assess product healthiness at a glance.
While many countries are already implementing various types of FOPL, its effectiveness often diminishes when implemented voluntarily, granting food industries an advantage. When FOPL is voluntary, food industries can manipulate labelling systems to their benefit, providing incomplete or misleading information. They may label their products to downplay potential health risks, making it difficult for consumers to make informed decisions. This undermines the very purpose of FOPL, which is to empower consumers with accurate and easily understandable information.
To ensure the efficacy of FOPL, it is crucial for countries to enforce it as a mandatory requirement rather than a voluntary measure. Mandatory FOPL leaves no room for food industries to manipulate or evade labelling requirements, ensuring that consumers receive reliable information about the nutritional composition and health implications of the products they purchase.
Several countries have recognised the significance of mandatory FOPL and have taken steps to enforce it, prioritising consumer health and enabling individuals to make healthier choices. These steps not only protect consumers but also promote transparency and accountability within the food industry.
Warning labels a superior option
The introduction of warning labels is vital for consumers, providing immediate visual cues that allow for a quick assessment of a product’s healthiness without the need to decipher complex nutritional information. This simplicity makes warning labels accessible to a wide range of consumers, including those with limited health literacy.
Such labels also signify the potential risks associated with consuming certain products. Warning labels on foods high in sugar, sodium, or trans fats can help individuals avoid items that contribute to obesity, hypertension, or heart disease. Implementing warning labels empowers consumers, especially those in rural areas, to prioritise their health and choose healthier alternatives, thus aiding in the reduction of NCDs.
Stringent regulation of the production and marketing of ultra-processed foods is key to ensuring food safety. These foods often contain excessive levels of unhealthy additives, added sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium, posing significant health risks. Therefore, the Global Food Regulators Summit must address the need for stricter regulations governing the manufacturing, advertising, and availability of ultra-processed foods. By implementing measures to reduce their consumption, countries can safeguard public health and encourage the development of healthier alternatives.
While achieving global harmonisation of food safety standards and improving regulatory frameworks are crucial outcomes of the summit, prioritising challenges related to NCDs, FOPL, and ultra-processed foods is of paramount importance. By focusing on these critical areas, the summit can make substantial contributions to combating NCDs, promoting healthier food choices worldwide, and equipping countries to better prepare for any future pandemics.
The Global Food Regulators Summit 2023 offers a unique opportunity to address these pressing challenges. Through concerted efforts involving regulators, international organisations, researchers, and stakeholders, the summit can pave the way for healthier food choices and improved public health outcomes on a global scale.
(The author works for CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group.)