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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 January, 2005, 13:42 GMT
EU takes aim at junk food adverts
Two hamburgers and a plate of potato chips
Are burgers to blame for Europe's expanding waistlines?
Food firms have been warned by the EU to stop advertising junk food to children and make labelling clearer.

Markos Kyprianou, the EU's health and consumer affairs commissioner, said that unless voluntary steps were taken, the EU would introduce legislation.

He said the move was needed to fight rising levels of obesity and he wanted significant commitments from the food industry within a year.

Experts estimate that almost 25% of children in the EU are now obese.

About 400,000 are becoming either obese or overweight every year.

Turning the screw

Talks have been taking place on an informal "round table" basis among the EU, food industry and health authorities since last year, but are expected to become more serious in the next couple of months.

graph showing proportion of overweight among European school children

Any changes will be part of wide-reaching recommendations that are being developed in consultation with the food industry and health authorities.

Mr Kyprianou plans to announce in March a "platform" from which the EU will try to step up negotiations and identify targets for reducing obesity.

He said that the food industry's initial response has been "very encouraging".

His office was keen to point out, however, that while there are currently no laws in the pipeline, "it's harder to avoid legislation if there is no sign of progress".

Atlantic divide?

In the US, food companies are already bowing to pressure and have taken some adverts off air, while changing others to reduce their appeal to the young.

Kraft, the largest US food maker, said last week it would cut back on advertising of products such as Oreo biscuits. It also will add a label to its more nutritional and low-fat brands.

(Obesity is) a European problem now
Markos Kyprianou, EU health and consumer affairs commissioner

Soft drink giant PepsiCo introduced a similar labelling scheme last year.

Mr Kyprianou said that until recently Europe "considered obesity to be an American problem".

"We made fun of Americans in a way," he said, adding that obesity was "a European problem now".

Mr Kyprianou also called on food producers to use labels that can be "understood by a consumer who doesn't have a PhD in chemistry".

Growing problem

Governments across Europe, the UK included, have voiced concerns about the health of their populations.

The incidence of illnesses related to obesity, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes, has increased, increasing health care and social security costs.

The UK government last month announced a 3m funding package aimed at cutting levels of obesity. Almost a quarter of adults in the UK are estimated to be obese.

The CIAA, which represents the food industry in Europe, told the Financial Times newspaper that it was already working closely with the EU on advertising and labelling.

"There is a need for improvement but there is no magical solution for doing this in practical terms," the CIAA said in a statement.

Recent surveys throw up some worrying statistics.

According the latest figures from the International Obesity Taskforce, 36% of nine-year-olds in Italy are overweight or obese. In Spain, 27% of children and adolescents are affected.

"The epidemic appears to be accelerating out of control," Philip James, chairman of the International Obesity Task Force, said last year.

"Things are worse than our gloomiest predictions."



SEE ALSO:
Q&A: Obesity
26 May 04 |  Medical notes
Kraft cuts snack ads for children
12 Jan 05 |  Business
Obese children 'facing pressures'
02 Dec 04 |  Scotland


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