UN calls for action on obesity but stays silent on fat tax and labelling

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

UN nutrition strategy focuses on education - not taxation or labelling ©iStock/CharlieAJA
UN nutrition strategy focuses on education - not taxation or labelling ©iStock/CharlieAJA
The United Nations adopted a draft resolution on improving global nutrition last week. Calling for a focus on improved education to combat obesity, the agency remained silent on the key issues of taxation and nutritional labelling.

The UN General Assembly backed the resolution, ‘Global health and foreign policy: a healthier world through better nutrition’, by a recorded vote of 157 in favour to two against, with Libya and the United States opposing the text. Hungary abstained from the vote.

Why did the US vote no?

In opposing the resolution, the US suggested that the text failed to deliver tangible progress on the issue of improving global nutrition.

“We find it unfortunate that this well-intentioned idea seems to have degenerated into an exercise in negotiating a resolution for the sake of negotiating a resolution...This year's resolution has become a metaphor for the problem of the over-consumption of foods that have little nutritional value but are high in empty calories,”​ US representative Nikki Haley argued.

"No delegation dares oppose the text because we all believe health is so important.”

The US’s objections did not stem from the need to take a tougher stance on promoting health and nutrition through labelling or taxation measures.

Haley highlighted statements within the resolution that the US takes issue with:

  • Women’s health care, abortion and family planning:“We do not recognize abortion as a method of family planning, nor do we support abortion in our reproductive health assistance.”
  • Free trade and IP rights for medicine:“The United States recognizes the importance of access to affordable, safe, and effective medicines and the critical role that intellectual property plays in incentivizing the development of new and improved medicines. … It is unacceptable to the United States that the UN and some member states have used non-WTO multilateral forums to attempt to characterize WTO rules and agreements. This could lead to misinterpretation of international trade obligations in a manner which may negatively affect countries’ abilities to incentivise new drug development and expand access to medicines.”
  • Migration:“Regarding the reference to the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, we believe the Compact and the process that led to its adoption, including the New York Declaration, represent an effort by the United Nations to advance global governance at the expense of the sovereign rights of States to manage their immigration systems in accordance with their national laws and interests.”

The resolution calls on UN Member States to reinforce efforts to improve nutrition, health conditions and living standards worldwide, with a particular focus on eradicating malnutrition and combatting the obesity epidemic.

The resolution was sponsored by Brazil, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, France, Indonesia, Norway, Senegal, South Africa and Thailand.

Introducing the draft, Brazil’s UN representative Mauro Vieira stressed that improved health and lifestyles are essential to accomplishing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. “The draft recognizes the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger and malnutrition,”​ he stated, adding that the text invites Member States to work with international organisations to convene action networks on nutrition.

Education, education, education

Approving the resolution, the international community acknowledged the scale of the ‘double burden’ represented by malnutrition and obesity, which is hindering development, weighing on the provision of health services and has a “deleterious impact on social and economic development”.

UN members through their collective weight behind the importance of education to tackle nutritional deficiencies on a population level.

The resolution stated the organisation “encourages Member States to develop health- and nutrition promoting environments, including through nutrition education in schools and other education institutions, as appropriate, and to scale up community-based actions that support children and families, through the promotion of maternal health and recommended infant feeding practices such as breastfeeding”.

It urged the development and implementation of “multisectoral policies and programmes, as well as public health awareness campaigns and nutrition education, and human resources development of nutritionists, and to share best practices, aimed at reducing the growing undernourishment and the rapid increase in overweight and obesity, which is fast becoming a global epidemic”.

The resolution also highlighted the need for “coherent and consistent policies​” to tackle obesity and counter rising levels of associated non-communicable diseases. This should be achieved through a focus on education and communication, the resolution's sponsors suggested. “Fostering and encouraging healthy behaviour and lifestyles, including healthy dietary choices and regular physical activity, through education, and targeted mass and social media campaigns taking into account that overweight and obesity are key modifiable and preventable risk factors for these diseases”​ should be a policy priority.

“Traditional diets”​ that “promote and preserve”​ food diversity and healthy eating can be used as a way to build cultural heritage and nutrition literacy, the resolution added.

Fat taxes, labelling conspicuously absent

Ahead of the resolution, there was an expectation that its authors may attempt to grapple with the divisive issues of taxing high fat, salt and sugar foods and promoting nutritional labelling, such as the UK’s sugar tax and traffic lights labelling scheme or France’s NutriScore.

However, in the face of stringent opposition from countries like Italy, a stance on labelling and fat taxes was not included in the text.

Coldiretti, the largest association representing Italian agriculture, hailed the resolution as a victory for Italian diplomacy. The organisation stated that a “dangerous international drift​” towards nutritional labelling or the taxation of products deemed unhealthy has been “thwarted”​.

According to the organisation, nutritional labelling would place traditional Italian products granted European protected origin status “in the dock”​ due to their salt, sugar and fat content.

"The careful and precious diplomatic activity of our country has allowed us to avoid alarmist labels or taxes to dissuade the consumption of certain foods that would have put to the pillory 85% in value of the Made in Italy denomination of origin (PDO) foods,”​ said the president of Coldiretti Ettore Prandini.

According to his assessment, such schemes would have a negative impact on Italian products from Parmigiano Reggiano to Parma Ham and extra virgin olive oil, “considered unanimously a long life elixir"​.

charcuterie, cured meat, parma, ham salami, italian Droits d'auteur Kuvona
Italian food makers fear traditional products would be considered 'unhealthy' under nutritional labelling or taxation rules ©iStock/Droits d'auteur Kuvona

The UN decision, Prandini insisted, must “act as a brake​” on the spread of FOP labelling such as the UK’s traffic light label.

Prandini drew this conclusion as the European Commission facilitates a multi-stakeholder dialogue on nutritional labelling. The EC is due to report its findings next year. 

'It's up to EU'

The European consumer association, BEUC, believes that colour-coded FOP nutritional labels are needed for consumers to understand sometimes complex nutritional information. 

"The nutrition information is usually on the back of the pack, in very small font and crucially isn’t that easy to use for the average consumer. Indeed, without a high level of nutritional knowledge how are consumers expected to know if 8.3g of saturated fat or 7.9g of sugar for example is high or not? That is why we have consistently called for additional colour-coded front-of-pack nutritional labelling schemes to help make the healthier choice the easier choice for consumers," ​food policy officer Emma Calvert argued. 

While she believes organisations like the UN have an important role to play in advancing nutrition policy, ultimately it is up to national governments and bodies like the EU to act. 

"Resolutions passed by supranational bodies such as the UN can be useful in helping to signal some areas of agreement amongst countries. However, given the large number of countries involved, it is often difficult to reach consensus on more ambitious elements,"​ Calvert told Foodnavigator.

"Beyond the resolutions passed at the General Assembly, the UN does have a role in shaping food policy. The Codex Alimentarius Commission, a body established by the Food and Agriculture Association of the UN, is currently discussing front-of-pack labelling with the view to create guidance on the issue in the future."

However, she concluded: "Ultimately, it remains up to individual countries or bodies such as the European Union to go further and implement bold actions in the area of nutrition."

Italian opposition steadfast

Getting agreement among EU Member States could, however, prove an uphill struggle.

The EC evaluation of the possibility of developing a harmonised approach to front-of-pack nutritional labelling is a prospect the Italian government has taken a strong position against.

Italy has also resisted efforts introduced by individual companies to promote FOP nutritional labels. In a recent decision from the Italian antitrust authority, the AGCM, French retailer Auchan was rebuked for introducing its own nutritional label, “La vita in blu”​.

The initiative, part of Auchan’s "wellness project"​, consisted of placing blue heart stickers on food products deemed healthier, with the aim of helping consumers "eat better"​. According to the retailer’s website, blue heart products had “the best nutritional balance between nutrients that must be present in the diet (proteins) and nutrients whose intake should be kept under control (sugars, saturated fats and salt).”

The AGCM found that this initiative constituted an “unfair commercial practice​” that “altered the capacity​” for consumers to make informed purchasing decisions. As such, the competition watchdog said Auchan cannot make claims as science-based and “La vita in blu​” should only be promoted as a commercial tool.

According to Luca Bucchini, managing director of Hylobates Consulting, this reflects the Italian government’s official position on FOP labelling.

“It may be a sign that Italy will block any effort to introduce nutrition scoring methods, in line with the government's official position,​” he told FoodNavigator.

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