The obesity issue is not going to solve itself, concluded participants in a CIAA debate this month who advocated an EU-wide approach to tackling the problem, with the food and drink industry forming part of the solution.
The 'Café Crossfire Lunch Debate' was held on June 8 in association with the Confederation of Food and Drink Industries in the EU (CIAA), bringing together policymakers, industry representatives and health experts. Their comments on the matter were published yesterday.
Obesity in Europe is a serious problem, with up to 27 percent of men, 38 percent of women, and 3m children clinically obese in some parts of the bloc.
Some 14m European children overweight, and Giles Merritt, secretary of Friends of Europe, said that if current rates continue in just four years this figure could rocket to 26m.
Robert Madelin, EC director general for health and consumer protection, said he does not think the problem will solve itself, and that there is a "definite place" for the EU to take action. He applauded the EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, created in March 2005 as part of an overall strategy on nutrition and physical activity, as a step in the right direction.
Members of the platform commit to take action and devote resources to fighting obesity though healthy diets and exercise, and to pool knowledge on what works and what does not.
While Jean Martin, president of CIAA, also praised the platform as a "wonderful initiative", he said that EU commissioner for health and consumer protection Markos Kyprianou could do more to motivate members of the platform.
In particular, he pointed out that the EC takes a consultative role, and there is no EU wide best practice. Rather, each of the 25 countries is left to devise its own best practice, where there may be scope for them to learn from each other.
However the idea is not to establish a prescriptive 'EU diet', intervening on topics such as country regulations on the contend of school lunches, but rather to create "clearer European benchmarks and guidelines on nutrition".
The question was also posed as to what the balance should be between different sorts of intervention in the problem.
Geof Rayner, research fellow at the Centre for Food Policy at London's City University, said that the whole of society should be taking more responsibility and changing behaviours - that is, companies and governments as well as consumers. He outlines three transitions that are driving the problem: dietary transition to more sugars, salt and processed food; a drop in physical exercise; and cultural transition - in particular food marketing.
The marketing of unhealthy foods, particularly those aimed at children, has been a fiercely discussed topic in the past, which has led some to point the finger of blame for the obesity crisis at the food industry - while others have maintained that it comes down to consumer choice.
According to Rayner, for every €100 spent on marketing less healthy foods, just €2 are spent on fruit and vegetables. But he said: "Food is not the entire issue: we need to make a full social change."Martin agreed that while the food and drink industry could be part of the solution, Europe needed an integrated response to the challenge.
Indeed, it is in the interests of the food and drink industry to be part of the solution, since it comes down to a business opportunity. Martin insisted that the industry wants to be part of the solution to obesity, and is striving to come up with innovative, reformulated healthier products.
"In every strategic plan of every food company in France and the US, obesity is top of the agenda," he said.
Rayner suggested that they could go even further, perhaps assigning a board member to be specifically responsible for health issues, and that companies should publish their policies on fat, transfats, sugar and salt, outlining standards they aim to achieve across their whole product portfolio.
Martin also suggested that education of children, from a very early age, is crucial - and the food industry could play a role in this.
Madelin picked up on this: "We must ensure that people who are being born this year understand nutrition and physical activity in a way that by the age of 10 they are behaving differently to those who are going to be 10 years old this year."
The panelists plan to meet again a year's time, to review the situation and see if any progress has been made.