Food Policy

Mexico May Slap Silly Warning Labels on 'Unhealthy' Foods

Warning labels on subjectively “unhealthy” food haven’t taken hold in this country. But they’ve swept through Latin America in recent years.


Last week I returned from a wonderful (if too brief) vacation in Loreto, Mexico, a gorgeous colonial-era town that sits on the Sea of Cortez, about three-quarters of the way down the country's Baja California peninsula.

I returned to Mexico for the same reasons many Americans do: kind people; sunny, warm weather; beautiful beaches; a slower, better pace of life; and inexpensive, world-class food and drink.

It was only when I returned to the United States that I learned Mexico is on the verge of adopting a misguided scheme that would force food manufacturers to add warning labels on packaged foods that contain subjectively high levels of sugar, sodium, and saturated fats.

Mexico's lower house passed the bill unanimously this month—despite the fact the bill doesn't even stipulate "what the new labels will look like." Nevertheless, it's expected soon to pass out of the Senate and to be signed by the country's president, who's endorsed the bill.

Not surprisingly, food makers oppose the measure.

"This hides information," says Jaime Zabludovsky, president of ConMexico, an industry group. "It doesn't tell you what the level of key nutrients is, how much sugar, calories, sodium or fats." 

Perhaps these warning labels should come as little surprise. After all, Mexico adopted a soda tax several years ago. And Mexicans, like their American cousins to the north, are increasingly obese

While Mexico's soda taxes appear to have lowered soda consumption slightly, they—alone or in tandem with any other policy—are unlikely to impact obesity rates there any time soon, if at all.

A recent Borgen Project headline touts Mexico's soda tax thusly: "How the Soda Tax in Mexico is Reducing Obesity." 

But here's the accompanying article's best case for how that tax is reducing obesity in Mexico:

Since 2014, the sales of sugar-sweetened beverages have dropped throughout Mexico. Sales dropped by 5.5 percent the first year. By the second year, sales were down by 9.7 percent. The sales of untaxed beverages increased by about 2 percent. However, the calorie intake of the average person has remained unchanged.

Unchanged, or worse? The obesity rate in Mexico, a new study indicates, continues to grow. That same study also indicates nearly two in three obese Mexicans want to lose weight and recommends "improved education, prevention, and management"—not taxes—as tools to combat the trend.

So why food warning labels? As with soda taxes, there's little or no evidence that adopting food warning labels will help reverse current obesity trends.

Other countries in Latin America have adopted food warning labels of their own in recent years. In 2016, Chile became the first country to implement packaged-food warning labels. Peru followed Chile's lead last year.

Leading advocates for food warning labels and taxes—who, coincidentally, happen to be many of the most prolific scholars publishing research promoting the purported wisdom and efficacy of food warning labels and taxes—signed an open letter last year hailing the Peruvian government for adopting the measure. Signers include Barry Popkin—who's also been involved in actual food policymaking in Chile, Mexico, and elsewhere.

The best thing supporters such as Popkin appear able to say about the Chilean law's impact to date is that consumers there "understand the regulation very well." That, I noted last year, isn't good enough.

As I reported earlier this year, there is no published evidence to date that Chile's food warning labels have reduced obesity. Obesity rates actually rose in Chile during the law's first year in existence. Mexico's soda tax, too, seems not to have delivered on the promises of its supporters. There's no evidence to date that shows soda taxes reduce obesity.

Worse still, food warning labels and taxes might give rise to some unintended consequences.

"Processed food and drinks are popular there (and in other developing nations) because a disastrous sanitation system means fresh stuff has to be vigorously cleaned/cooked to avoid food-borne illnesses," says Reason's Mike Riggs, who visited Mexico City in 2017. "Packaged stuff may not be good for you, but it lets people eat on the go without risk of getting violently ill."

Riggs is right.

"[I]n the 1990s," the Washington Post reported earlier this year, "Mexico had had a cholera epidemic and consumers were leery of drinking tap water. People started buying bottled water—but if soda was even cheaper than bottled water, why not opt for the more flavorful beverage?"

I typically avoid soda altogether, though I did drink a few Cokes while I was in Mexico for this very reason.

"Obesity is a real problem," I wrote in 2016. "Food taxes are not a real solution to that problem." Neither are warning labels. Not that it should matter. Such policies, as I've noted many times, are patronizing, elitist, regressive, and fly in the face of food freedom. Activist researchers and policymakers would be wise to reconsider their approach given these facts.

NEXT: Dave Barry 2020

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  1. So why food warning labels?

    With public policy makers relative ease of implementation will probably win over effectiveness every time.

  2. “Warning labels on subjectively ‘unhealthy’ food haven’t taken hold in this country. But they’ve swept through Latin America in recent years.”

    While it would of course be racist to describe those places as “shithole countries,” warning labels do indeed sound like a bad idea.

    I have a solution! The US should allow unlimited, unrestricted immigration from Latin America. That way, people can “vote with their feet” and live in the country with the food labeling laws they consider best.


  3. You can’t see a weight-loss program, labels are a very visible statement that “I Care”. Who the hell wants to change the world when marching around in public with a sign that says “I Want To Change The World” attracts more attention?

    1. My name is Gretta, and I endorse this statement.

      1. How DARE you?

  4. Good idea. If Latin American countries adopt more Progressive policies, maybe there will be a migration of American Progressives (fleeing oppression and gangs of heavily-armed NRA members) to their friendly shores, where the Americans can seek asylum and redistribute their wealth to their Socialist brothers.

  5. the bill doesn’t even stipulate “what the new labels will look like.”

    How about like this?

    1. I have no problem with warning labels. I am going to assume people know a candy bar is unhealthy and choose to eat it anyway. Where labels help is on food people think is healthy, but isn’t. Granola and many yogurts are worse than candy bars. That is where there needs to be labeling.

      1. “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

        – C.S. Lewis

      2. Let me give an example. Calorie labelling on restaurant menus. It’s a very useful thing. You typically have a decent idea of what something contains, but a lot of obesity isn’t about pigging out at every opportunity, but eating 2500 calories a day when you output 2000. Do that every day, and you end up 20-30 pounds overweight despite eating a reasonable, balanced diet.

        Most people don’t think about it, but a fast food combo meal isn’t a lunch portion. It’s a dinner portion. It was brazenly obvious the first time I saw a McDonalds board labeled. You can make it a lunch portion by getting the salad instead of the fries. That’s what labelling with ACTUAL labels does. Gives you the information you need. Using nonsense warning labels doesn’t help anyone.

        1. It’s also useful for skinny motherfuckers like me when you want to get the most calories for your money. I like to try to get at least 1000 calories at lunch.

  6. I lived in southern Mexico for more than a year, and one of the things I came away with was the realization that when the Mexican government passes a law, it doesn’t necessarily have the same importance we imagine. Other places in the world aren’t necessary like the U.S.

    A lot of it is cultural. We imagine that the world is a better place when everyone is subject to the exact same laws in the exact same way. Meanwhile, treating everyone the same leads us to problems like mandatory sentences, where the sentence doesn’t necessarily fit the crime. How do we come down hard on sexual predators without making high school girls register as child pr0n purveyors for sending pics of themselves to their boyfriends on their phones?

    Is society really worse off because some kid’s dad gets his son out of an obscene mandatory sentence for marijuana possession because the police chief is his uncle or slips him $100?

    In the U.S., if the federal government passes a law, you can expect it to be enforced everywhere in the country and enforced more or less the same way, but that is not the way things work in the developing world. When Americans look at a political map of the world, they imagine all those countries operating more or less like ours does, but that’s not the way it is. It’s more like America under the Articles of Confederation. If the federal government passes a law, law enforcement and judges will take that under advisement–along with family alliances, the cost of enforcement, and other local considerations. But the people who enforce these laws will be making their own decisions.

    Some of the things we think of as corruption are more like what I’d call “law enforcement nullification”.

    Two points:

    1) Don’t get too excited about what the government in “The City” says. Passing a law is the beginning of the process, not the end.

    2) From a libertarian perspective, there are upsides to a government that isn’t always necessarily about enforcing whatever the federal government tells them to do.

    1. Yes, it is worse if a kid gets out of an excessively harsh penalty by bribery. It not only is a dismissal of justice, but it causes a lot of toxic incentives. The overly harsh penalty is not fixed. The police don’t use their discretion when they should if they do not get paid. Poor people are extorted for money they don’t have or punished more heavily simply because they cannot pay bribes. Paying a bribe is good for the people involved, but horrid for society as a whole.

      Yes, prosecutors and police should use their discretion a lot more than they do. We should also accept different cultures with different methods. However, bribery is a universally negative with no potential upside.

      1. “Yes, it is worse if a kid gets out of an excessively harsh penalty by bribery.”

        I hope you appreciate that this is an answer to a rhetorical question–and the answer can’t help but be about qualitative preferences.

        There are good things about the government violating everyone’s rights on an equal and consistent basis, but as Neal Peart can tell you, being made equal by hatchet, axe, and saw isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be either. If you can buy your way out of having your rights violated, there are upsides to that, as well.

        Regardless, when you see Mexico’s legislature pass some law, realize that it isn’t like when the U.S. passes some awful law.

  7. “Four people were killed and three wounded Saturday morning when shooting erupted in what appeared to be an illegal gambling den in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York Police Department officials said.

    NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea said at least 15 shots were fired”

    You know this is fake news because both gambling and assault pistols are illegal in New York City.

    Has anyone done a study on how much in the way of greenhouse gas emissions assault pistols release into the atmosphere every year?

    1. Who the fuck pays for subscriptions to anything, much less online news sites?

      1. You get what you pay for, that’s for sure.

        And there’s this thing called the internet archive–pretty easy to use.

      2. Dont know if it still works. But you used to be able to google the WSJ headline and click through on google for full article. They wanted search hits if not a member.

  8. Packaged foods are “Bad for you”, but they keep you from getting violently ill. How can anyone say this with a straight face? Which would you rather be? Fat or food poisoned? Dead now or potentially have a shorted life decades down the line? This obsession with obesity seems to have gone way too far.

    Besides, warning labels have been repeatedly shown to be completely and utterly ineffective, as the cigarette experience has shown. Why are we wasting time on

    1. I don’t know what the labels had to to with it, but a whole lot less people smoke now than did when the labels were introduced. I don’t think it’s obvious that they were ineffective (not that tha t would justify mandatory labeling to me). Food is another matter, though. Cigarettes are clearly bad for you in significant, obvious ways. Food, even not very healthy food, keeps you alive and functioning.

    1. “If cutting the power helps save just one life, ….”

  9. I see way too many people who are obviously immigrants from Latin America who are quite obese with their obese children tagging along sucking down a Fanta or chowing down on an ice cream cone. They really love their sugar. I feel really bad for the kids.

    1. Friendly fire is a known hazard of war. We should be understanding in this situation. Next time it might be us shooting them by accident. Unless we think it’s deliberate, escalating to war over this would be unwise.

      1. Describing the Turks in this situation as friendly is ridiculous.

        This is a direct consequence of US policy. Accept it for what it is.

  10. In Mexico it would be cheaper and easier to slap a label on the healthy food.

  11. Kudos to the online sales staff of Reason for the Lynda Carter ad.

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