Scare us thin? NAFTA doesn’t hafta


The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board



Chile — one of many nations with a swelling obesity rate — is trying to scare people thin.

It has slapped black stop-sign-shaped warning labels on high-calorie or high-fat treats like cookies, chips, salad dressings and cereals. Caution! Fat and calories ahead! It has banned Tony the Tiger — yes, Tony the Grrrrr-eat! — from the box front, lest children be unduly swayed to stuff themselves with Frosted Flakes. Also banished is Cheetos’ Chester Cheetah.

Now those appetite-chilling warning labels could work their way into the U.S. How? Via a revised North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. As part of these negotiations, officials in Mexico and Canada are discussing similar warning labels, The New York Times reports. The Trump administration, egged on by the food industry, seeks to quash efforts to force American manufacturers to stick similar warning labels on sugar-filled drinks and fat-laden packaged foods.

NAFTA talks now have gained momentum; the Trump administration is pushing to strike a deal within days.

The warning labels? The U.S. argues persuasively that such labels “inappropriately” suggest that a “hazard” exists from eating such foods. Such labels miss the point: The obesity crisis in this country and elsewhere isn’t caused by high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar food. It is caused by people eating too much of those foods.

Yes, we’re all for overweight Americans shedding pounds. It’s good for their health. But scare tactics like warning labels on food are a huge Super-Nanny-State overreach. We’re talking about food, not potentially toxic medicines that earn black-box labels. It’s ice cream. Chips. Doughnuts. Are there really many consumers who don’t know that baked goods and fried foods are packed with empty calories?

No, we’re not dissing constructive anti-obesity efforts in the U.S. and around the world. Many Americans are too fat. Childhood obesity is a major health crisis. That’s why we strongly support informational labels that tell consumers ingredients and calories of what’s inside the package or bottle. We also appreciate calorie counts on restaurant menus.

But come on, Nannyistas, let Americans decide for themselves whether the momentary gustatory joy of that molten chocolate cake is worth the longer-term prospect of tighter belts.

Beyond that, this issue shouldn’t be part of a free trade negotiation. If anything, it’s a domestic public health debate — in the U.S. or any other nation. NAFTA talks should be designed to assure that U.S. companies are treated the same as foreign suppliers, not to micromanage whether the Trix rabbit or the M&M’s mascots cavort on food packaging.

Savvy manufacturers know that many consumers demand healthier fare. Last year the Consumer Goods Forum reported that major food and beverage companies tinkered with more than 180,000 products in 2016, slashing sugar and salt most often. The Forum recently reported that companies reformulated more than 34,000 food and beverage products in 2017.

In Chile, a food industry association reports that hundreds of products have been reformulated in response to its law. Nestle reduced the sugar in its chocolate powder drink. Local companies now sell rice cakes and dried fruit in schools.

This is how the market works best. Consumers demand healthier products, companies respond.

Government officials, back off. Warning labels belong on lethal medications, not Sour Patch Kids.

The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board

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