Almost one third of people living in the European Union are overweight and more than one in ten is now obese, according to European Association for the Study of Obesity. And the numbers of children who are overweight is set to rise from 20 per cent to 25 per cent by 2008, according to Datamonitor.
These statistics have demonstrated the need for action by European governments but there is as yet little implementation of public policy to try to address the issue.
In Finland some firms use a 'traffic light' system with food labelling to allow consumers to identify healthy 'green' foods and 'red' bad foods. Other nations are in favour of subsidising healthy food and increasing taxes on unhealthy food but this has met with significant opposition from the food industry.
The new project, called Porgrow, is being led by Dr Erik Millstone from the University of Sussex in the UK, who has previously influenced UK government policies on food additives and BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis).
Next week he will meet senior public health representatives from nine European countries at Sussex University's Science and Technology Policy Research Unit to launch a cross-national comparative study.
"What we're doing is trying to capture perspectives from divergent approaches to see which mixes of policies might be effective in which countries," explained Dr Millstone. "It would be unrealistic to think that we could produce one set of policies that would work in all countries, but I hope this study will help to halt this juggernaut of obesity that's rolling over Europe."
He added: "The UK has one of the highest rates, affecting nearly a quarter of the population. Some of the other countries haven't reached that level yet, but they have faster growing rates of obesity. This is particularly true among the new members of the European Union, especially those in eastern Europe."
Finland, France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Poland, Hungary and Cyprus are also taking part in the study, backed by a £153,000 grant.