Front-of-package label bill – By María Luisa Santa María y Mariano Peruzzotti

Front-of-package label bill – By María Luisa Santa María y Mariano Peruzzotti

What is front-of-package warning labeling?

This is a bill which purpose is to provide nutritional information that is simple and understandable about packaged foods and non-alcoholic beverages.

In particular, it seeks to warn consumers about excesses of critical nutrients, namely, sugars, sodium, saturated fat, total fat, and calories.

How? Through four resources:

  1. Warning labels:

The first is the obligation to incorporate warning labels.

Foods and non-alcoholic beverages packaged in the absence of the client and marketed in Argentina that contain critical nutrients and energy value above the values established in the bill must include on the main face an indelible warning label for each critical nutrient in excess, as appropriate: “Excess in sugars”, “Excess in sodium”, “Excess in saturated fat”, “Excess in total fat”, “Excess in calories”.

Regular sugar, vegetable oils, nuts and regular table salt are exempted.

If it contains sweetener or caffeine, the package must show a caption below the warning stamps stating that it contains sweeteners or caffeine, and that it is not recommended for, or must be avoided in children.”

2)    Bans on packages  

Packaged foods and non-alcoholic and beverages that contain a warning label may not incorporate into their packaging:

a. Supplementary nutritional information;

b. Logos or phrases with the sponsorship or endorsements of scientific societies or civil associations;

c. Children’s characters, animations, cartoons, celebrities, athletes or pets, interactive elements, the delivery or promise of rewards, prizes, gifts, accessories, stickers, visual-space games, digital downloads, or any other element, as well as the participation or promise of participation in contests, games, sports, musical, theatrical or cultural events, with the purchase of any of these products.

3)  Bans on advertisements

The Bill states that advertising of those products that contain at least one warning label must comply with the following rules:

a. It may not highlight supplemental nutritional claims that highlight positive and/or nutritional qualities of the products.

b. The warning stamps of the product must be visible and/or stated in their entirety each time the package is exposed;

c. It cannot include children’s characters, animations, cartoons, celebrities, athletes or pets, interactive elements, the delivery or promise of gifts, prizes, gifts, accessories, stickers, games, visual-spatial, digital downloads, or any other element, as well as the participation or promise of participation in contests, games, sporting, musical, theatrical or cultural events.

d. It cannot promote or deliver the product for free.

In addition, the Bill bans all forms of advertising, promotion and sponsorship of packaged foods and non-alcoholic beverages that contain at least one warning label, which is aimed especially at children and teenagers.

4) Advertising of healthy eating in educational institutions

Packaged foods and non-alcoholic beverages that contain at least one warning label or precautionary captions cannot be offered, marketed, advertised, promoted or sponsored in educational institutions.

Additionally, nutritional education policies are promoted in educational institutions.

What happens in other countries?

In Latin America, other countries have been pioneers in the adoption of front-of-package warning labelling legislation. The first of them was Chile in 2012, and today Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay have regulations of this sort. In the case of our front-of-package warning labelling Bill, it mostly follows the guidelines of the Chilean legislation.

In addition to the warning system with black octagons being discussed in Congress, other front-of-package warning labelling schemes were implemented in the world for different purposes:

1. Daily Diet Guidelines (GDA) that indicate the number of calories, the amount of certain nutrients and their percentage contribution to the daily intake. They are used in the United Kingdom.

2. Also the traffic light system, that indicates to consumers the levels of fat, sugar and salt in a product, with the colors red, yellow and green as a warning. This system was implemented in Ecuador and Bolivia.

3. A summary score of the nutritional value of the product, for example, the 5 levels of the Nutri-Score system developed in France -which uses the letters A, B, C, D and E- or the scores of Australia’s Health Star Rating system, ranging from half-star to five-star.

What are the main benefits to consumers?

  • It guarantees consumers their right to the information necessary for them to make more critical decisions.
  • Reports clearly, accurately and transparently on the excessive presence of critical nutrients.
  • Provides straightforward information to quickly and easily identify products that contain excess amounts of critical nutrients.
  • Consumers need less cognitive effort and less time to make purchasing decisions.
  • It allows changing purchasing decisions regardless of socioeconomic and educational level.
  • It guides consumers in purchasing healthier food options.
  • It counteracts the positive effect that nutrition messages (such as, “0% trans fat”) have on purchase intention.

It should be noted that the purposes of the bill are:

  • To provide more information.
  • To promote a healthier diet.
  • To prevent malnutrition in the population, especially malnutrition related to childhood and the first years of life, as well as the reduction of chronic noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). Obesity and NCDs are already epidemic in Argentina as in all of Latin America, both in adults, children and teenagers. Studies indicate that malnutrition due to excess directly affects the most vulnerable sectors.

Multilateral organizations and local NGOs, such as, the InterAmerican Heart Foundation, the Pan American Health Organization, UNICEF, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Consumer Associations, and chef groups, support this initiative.

What do the entities that are against the Bill argue? (COPAL, AmCham, etc.)

A relevant group of recognized associations do not consider front-of-package warning labeling to be the most effective tool to achieve a reduction in noncommunicable diseases (cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes).

These organizations do not support the use of the labelling system provided for by the Bill, and consider that there are better methods available. In particular, their arguments are the following:

i. The black stamp system does not show the positive aspects of food products.

ii. It stigmatizes or demonizes processed foods, which are not the main problem in the diet of the Argentine population.

iii. The country must promote a system that is harmonized with the other Mercosur countries. In this way, manufacturing and packaging costs could be reduced, especially for small and medium industries.

iv. The nutrient profile model adopted by the Bill is the one of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which is too strict. Therefore, the provisions of this Bill would be applicable to several food products that are currently recommended by Argentine dietary guidelines.

The above is the position of the COPAL (Coordinator for Food Processing Industries).

AMCHAM also has a very strong position against this Bill. This Chamber considers that the Bill focuses on processed food products, some of which are the basis of the economies of the Argentine provinces. Therefore, if this Bill is passed, the OCDE’s forecast for Argentina’s GDP will be fulfilled: Argentina will be the last G20 country to recover its GDP prior to the pandemic. In fact, it may even take the country longer than OCDE expected.

According to AMCHAM, this Bill will also negatively affect innovation and competition. There will be no incentive for a local company to invest in developing a better product, for example, with a lower level of sodium, if it will still be affected by the front-of-package warning labelling, in the same way as another competitor’s product that is less healthy. Therefore, an alternative system must be chosen, one such as Nutri-Score, which has already proved its effectiveness in France.

The International Trademark Association (“INTA”) has also expressed its concern regarding this Bill. INTA is a strong advocator of scientific evidence and there is no convincing evidence that front-of-package warning labelling is an efficient method to improve public health. In fact, there are countries where the implementation of plain packaging led to more consumption of restricted products. Legislation should rather focus on educating consumers, so that they can make informed decisions on the food products they buy. Moreover, INTA pointed out that the proposed labeling system facilitates an increase in counterfeit and illicit trade, diminishing trademark owners’ intellectual property rights.

INTA has drafted a very interesting study – which I invite you to read-, analyzing the opinion of Gen Zers and Millennials regarding brand restrictions, the impact of these regulations over trademarks and how they feel about them.

In what stage is the Law?

The Bill has been partly approved by Congress.

On October 29, 2020, the Senate approved the Bill and it went into debate in the House of Representatives. On July 13, 2021, it received a favorable opinion in the plenary of the General Legislation; Social Action and Public Health; Defense of the Consumer, the User and the Competition; and Industry commissions. It is still to be treated in the plenary session of the Chamber. Four opinions were signed: a majority opinion, two minority opinions, and a rejection opinion.

Written by María Luisa Santa María and Mariano Peruzzotti.

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