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EU seeks food labeling to fight obesity

Rates are as high as 27% for men, 38% for women

Email|Print| Text size + By Stephen Castle and Elisabeth Rosenthal
International Herald Tribune / January 31, 2008

BRUSSELS - Alarmed by the growth in obesity rates from Scotland to Sicily, the European Commission yesterday announced food labeling plans designed to help consumers reject junk food and choose a healthier diet.

With Europe fast catching up to the United States in obesity tables, the EU health commissioner, Markos Kyprianou, warned of an "emerging health threat" and of the need for consumers to eat better.

Almost 1 in 3 children is overweight in Europe as a whole, the commission said last year in a strategy paper. And Finland, Germany, Greece, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Malta all have a higher proportion of overweight adults than the United States, according to a report by the International Obesity Task Force in 2005.

Under the proposals put forward yesterday, six measures will have to appear on the front of packages of food giving information on energy, total fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugar, and salts. The labels, which will have to be prominent, will also indicate what percentage of advisable daily intake the measures represent.

The proposals, which must be approved by EU nations and the European Parliament, exclude beer, wine, and spirits, and the commission disappointed some by rejecting pressure to adopt a compulsory "traffic light" system under which food is placed in three color-coded health categories.

In Britain, the Food Standards Agency uses red, yellow, and green to rate each product as high, medium, or low in four ingredients: fat, saturated fat, salt, and sugar. The system has been adopted by a number of British companies, including Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's, for some products, and its effectiveness is being evaluated by the agency.

Under the commission's plans, the power to add traffic light systems to national law would be left to each member state.

According to the International Obesity Task Force report, obesity rates in European countries range from 10 percent to 27 percent for men and as high as 38 percent for women.

In the United States, obesity stands at 28 percent for men and 34 percent for women, although this rises to as much as 50 percent among black women.

And, while the Mediterranean diet has been considered healthy, eating habits appear to be changing in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Malta, Gibraltar, and Crete, which reported obesity levels of more than 30 percent for children 7 to 11.

The consumer group Which?, based in Britain, attacked the proposal as insufficient given the scale of the problem.

"These recommendations are incredibly disappointing for consumers across Europe," said the group's chief policy adviser, Sue Davies. "Independent research shows that traffic lights are the best way to help busy shoppers identify healthy choices quickly and easily.

"These proposals have ignored what works best for consumers and opted for what works best for some sections of the food industry."

Professor Peter Kopelman, nutrition adviser for the Royal College of Physicians, also said the proposals were unsatisfactory.

"We are disappointed that the traffic light system has not been highlighted as the most useful way forward for both consumers and health professionals providing messages about healthy food," he said.

"This proposal gives the impression that people understand about the composition of foods and the application of the guideline daily amounts, when experience shows that the traffic light system is easier to understand."

Food industry groups, which won their battle against imposition of a mandatory traffic light system, still criticized the proposals as unworkable.

EuroCommerce, which represents the retail, wholesale, and international trade sectors in Europe, attacked the requirement for a minimum type size of 3 millimeters for labels, or about one-tenth of an inch.

"Three millimeters is by far larger than the size used by newspapers. Are they not readable?" Xavier Durieu, secretary general of EuroCommerce, said in a statement. "This new requirement will also lead to an increase of the size of the packages, which goes against all the efforts made by the various actors and contradicts the commission initiatives to reduce packaging waste."

The Confederation of Food and Drink Industries of the European Union said its own voluntary nutrition labeling program, which places calorie information on the front of the package as well as more detailed information on the back of the package, was more practical. The commission plan would lead to "consumer confusion rather than consumer information," it said.

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