After eight hours of debate, Argentina’s Congress on Wednesday approved a new law obliging the food industry to include packaging labels alerting the consumer as to excessive sugar, fat and sodium content.
The Law to Promote Healthy Food, passed with a large majority, had already been approved by the Senate. The legislation cleared the Chamber of Deputies with deputies both directly and virtually present by a 200-22 vote with 16 abstentions in a debate that started Tuesday and stretched into the small hours of Wednesday morning.
The bill approved by the lower house seeks to promote healthier food via informative and visible labelling, while banning advertising for soft drinks.
It will be applied to manufacturers, packages, distributors, retailers, importers and everybody forming part of the marketing chain for food and soft drinks in the Argentine Republic, according to its text.
The food industry will be given 180 days to adapt to the new rules, which obliges the display of black octagons occupying no less than five percent of the packaging surfacing and indicating the ingredients of the food.
This norm, known as "frontal labelling," satisfies a longstanding demand of consumer associations. Some industrial sectors opposed its approval, considering it to be "stigmatising."
According to the case in point, the labels must read "excessive sugar," "excessive sodium," "excessive saturated fat," "excessive total fat" and "excessive calories," as well as alerting whether caffeine or sweeteners are contained, two components not recommended for child consumption.
"We’re not legislating against any industry, no matter how much they might lobby. We don’t want to prohibit the marketing of any food, just assure the consumer that we’re giving concise information on what is being consumed," affirmed Frente de Todos deputy Cecilia Moreau during the debate.
Along the same lines, she explained that this law "guarantees the rights of all Argentines" to clear information.
"The black octagon is the most effective form whereby consumers may detect critical nutrients," she declared.
Current food labels "are deceptive and sometimes illegible. We’re surrounded by ultra-processed products with excessive fat, salt and sugar," she argued.
"The national survey of risk factors for chronic diseases carried out in 2018 says that 66 percent of the Argentine population of 45 million is overweight with 32 percent obese, 42 percent suffering high blood pressure and 30 percent cholesterol but the most alarming figure is that 41 percent of Argentine kids aged between five and 17 are overweight, as are 13.6 percent of those aged less than five," she warned.
Another Frente de Todos deputy Liliana Schwindt praised the law as a "milestone for consumers but also for Argentine food production," celebrating it as "a law which places the consumer in the highest."
In opposition, PRO deputy Carmen Polledo strongly criticised the bill, defending her own minority draft which skips the octagon, considering it "stigmatising."
Fellow PRO deputy Ingrid Jetter also rejected the initiative as "imperfect and useless," closing her speech with ironic praise of the nutritional virtues of the "choripán" (an icon of local cuisine) and asking if they would also be labelled with octagons.
The bill was scheduled to be debated on October 5 but the Juntos por el Cambio opposition caucus and some other parties denied quorum so that the initiative was delayed three weeks but last Tuesday the Frente de Todos reached agreement with the opposition to consider it along with other bills.
Despite this achievement of consensus, the debate was delayed by more than three hours due to the number of requests to add further bills. Opposition Juntos deputy Silvia Lospennato asked to incorporate a bill nicknamed ‘Ficha Limpia’ denying candidacy to anybody with a court conviction but it failed to gain the necessary support of three-quarters of the house to add to the agenda.
A bill by deputy Ignacio Torres (PRO-Chubut) to improve his province’s slice of federal revenue-sharing likewise failed to gain inclusion.
Health Minister Carla Vizzotti, celebrated the approval of the labelling law because she considered it "very important for health since it favours the access to information in order to take decisions regarding diseases."
"It is thus not possible to take shelter in the right to sell food on the basis of hiding its contents," said Radical deputy Brenda Austin.
The law uses the parameters recommended by the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) regarding the consumption of sugar, fat and sodium.
The norm is similar to others in the region such as those in Uruguay, Chile, Peru and Mexico.