The 26th of October will be remembered as the day when front-of-package food labelling finally became law to achieve something that seemed utopian: that people know what they are consuming, and decide about it. The most named and praised person during the parliamentary session was watching everything from the stands: Miryam Gorban, 89 years old, who for at least three decades has been fighting for this kind of issues, which she concentrates in one concept: Food Sovereignty.

By lavaca/MU

She tells, the day after: “How did I spend last night? Nice, because I was in Congress for quite a few hours and I am happy to have won another battle.

Miryam is a nutritionist, coordinator and heart of the Chair of Food Sovereignty at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Buenos Aires, twice Doctor Honoris Causa, member of the Andrés Carrasco Diploma in Journalism and Environmental Communication.

What is crucial about the new law? A mother, anyone, will no longer need a magnifying glass or a telescope to know what she is eating. The black warning labels are designed so that even illiterate people can decide. Each person, each mother, each family, and even each child, will be able to select which foods are the best and which ones they prefer not to eat, if they have fats, sugars and everything else that the industry puts in these products.

Miryam has always maintained that the industry produces OCNIS (Unidentified Edible Objects) in which the lack of information is inversely proportional to the excess of malnutrition. “The effect of yesterday is to be aware and to know what we eat. Food is a very dark business, intertwined with many interests and conflicts. This was a good battle, and there were good interventions and arguments from MEPs”.

The vote showed 200 MEPs in favour, 22 against and 16 abstentions. “A few years ago this was totally unthinkable. Even more so in our country. For the state to regulate the food industry is something fundamental and new, even from a public health point of view. Many small bricks have been laid in this construction, which continues to grow.

The new law aims to prevent malnutrition in the population: it is not only about malnutrition (lack of food) but also about access to food that does not harm health in a country where the INDEC has calculated that more than 61% of the population is overweight (25.4% of which is obese), an issue that is also reflected in children.

Another point, economically incalculable, is the prevention of chronic non-communicable diseases (from diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, chronic respiratory and renal diseases) among many others, which in many cases are caused by permanent malnutrition, especially affecting the poorest sectors of the population.

The black octagonal labels on food and beverages will occupy at least 5% of the surface of the front of the package, and will indicate when there are high levels of “critical nutrients” (total fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugars, calories), according to the definitions of the Nutrient Profile of the Pan American Health Organisation.

Miryam Gorban. Photo by Julieta Colomber/MU

Another aspect is that the advertising of products with at least one of these labels will be prohibited, mainly those aimed at children, who have become the new subject and object of food corporations.

The law also establishes that there will no longer be children’s characters, cartoons, celebrities, animations, athletes and all the advertising etceteras of these cases, as well as gifts, prizes, accessories, games, events and all the usual paraphernalia to incite the consumption of these foods, which cannot even be given as gifts.

These industrial foodstuffs are also banned in schools. The kiosks will have to be healthier, which is unbelievable that this has not been implemented before, but at least it is now in force.

Miryam: “These labels cause an automatic change in people’s consumption patterns. It has already been seen in Chile, and it is also being seen in Mexico and several other countries on the continent. Nobody wants to eat something that is not good for them, and the idea is also to avoid the misleading advertising that has been confusing people for so many years. Eggs with toys and those kinds of hooks will no longer be allowed. This is also Food Sovereignty, after so many years of intervening with the Cátedras Libres, with notes, with actions.

Miryam points out that yesterday, at the door of the Congress, there was also the Union of Land Workers (UTT), which, with their vegetable and fruit shouting, helped to make visible those who really produce a large part of the food consumed by society. The UTT is also calling for a Law on Access to Land, so that these families have the possibility of buying the plots of land on which they produce vegetables, which in many cases are agroecological: free of pesticides and poisons of any kind.

“There was an old cigarette advertisement” says Miryam “that said: what’s behind a Caravana. Today what we have to ask ourselves is what’s behind an edible. That’s why this law also aims at what we have always promoted: healthy, safe and sovereign food.

Was there a contagion of a new perspective on food? The first note in MU to Miryam (2012) presented her with a knife between her teeth and a huge smile. The combination of her determination to fight the necessary fights and the joy she has been able to transmit in each of her interventions.

Miryam: “There was a lot of work, the functioning of networks, the interdisciplinary nature of the Cátedras Libres, there was more information. All this helped to change the course of food education. The press releases, the actions, everything helped to spread the word.

All these results are the product of a great social movement that Miryam helped to sow. She is a leader, but she never thinks of herself as such. She is a kind of great cook who has been mixing ingredients and actions to achieve a goal that mixes food, culture, technology, society in movement, love and future.

As a tribute, and to get to know her better, we reproduce the article in MU that explains in part how Food Sovereignty and sensitivity about what we eat have come to be part of the present agenda.