Mexico Gives Food and Beverage Companies 6 Months to Comply With New Labeling Requirements
The industry had asked for an extension due to the rise in COVID-19 infections.
The Mexican government rammed through changes to labeling requirements for processed food and beverages last week, just before the government shutdown most official business for a month in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Lawyers representing manufacturers and business chambers had appealed to the government to give them three years to transition to the new labeling requirements, given the expanding global health emergency. The government gave them six months.
On March 27, the Economy Ministry published specifications for octagon-shaped black symbols that alert consumers to high levels of salt, sugar, fat or calories in products. Manufacturers have until Oct. 1 to include the warning labels on their packaging, with the option to slap stickers on products if necessary but only until March 31, 2021. By April 1 of next year, producers will also need to eliminate cartoon characters like Tony the Tiger from cereals and other products that could entice children to consume excessive amounts of sugar.
Juan Antonio Dorantes, a Mexico City-based attorney who represents a U.S. food conglomerate that lobbied for an extension on the label changes, said it will be hard for companies to comply with the tight deadline given widespread quarantines.
“Enforcing these labels in the middle of a pandemic shows a serious lack of empathy with the private sector, which is facing a very complicated moment,” he said.
Mexican manufacturers, including beer maker Grupo Modelo, are scrambling to reconfigure product lines to turn out scarce goods such as hand sanitizer for the health care sector. At the same time, supply chains have been disrupted and companies are trying to produce foodstuffs without putting their workers at risk.
Private sector companies are donating supplies to address critical shortages in the public sector. Snacks and beverage maker PepsiCo, for example, said it would give 8,000 N-95 face masks to healthcare workers and pledged $5 million to feed children that no longer have access to free meals at school.
The transition to new labels “is a burden that companies would rather not have right now,” said Dorantes. “Industry is needed to get us through this.”
Nutrition advocates disagree. They are urging Mexicans to consume more fresh fruits and vegetables and to steer away from processed foods as COVID-19 spreads. They argue that the population is at great risk of complications from the virus due to high rates of obesity and diabetes in the country. Mexico is a top-five market for fizzy drinks and packaged snacks for companies such as Coca-Cola and Nestle.
Dorantes believes the country has more urgent matters to attend to than rushing toward new food labels. In 2009, Dorantes, who is now the managing partner of Dorantes Advisors, was the director of international trade rules at the Economy Ministry. When the H1N1 virus, which originated in Mexico, got the world’s attention, countries afraid of contagion quickly slammed their borders to Mexican goods, requiring officials to engage in arduous diplomacy and seek legal remedies to keep exports flowing.
Then, the Economy Ministry set up a “war room” to tackle trade issues, Dorantes recalled, with all hands on deck.
“None of that is happening now,” said Dorantes.
Health agency Cofepris is working with a skeleton crew, he added, and not issuing import permits for regulated products that aren’t seen as essential, such as powdered milk that’s widely used in the dairy industry.
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