January 20th, 2005

Obesity 'a European problem': Commission ready to legislate if no progress is made

By John Mason and George Parker
Financial Times

The food industry has been given a year to stop advertising junk food to children
and improve product labelling or face legislation in the European Union.

Markos Kyprianou, EU health and consumer affairs commissioner, warned in a
Financial Times interview that urgent action was needed to tackle Europe’s obesity
problem, particularly among the young.

Mr Kyprianou believed self-regulation in the food industry was the quickest
and most effective way to tackle the problem. But he warned the European Commission
would resort to legislation if progress proved disappointing.

He said: "The signs from the industry are very encouraging, very positive.
But if this doesn’t produce satisfactory results, we will proceed to legislation."

The Commission can initiate legislation using rules covering the EU single
market - under which it recently banned newspaper tobacco advertising - or on
consumer protection grounds.

Brussels also wants to encourage initiatives to promote healthy lifestyles,
involving national governments, the food industry and health bodies.

Mr Kyprianou said that until recently Europe "considered obesity to be
a US problem . .. we made fun of Americans in a way. It is a European problem
now".

A recent report showed the condition was a problem across Europe, worse in
some southern countries normally associated with a healthy Mediterranean lifestyle
than in the north. It found that 36 per cent of nine-year-olds in Italy were
obese.

The CIAA, the food industry’s umbrella group in Europe, said it was already
working with the Commission to develop new proposals for more rigorous advertising
and labelling regimes.

"There is a need for improvement but there is no magical solution for
doing this in practical terms," it said, adding it would be pressing for
self-regulation rather than legislation.

The US food industry is already changing its practices in response to pressure
from health campaigners. Kraft Foods said last week it would stop marketing
products such as popular Oreo biscuits directly to children.

Mr Kyprianou said he wanted other companies that sell products with high fat,
sugar or salt content to follow suit. "I would like to see the industry
not advertising directly to children any more," he said.

He also urged food manufacturers to adopt clearer labelling "more easily
understood by a consumer who doesn’t have a PhD in chemistry".

The Cypriot commissioner will announce in March a new "platform"
with the food industry to agree the new self-regulatory standards, which he
hoped would produce commitments by the end of this year or early next.

Initiatives are being discussed in the UK to cut television advertising of
junk food directed at children.

A colour-coded labelling system has also been proposed although many in the
industry have criticised this for being misleading and over-simple.

The obesity problem has been recognised by the UK industry for some years but
manufacturers and retailers have still been surprised at the speed the issue
has risen up the political agenda over the past 18 months. The industry backs
voluntary reforms but has said progress is likely to be gradual.

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