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MEXICO: Junk Food Regulations in Schools Fall Short, Consumer Groups Say

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Aug 23 2010 (IPS) - What was initially announced as a government ban on sales of junk food in schools has failed to keep fried and sugary foods out of the classrooms to which Mexico’s 25 million primary and secondary students returned Monday after summer break.

The aim of the regulations is to fight a growing obesity epidemic. But nutritionists and consumer groups say the guidelines are not strict or rigorous enough.

The guidelines on food that can be sold at shops in public and private schools in Mexico, which will become binding on Jan. 1, 2010, were issued by the governmental Federal Council for Regulatory Reform (COFEMER).

The regulations are “a necessary, but not sufficient, step,” Bernardo Ávila, a researcher at the National Nutrition Institute, told IPS. “These guidelines fall a bit short of what we might have expected, given the seriousness of the problem.”

After launching a public input process and receiving 884 contributions from civil society and food makers on an original proposal by the ministries of education and public health, COFEMER ended up authorising the distribution of certain snacks that have less than 140 calories per serving and 40 percent total fats.

In the 180-page document distributed on Aug. 12, COFEMER also recommended that only bottled water be offered in primary schools, rather than sugary juices or soft drinks. But in secondary schools, the guidelines allow the sale of caffeine-free juices and fizzy drinks with limited artificial sweeteners.

Thus, the guidelines are more lax than the original proposal — and the changes are due to the pressure of the food industry during the public input process, according to activists and consumers associations.

“A historic opportunity was lost, because food conditions and habits in the schools will not be modified, since these products will still be allowed to be sold there. The consumption of calories will remain unchanged,” Alejandro Calvillo, director of El Poder del Consumidor, a consumers group pushing for a healthy diet in schools, told IPS.

Mexico has the highest rate of childhood obesity in the world, and the second highest rate for adults, after the United States.

Some 4.5 million children aged five to 11 are overweight in Mexico, a disorder of epidemic proportions that can lead to diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says “fast food” like sweets, hamburgers, snacks, cereals with added sugar and similar products cause obesity, which affects over 20 percent of the population over the age of five in Latin America.

Treatment of obesity costs the government more than five billion dollars a year. By 2015, spending will rise to about 7.6 billion dollars, according to official estimates.

In May, the ministries of education and public health sent COFEMER the original guidelines, with the aim of removing from the country’s 220,000 primary and secondary schools products like soft drinks, packaged juices, fried foods and snacks containing more than 400 calories.

The plan was to last three years, giving the food industry time to review and modify its ingredients for some 20,000 high-calorie products.

But in its comments on the proposed regulations, the powerful food industry argued that several of the provisions lacked a legal basis, and that the transition to healthier products would be costly and time-consuming.

“There is a regrettable distance between the guidelines presented by COFEMER and the original proposal,” Ávila said. “One concession that was made was to allow beverages with sweeteners in high schools.”

Junk food ads “targeting children must not be allowed to continue, and the state should not be permitted to stop promoting the traditional food culture,” he argued.

Mexican television broadcasts 20,000 commercials a year targeted at children, 8,000 of which encourage consumption of high-calorie products.

During break times, schoolchildren consume more than 500 calories on average.

A 2004 study by the state National Institute of Medical Sciences and Nutrition (INNSZ) found that children spend some 1.5 billion dollars a year in school snack shops on sweets, soft drinks and fried foods.

The widespread conclusion among experts and consumers associations is that the ministries of education and public health, and COFEMER, yielded to lobbying by food and beverage manufacturers.

“Medical organisations from other countries,” such as Canada, Norway and Spain, “have warned of the risks of non-caloric ingredients,” Calvillo said.

In January the government of President Felipe Calderón launched the National Agreement for Nutritional Health and Strategy against Overweight and Obesity, which aims to reduce the incidence of overweight in children aged two to five, reverse the trend toward overweight in teenagers and slim down heavier adults.

 
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