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Study urges urgent review of nutrition labelling regulations of pre-packaged food products in Nigeria

By Chukwuma Muanya
22 November 2021   |   3:34 am
A recent study has highlighted the position of nutrition labelling in Nigeria and the need for an urgent review of regulations for better consumer communication and alignment with global trends.

•Recommends CAFSANI, NHF must work with NAFDAC, other stakeholders to ensure better public enlightenment on need for Front-of- Pack concept
•Say policy tool will help reduce incidence of non-communicable diseases, improve health of populations

A recent study has highlighted the position of nutrition labelling in Nigeria and the need for an urgent review of regulations for better consumer communication and alignment with global trends.

The study titled, “Preliminary Studies on Status of Nutrition Labeling of Pre-Packaged Food Products in Markets of Lagos Metropolis in Nigeria” was published in Nigerian Journal of Nutritional Sciences.

The researchers, from the Nigerian Heart Foundation (NHF) and Consumer Advocacy for Food Safety and Nutrition Initiative (CAFSANI), were led by a consultant cardiologist and Executive Secretary, NHF, Dr. Kola Kingsley Akinroye. Others are: Ogunmoyela Olugbenga A. B., Prof. Atinmo Tola and Adeyemi Isaac A.

Until now, nutrition-labelling regulations have been in use in various countries since the United States Food and Drug Administration published its first regulations in 1973. The Pre-packaged Food Labelling Regulations came into use in Nigeria in 1995.

The study examined the nutrition labelling formats and shelf display practices, x-raying of the traditional back-of pack (BOP) labels and the emerging new front-of-pack (FOP) labels in open markets, mini supermarkets and large-scale supermarkets in the Lagos metropolis, Nigeria.

A descriptive, cross-sectional survey design was conducted to evaluate nutrition labelling formats in 162 purposively selected samples of pre-packaged products. The data were analysed using Microsoft Excel and presented in tables and figures.

The results showed that open markets, mini-supermarkets and large-scale supermarkets accounted for 24 per cent, five per cent and 71 per cent of the total sample population, respectively. Apart from the ‘eye logo’, most of the logos found on the labels were voluntary and currently not regulated, hence, did not follow any consistent format.

According to the study, only four per cent of these products had the Front-of-Pack labelling format, and these were mostly imported products of multinationals, while 96 per cent of products carried the Back-of-Pack label, comprising both local and imported brands. It was noted that all products on display shelves were usually arranged in such a way as to communicate the brand name without any consideration for nutrition information.

Several publications are available in literature on the subject of nutrition labelling. However, a substantial number of these appear to focus on consumer perception, understanding or use of nutrition labelling. Most of these studies were, however, observed to have been carried out in developed countries, with very few from Africa, including Nigeria. From these studies, it is evident that factors such as education level, gender, race, age, ethnicity, income, and the way a product is being marketed (that is packaging, dominant information on the package, font style and legibility) influence the consumers’ interests in nutrition labelling. Back-of-Pack is the traditional form of nutrition labelling that most countries specify, but even this is yet to be mandatory for food products in some countries especially in Africa. For example, countries such as Kenya, Mauritius, Vietnam, Venezuela and Morocco etc. do not mandate nutrition labels on a food package, but they provide guidelines for manufacturers that intend to. The practice of mandatory nutritional labelling by food and beverage manufacturers or marketers is, however prevalent in advanced countries such as United States of America, Canada and United Kingdom, where it is obligatory to do so. The food/labelling regulations in these cases require manufacturers to provide standard nutrition labels displaying information on specified nutrients.

There are many important diet-related public health problems and diseases such as: obesity, high blood pressure; cancers, diabetes; osteoporosis and cardiovascular diseases. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that dietary factors account for approximately 30 per cent of cancers in industrialised countries.

WHO and other bodies to reduce the incidence of non- communicable diseases and improve the health of populations are promoting front-of-pack nutrition labels as an important policy tool. It has in fact, been specifically recommended that to achieve strides in public health objectives, nutrition labelling should be incorporated into nutrition and health policies of countries. The different types of Front-of-Pack labelling that currently exist were developed to provide information at a glance so that the consumer can easily determine whether a product is healthy or not. Due to the increasing number of Front-of-pack labels being developed, controversies are becoming apparent as to whether these labels are useful in the long run and whether they serve the purpose they are supposed to or they are just confusing the consumers on making choices. There are also controversies as to whether the selected nutrients displayed on both front-of-pack and back-of-pack nutrition labels are sufficient to help a consumer determine whether a food product is healthy.

However, in Nigeria, it is a legal requirement for manufacturers to have a list of ingredients on the label of their pre-packaged food products. The researchers concluded: “It is clear from this survey that the issue of nutrition labelling in Nigeria is not receiving priority attention from stakeholders, whether consumers, manufacturers or regulators. With 89.77 per cent of the samples having no nutrition label at all, the situation calls for urgent regulatory attention. In fact, most products on the display shelves in the markets visited in this study were arranged in such a way as to communicate the brand name of the product without any consideration for nutrition information. This was the same whether in the Malls, Minimarkets and Open markets and this display pattern is a major evidence of gap in nutrition consciousness, which should be of concern. It is clear therefore, that sensitisation is critically needed to educate both sellers and buyers at such retail outlets. Once there is no proper communication of the inherent nutrients in a product, then the consumer may be liable to misinformation. Some products even contain allergenic substances that can cause health hazards to consumers.

“On the other hand, when the information is properly communicated on the nutrition label, such risk is minimised, as the consumer is able to make an informed choice. From the comments and suggestions of some of the consumers informally interviewed during this survey, the need for the nutrition labels to be displayed rather than the present practice of brand display has become more evident. Currently, there appears to be very little consciousness of the average consumer, irrespective of the socio-economic class, about the value of nutrition labelling in making informed food choices or even to call for national implementation of an FoPL strategy for the benefit of consumers in Nigeria. The position of Choices International Foundation calling for evidence-based research from the analysis of other countries implementing this strategy to facilitate a buy-in and investment from governments, may therefore be worth considering.

“It is also suggested that in order to solve the improve the mode of nutrition communication on prepackaged products, the change to front-of-pack labelling system should be initially encouraged through a stakeholders forum highlighting why manufacturers should promote both the brand name and the nutrition profile on the front label.

“Such sensitisation will need to start with the manufacturers, as there is need for them to understand the importance of the consumer interface and recent global trends in nutrition labelling. On the part of retailers such as local traders in the market, mini-supermarkets and large-scale supermarkets, such sensitization will also be of benefit to them indirectly as they will be better able to understand why some health-related issues may arise from consumption of these products. The Consumer Advocacy for Food Safety and Nutrition Initiative (CAFSANI), as well as the Nigerian Heart Foundation (NHF), must work with other stakeholders involved, especially government regulators like National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), to synergize efforts and ensure better public enlightenment on the need for Front-of- Pack nutrition labelling of pre-packaged food products in Nigeria.”