Washington, DC, September 29, 2016 (PAHO / WHO) - Health authorities from Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia defended their policies on labeling of processed foods and urged other countries of the Americas to take similar measures to reverse the epidemic of overweight and obesity, and to prevent diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

"Countering malnutrition in all its forms, particularly overweight, obesity, comorbidities and high social and economic costs is a responsibility of everyone," said Margarita Guevara, Minister of Public Health of Ecuador, a country where 1 in 2 people are overweight or obese. 

In a side event at the 55th Directing Council of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which takes place this week in Washington, DC, Guevara said "Food labeling using traffic light symbols, a pioneer initiative in the region, is based on the right of consumers to have access to accurate, clear, timely, complete, information that does not mislead about the food products they consume. "


Ecuador's labeling uses a simple design and bright colors so that people of all ages can understand the content of salt, fat and sugar of a processed product and make an informed decision on consumption.

According to Guevara, this measure has influenced food manufacturers in the country. Forty percent of them have changed products to reduce salt, fat and sugar levels. However, there is still pressure and opposition from various sectors, so other countries should move forward to discourage the consumption of unhealthy products, through a comprehensive and multisectoral approach.

The Ecuadorian minister proposed the creation of a Pan-American alliance that protects policies and regulations such as labeling, "which place public health interests over commercial interests".

Chile also has implemented new regulations on labeling of processed foods. Chilean Health Minister, Carmen Castillo, said the new law on nutritional labeling has had "a tremendous impact on public health."  According to Castillo, anticipating changes in the legislation before its entry into force, businesses rushed to modify the content of 25 percent of processed foods. In addition, many women who buy from supermarkets have changed their habits, especially when accompanied by children, she said.

The standard covers front warning labels for foods that exceed the limits established by the Chilean Ministry of Health for calories, saturated fat, sugar and sodium; the prohibition on advertising of these foods to children under 14, and a ban on the sale and advertising of these foods in schools.

"We are changing a culture," said Castillo, recognizing the need to "work on complementary actions to change habits" in a country where "60% of the population already has malnutrition" with excessive consumption, she said. These measures seek to "prevent people from getting sick and children suffering in the future from noncommunicable diseases". 

Dante Ergueta, of the Ministry of Health of Bolivia, lamented that implementation of a new Law on Promotion of Healthy Eating his country is being "delayed by interference by food companies."

The law seeks to combat noncommunicable diseases attributed to poor diet and unhealthy life styles.

"We hope that the other countries in the region align and begin to implement this type of action despite commercial interests, considering public health is the greatest good that must be protected by States" he  said.

The Director of PAHO, Dr. Carissa F. Etienne, congratulated Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia, as well as Barbados and Dominica, for leadership in the implementation of measures to combat overweight, obesity and chronic diseases.

She also stressed the importance of making the healthy choice the easiest choice when a person is hungry, adding that no one "should need a PhD degree to understand a food  label".

"We need to take action and we must do it now," said Etienne. "Our people are dying because they are being fed with food rich in fat, sugar and salt, and non-communicable diseases resulting from this are the main killers in our region".

Etienne said Ecuador's actions are a "global reference" and called on countries to come together and implement similar regulations, blocking tactics of the food industry to weaken, delay or prevent such regulations Etienne urged establish common labeling in the region and a monitoring system to record the impact of declining sales of high fat, salt and sugar, and changes in food formulations.

Two years ago, the countries of the region committed at PAHO to combat childhood obesity. They approved a plan that includes among its objectives to develop and implement labeling rules that allow easy  identification of unhealthy products.

Fabio Da Silva Gomes, regional advisor in Nutrition at  PAHO, said effective labeling "protects consumers by providing information and preventing confusion, deception and persuasion" in some labels.

Gomes Da Silva described Ecuador's labeling as "innovative and pioneering" and noted that it managed to transform "nutritional information in the back of the packages into direct and clear information. "This model is inspiring other countries," he said.

The Pan American Health Organization, he said, is collaborating in the development of some mechanisms to help countries protect their policies from industry opposition and defend health achievements.