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MEXICO: Latest Measures Against Food Crisis Called Ineffective

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jun 19 2008 (IPS) - Observers in Mexico say the price freezes announced by the government for more than 150 food products are deceptive and could even foment unhealthy eating habits.

The price caps, which were agreed with industry and announced Wednesday, will remain in place until the end of the year. They were described by President Felipe Calderón as “an enormous contribution” towards alleviating the impact of the global food crisis.

But spokespersons for social organisations and academics expressed disappointment with the measure.

The products whose prices will remain unchanged through December are all processed foods that are not staples in the local diet. Furthermore, as business leaders have acknowledged, an announcement that the products would not experience price hikes this year had already been planned.

The list is headed by a number of brands of canned foods high in sodium; mayonnaise; marmalade; tea; powdered soups; and brands of juice and jello with a high sugar content.

The only high-demand, staple product included in the group is cooking oil, but its price will only be frozen until the end of August.

This is not a serious measure, Alejandro Calvillo, head of the consumer protection group Poder del Consumidor, told IPS.

A major problem in Mexico is obesity linked to eating habits, as more and more processed foods are incorporated in the diet, and the price freezes actually aggravate that phenomenon, said Calvillo.

Price controls are necessary to confront the effects of the food crisis, said the activist. But he argued that the policy should target staple foods, and said the government should help orient families with respect to eating healthy diets.

In Mexico, one of every four children is overweight, as well as one out of three adolescents and seven out of 10 adults. Mexico is now the second most obese country in the world, after the United States.

Isaac Katz, an economist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, said the price freeze agreement is misleading and will only have a minor impact.

The list of products announced “is ridiculous,” Katz told IPS, noting that it includes 17 kinds of canned chili peppers, 33 kinds of processed juices, 15 brands of tea, and at least four kinds of canned tuna and sardines – none of which form an important part of the local diet, he said.

The most widely consumed food products in Mexico are, in descending order, corn tortillas, tomatoes, eggs, soft drinks, milk, beans, onions and potatoes, according to surveys carried out by the National Institute of Geography and Statistics.

The price caps will not modify the food situation in Mexico, which fortunately is not at a critical level, said Katz.

Among opposition politicians, the response to the government’s announcement was generally positive.

Carlos Navarrete, head of the leftwing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) bloc in the Senate, said it was a “good measure,” while legislator César Duarte of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) said that “although it is only a palliative, it shows that the president has a grasp on the seriousness of the problem.”

Annualised food price inflation in Mexico stood at 8.8 percent in May, the highest level in several years. However, overall annual inflation rose 4.9 percent in May, the smallest rise registered in Latin America.

Calderón said that “despite the enormous adversity observed in the international context,” and “thanks to government strategies,” Mexico has sufficient food supplies and the inflation rate is the lowest in the region.

Earlier measures taken by the government were an increase in cash payments and food and medical aid to families covered by the main anti-poverty programme, the elimination of import duties on grains, and the announcement of new spending to improve the country’s rural infrastructure.

Hardest-hit by the price increases are the 14 million Mexicans – out of a population of 104 million – who live in extreme poverty, on incomes of 1.60 dollar a day in rural areas and 2.20 dollars in urban areas.

Also affected are another 30 million people living below the poverty line, defined as 3.60 dollars a day in rural areas and 5.50 dollars in urban areas.

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