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The United States is using the North American free-trade talks to pressure Canada to abandon efforts to curb consumption of unhealthy foods.

For the past two years, Health Canada has been working toward a mandatory labelling system for unhealthy foods – a system that would place warning labels on items high in sugar, sodium or saturated fat. Officials in Mexico, too, have discussed plans to strengthen labels on food.

But in the continuing NAFTA negotiations, the Americans have been urging its trading partners to walk away from these plans, according to sources.

The U.S. draft proposal includes a provision that would limit warnings or symbols that “inappropriately denotes that a hazard exists from consumption of the food or non-alcoholic beverage,” according to two sources who have viewed the confidential document.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer himself confirmed this in a committee meeting at the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday. In video of the meeting posted online, the Democratic congressman for Texas Lloyd Doggett asked Mr. Lighthizer about a report published on Wednesday in The New York Times alleging that lobbying from the food industry had led American negotiators to include the provision.

“Is it correct that your office is urging adoption of that provision as a part of the NAFTA renegotiations?” Mr. Doggett asks Mr. Lighthizer in video of the exchange posted online.

“Yes,” Mr. Lighthizer says. “The idea of putting limits on the ability of countries to put warning labels or symbols is something that we are concerned about.”

He goes on to express concern that countries might use such labels as a “loophole to basically create a protectionist environment.”

Health groups that have been working with Health Canada on the proposal expressed alarm at the news.

“We’re pretty far down the road,” Heart and Stroke Foundation director of policy Manuel Arango said in an interview. The draft regulation was published in Canada Gazette 1 earlier this year, and Health Canada is in the midst of its latest round of public consultations, with a shortlist of four potential label designs.

The full proposal is expected to be adopted by the end of this year, with full implementation aimed at the end of 2022.

In 2016, Chile passed a law requiring a “stop sign” to be displayed on the front of any food high in calories, saturated fat, refined sugar or sodium. The law helped drive food companies to reformulate their food products. And a recent survey showed that more than 92 per cent of respondents said the labels helped shape their dietary decisions. Other countries, such as Canada and Mexico, looked to follow this example.

The U.S. trade tactic now, Mr. Arango said, is a bid by the large food companies to stop that momentum from spreading further. “It’s not just within their borders. It’s across the world. These are multinationals,” he said. “They want to stop it because it impedes their profit-making abilities.”

More than one-fifth of Canadians are classified as obese. Meanwhile, obesity and diet-related chronic illness are estimated to cost the country up to $7.1-billion each year. Front-of-package labels, officials say, could help curb this.

The Dietitians of Canada, too, stressed the importance of the labels going ahead as planned. “It would be very unfortunate if this public-health initiative was to be taken off the table as a result of these economic discussions,” spokeswoman Kate Comeau said.

“Front-of-package labeling is a strategy recommended by the WHO and has been implemented in many other countries in various forms.”

A spokesperson for Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor did not directly comment on the trade talks, but in a statement emphasized the importance of the program. “The front-of-pack initiative is about helping Canadians all across the country who are trying to make healthier food choices,” Thierry Bélair said. “It also aims to foster the increased availability of foods that are lower in sugars, sodium and saturated fat.

Erin O’Toole says news of a potential NAFTA breakthrough on U.S. auto-parts demands is 'great progress.' But the Conservative foreign affairs critic says the Liberals should have focused on the auto sector much sooner.

The Canadian Press

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