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Mexico’s New War Against Junk Food

MEXICO CITY — Processed food and drinks will carry a significantly big tag on its content, and some states banning the sales of these products to the underaged population.

This is the new wave of Mexico’s so-called “anti-junk food laws.” 

Like in the U.S., Mexico faces a severe obesity and overweight problem. The authorities are trying to stop those health issues with a new labeling system for processed food, while banning the sales of those products to the underaged. But the strategy is being confronted, and even considered a distractor from the pandemic.

Mexico is still getting a growing number of coronavirus cases. And for the Mexican czar against COVID-19, Hugo López-Gatell, the so-called “junk food” has a lot to blame. 

"In Mexico, we have an oversupply of industrialized products with excessive salt, fat, calories and sugars, and that the industry hasn’t fully taken its responsibility," said the undersecretary of health. 

López-Gatell says those products produce many of the sicknesses that complicate COVID-19. He says those illnesses cause half of deaths in Mexico, regardless of the pandemic.

The federal government supported the recently approved law that obliges industrialized food and drink packages to carry a label on front. It’s a big, black figure shaped like a stop sign, containing warnings such as: “high in sodium,” “excessive sugars” or “not for children."

“I really don’t think that this is the way to fight obesity, overweight and diabetes,” said Jaime Zabludovsky, president of the Mexican Council of Consumers Product Industry. 

He says the new labeling discriminates processed food from informal food — which is not labeled — and is not consistent with the Mexican law and international treaties such as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement.

“We import from the U.S. close to $6 billion of food,” Zabludovsky said.

And another battle against industrialized food threatens this industry in Mexico: the states of Tabasco and Oaxaca now prohibit the sales of processed foods and drinks to the underaged population. And some other places, like Mexico City, want to follow.

For Zabludovsky, these measures will affect small business owners, confuse the consumers and bring new problems.

“So there is no way to enforce this; this would give place to black market, to extortion and to many distortions,” Zabludovsky expressed.

The executive said the organization will legally confront these rules. He says authorities partially made his organization part of the discussions before their implementation, but the government got away with what they needed for the pandemic.

“To some extent, they’re looking for scapegoats,” he said.

And in front of an elementary school in Mexico City is a tiny store where Esteban Pérez works. It’s the family business that his grandfather started decades ago.

"Our income depends mainly on the kids from the school and some surrounding offices," Pérez said.

Their sales dropped down to 30% during the pandemic, and the new rules would affect them even more.

“People don't complain about how harmful the products are, but how expensive they can become,” he said.

Pérez said the new labeling has started just a few weeks ago, but some customers have already told him that labeling won’t stop them from buying; they already know the health risks. They’re more concerned about pricing.

"On one hand, I like the idea of promoting a better diet, but, on the other, kids will always find a way to get those products," Pérez said.

Aida Fayad is a nutritionist directing a clinic in Mexico City. She says the obesity and overweight problem in Mexico is severe and complex, with a mix of psychological, social, biological and economical factors.

"On a general basis, Mexico is second place in obesity worldwide and first place in the case of children," Fayad said. 

The expert said nutritional habits can be modified, but through education. She says warning labels need a better explanation of what they mean and how to use them. Otherwise, it’s a worthless effort. 

"Prohibitions never work, and the ban on product selling to the underaged will hardly be an exception to the rule," said Fayad.

The nutritionist said everyone — the government, the industry and the population — share responsibility on the health issue. But by teaching and learning more on how to handle what to eat and drink, everyone can become part of the solution.

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Rodrigo Cervantes was KJZZ’s bureau chief in Mexico City from 2016 to 2021.