Mexico’s ‘Junk Food’ Warning Labels Are Junk

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Mexico’s controversial, year-old, mandatory, front-of-package food warning label law was supposed to help Mexicans make healthier food choices and slash sky-high obesity rates in the country.

The law, which took effect one year ago this week, “requires black informational octagons to be placed on packaged foods that are high in saturated fat, trans fat, sugar, sodium[,] or calories.” Other requirements include that any food which must bear the dreaded black octagon “cannot include children’s characters, animations, cartoons, or images of celebrities, athletes[,] or pets on their packaging.”

Many food producers inside and outside Mexico opposed the labeling law, arguing it’s misleading, burdensome, and paternalistic. The Mexican government, though, claimed the law would lead Mexicans to eat 37 fewer calories per day, which would theoretically result in an average Mexican losing nearly four pounds per year. Some outside Mexico supported the labeling scheme, too. Last year, for example, a World Health Organization (WHO) regional office gushed over the black octagons and gave the Mexican government an award, calling the labels a “public health innovation” that is the “most advanced and comprehensive regulation worldwide.”

But early returns suggest the law’s impact has been negligible at best.

“More than a year after Mexico’s food warning label law took effect, sales of junk food and sugary beverages have not declined significantly, according to a market research firm and a business group,” Mexico News Daily reported last week. “In fact, sales of unhealthy products have increased in some cases, data shows.”

That’s the conclusion of a Mexico-based market research group, Kantar México, which tracks food purchases made by thousands of Mexican households each week. Mexico News Daily also notes that a Mexican government agency says purchases of treats such as candy, chocolates, and soda were higher this past September than they were in September 2020—the same month the WHO rewarded the Mexican government for its purportedly innovative efforts.

Despite the fact the law’s not working as advocates hoped and claimed it would, last week’s Mexico News Daily report notes a Mexican government official praised the labeling scheme as a success because “[c]onsumers are now more informed and empowered to make better choices.”

Regardless of whether Mexico’s mandatory food warning labels have given Mexicans the information and power to make better food choices, the purpose of that law was not merely to make people aware of the law. Its purpose was to help Mexicans—including obese and overweight Mexicans—make better food choices and lose weight. Since the law hasn’t done that, supporters of the law are now moving the goalposts and shrinking the goal. To those who follow these sorts of ineffective and onerous laws, this refrain is both familiar and predictable.

“The best thing supporters… appear able to say about the Chilean law’s impact to date is that consumers there ‘understand the regulation very well,'” I wrote in 2019, of a very similar labeling scheme in Chile. Earlier that year, I noted in a separate column that a glowing study on Chile’s labeling law had largely ignored that obesity rates had risen in the country since the law was adopted—possibly, in part, because of the law—and that “the greatest impacts the study identifies are that most mothers are familiar with the law.” Huzzah?

In 2019, as Mexican lawmakers were in the process of adopting the current labeling law, I cautioned against the move, warning “there’s little or no evidence that adopting food warning labels will help reverse current obesity trends.”

Today, instead of lacking evidence these laws work, there’s evidence. It’s just that that evidence—that sales of some so-called “junk foods” have increased in Mexico since the labeling law took effect—now serves as further proof that mandatory food warning labels are a foolish scheme that doesn’t combat obesity.

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