The New York Times reported on March 20 that the United States was seeking to table a proposal in the NAFTA negotiations to limit the placement of consumer warnings on food packaging with respect to foods that are high in sugar, salt, or fat. According to a copy of the negotiating document obtained by the Times, the U.S. proposal would prevent the use of any warning symbol, shape or color that “inappropriately denotes that a hazard exists from consumption of the food or nonalcoholic beverages.”

USTR Lighthizer confirmed the United States has concerns with warning and consumption labels used by trading partners at a March 21 hearing before the U.S. Ways and Means Committee on U.S. trade policy, including and the status of NAFTA negotiations. During a line of questioning pursued by Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) inquiring specifically about the NYT article, Ambassador Lighthizer stated that while the United States was against obesity, it did not support the use of food label warning requirements “to create a protectionist environment.” Separately, a USTR spokesperson emphasized that “the United States supports science-based labeling that is truthful and not misleading.”

To combat growing obesity in their respective populations and on grounds supported by protecting public health, Canada and Mexico are considering taking actions similar to Chile, which in 2012 implemented food labelling laws requiring the placement of black hexagons resembling stop signs on labels of food with high caloric, fat, salt, or sugar content. Several countries, including the United States, challenged the Chilean law at the WTO; however, Chile argued successfully that the labeling and other related measures were necessary to combat obesity and for public health. In Canada, where 26 percent of adults are obese, the government has initiated a regulatory process to review and eventually select graphic front-package warnings that would be required for food. Similarly in Mexico, where the National Institute of Public Health has noted that many people are not able to read nutritional labels, there is an effort to consider Chile’s approach.

The NAFTA negotiating parties are under pressure to reach an agreement in principle before the July 1 Mexican presidential election. The next round of talks are scheduled to take place the week of April 8, however it is unclear whether it will be an official round or intercessional talks. It is further unknown whether the parties will address the U.S. proposal when they next meet.