Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) represent a leading cause of premature mortality and morbidity worldwide, accounting for 71% of total deaths. Unhealthy eating patterns, including consumption of ultra-processed food and beverage products (UPP), are one of the main modifiable risk factors responsible for the increase in the prevalence of NCDs.
Front-of-package labeling (FOPL) regulations represent a key public health measure to promote healthier food environments and address NCDs. Nevertheless, the UPP industry is undermining policy design and its advancement. Currently, the industry has shifted its stance from outright opposing FOPL to seeking to weaken the policy standards and requirements.
Where governments have approved FOPL, companies are attempting to delay implementation and avoid compliance through a variety of constant, systematic and sophisticated tactics. These tactics are used to interfere in policy debates to undermine and jeopardize the adoption and implementation of evidence-based, healthy food and nutrition policies that contribute to the fulfillment of the right to adequate food, free from conflicts of interest.
Ultra-processed foods and beverages are industrially manufactured food and drinks that contain ingredients not used in home cooking and additives. They are typically high in sugar, sodium and fat and do not include a lot of whole foods. They are also marketed heavily, inexpensive, readily available, and unregulated.
Although big companies often try to frighten governments and civil society with their economic power, advocates can still find innovative ways to expose the UPP industry’s unethical and deceitful practices, and to support governments as they develop and promote healthy food policies. There are actions that advocates can take to prevent and mitigate these implications.
The Global Health Advocacy Incubator has monitored ways the industry has globally interfered in FOPL regulatory processes. Five overarching UPP industry strategies were identified:
The industry performs multiple brand-washing activities that capitalize on social, economic, nutritional, health, gender, cultural, and environmental causes.
By coopting multilateral bodies at global, regional, and local levels, the UPP industry guarantees normative frameworks and contexts that allows it to expand its agribusiness, and avoid and weaken regulations around healthy food policies.
Even though corporate practices have globally shaped unhealthy food environments, the industry fails to take any responsibility for the environmental and human health damages they cause, putting the burden of NCDs on individual behaviors.
The industry assigns unique and positive attributes to UPP to help build loyalty and guarantee consumption over time, with special attention on childhood.
By taking advantage of legal loopholes or vague normative frameworks, the UPP industry finds a way to undermine the public health purpose of healthy food policies.
Throughout 2021, GHAI monitored and analyzed industry ploys used across diverse geographies to systematically oppose and weaken FOPL initiatives. Each country tells its own story around interference practices. Click on the map to discover a region or country’s summary of their FOPL policy stage and examples of industry actions. More information can be found in the full report.
BOPL: Back-of-package labeling
CARICOM: The Caribbean Community and Common Market
CSR: Corporate social responsibility
FOPL: Front-of-package labeling
MERCOSUR: Southern Common Market (Mercado Común del Sur, in Spanish)
NCDs: Non-communicable diseases
NPM: Nutrient profile model (used to determine what products get labels)
PAHO: Pan-American Health Organization
UPP: Ultra-processed food and beverage products
WHO: World Health Organization
GHAI collected hundreds of examples of corporate practices with the potential to interfere in the development and implementation of healthy food policies at the global, regional, and country levels by the UPP industry and its allies. Here are a few.
In Colombia, the company Postobón created a program to finance farmers – who provide fruits for 13% of what the company buys to manufacture just two of their beverages with meager amounts of fresh fruits.
In Vietnam, Tan Hiep Phat Group donated thousands of beverages of all kinds, including UPP, to support frontline people fighting the pandemic.
Costa Rica’s Chamber of Industry opposed a FOPL bill and appealed to generate economic panic around it.
In Uruguay, the UPP industry lobbied against the FOPL decree, extending and delaying its implementation.
In India, the UPP industry claimed to have prioritized healthier food while also arguing “that it is now non-negotiable for these companies to reduce the unhealthy components in their products.”
In Mexico, companies threatened to take legal action against the FOPL labeling regulation and discredited the public health evidence behind the measure.
The Argentine Society of Nutritionists issued a technical document on FOPL and NPM; most authors declared to have financial ties to the UPP industry.
This image belongs to a Rede Rotulagem’s social network. It illustrates how, in Brazil, this industry group opposed the Warning Triangle against the best available evidence, citing biased evidence funded by the UPP industry.
In Jamaica, the JMEA launched an educational campaign on how to read back-of-pack labels (BOPL) and the importance of this sort of labeling. At the same time, a regional FOPL initiative was under discussion.
In Israel, the UPP industry mimics FOP labels, uses colors perceived as healthy, and adds non-mandatory labels to distract and visually overload consumers.
Prohibited from using characters on packages, Kellogg’s Mexico launched digital campaigns using the characters and targeting children.
Based on the experience of many CSOs worldwide, when trying to prevent and counter UPP industry interference on FOPL policies, advocates should:
Monitor industry practices and use those findings to develop collective, creative responses that effectively counter and unmask UPP industry tactics.
Explore legal avenues to advocate for UPP industry accountability. Legal work may also be useful to anticipate intimidation and opposition actions coming from companies.
Avoid loopholes, gaps, and ambiguities when developing FOPL policies, which should be comprehensive and based on the highest technical standards. Clarity will limit the UPP industry's opportunities to bypass or undermine FOPL regulations.
Demand transparency and no conflicts of interest for all decision-making levels and in all evidence formulation.
We will not let the junk food industry trick us; we demand clear labels now!
— Alejandra Contreras and Paulina Magaña, El Poder del Consumidor
An effective evidence-based FOPL system allows consumers to identify unhealthy foods. As a party to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, it's the government's responsibility to protect the health of Jamaicans above vested interests and financial gains of the food industry.
— Barbara McGaw, Heart Foundation of Jamaica
The mandatory nutrition labeling could help people raise their awareness on nutrition roles for health, and promote their behaviors of healthy food choices and practices of healthy diets.
— Huyen Doan, GHAI Vietnam Country Director
Passing the FOPL regulation would not breach MERCOSUR’S legal framework. Countries can advance autonomously in norms that protect the right to health.
— Luciana Castronuovo, FIC Argentina
Civil society and public health experts need to come together to strictly regulate the levels of salt, sugar, and saturated fat in processed and ultra-processed food. India is predicted to account for 50% of the world’s heart ailments by 2023. Warning labels on food for consumer awareness and right to choice will be a bold step toward preventing our country from becoming the NCD capital of the world.
— Ashim Sanyal, COO, Consumer VOICE (India)
More from advocates:
You can also access an interesting interview with Uruguayan local advocate, Diego Rodriguez Sendoya, regarding the excess of lobbying: La letra chica - Exceso de lobby (videos in Spanish, we advise using the subtitles option).
Access the full report Behind the Labels: Big Food's War on Healthy Food Policies.
Listen to a conversation with advocates from around the world talking about industry interference in healthy food policies in their countries and how they have countered it.