Food makers under the eye of WHO

Related tags Nutrition World health organisation

Executives from global food and drink firms continued talks on
their role in global health at a WHO meeting last week. The
industry is under increasing pressure to support health in a
climate of new regulations, legal actions and consumer demand.

Executives from food and drink firms including Coca Cola, Nestle and Kraft Foods continued talks on their role in global health at a meeting with the World Health Organisation (WHO) last week.

The WHO is campaigning to improve the worsening statistics on chronic disease around the world, for which diet is often at least partly responsible.

The meeting held in Echenevex, France on 17 July, followed up on roundtable talks between former WHO director-general Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, and CEOs and senior executives, in May.

The WHO wants the food and drink industry to promote healthy diets by reducing fats, sugar and salt in their goods, although it seems that the threat of legal proceedings may be responsible for recent industry announcements promoting the healthiness of their foods rather than a direct reply to health organisations.

The focus on the food industry's role in public health has certainly grown in recent months, particularly in the US, with class actions against firms such as fast food giant McDonalds holding the company responsible for dangerous levels of obesity in customers.

New labelling regulation on trans fats, thought to contribute to risk for heart disease, has seen many multinational food makers act to promote foods without trans fats, or claim that they are reducing their use of trans fats, although some attribute this to the threat of legal action.

In any case, the WHO seems determined to press ahead with its agenda, and is currently preparing a Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health for presentation to World Health Assembly in May 2004. A draft version of the report caused heated industry response when it was released earlier this year, and the final strategy is unlikely to have changed much.

Marketing and advertising issues are also under scrutiny, with representatives from Cadbury Schweppes, the Coca Cola Company, the Confederation Food & Drink Industries, Kraft Foods, McDonald's Europe, Masterfoods, Nestlé, Novartis Consumer Health (Infant/Baby), PepsiCo, Procter and Gamble, Royal Ahold and Unilever discussing these concerns at the recent meeting.

Strict health claims regulation soon to come into force in Europe is likely to give the WHO further support for its health strategy, although across the Atlantic it seems that this area has become more flexible. The WHO does however note that the majority of chronic disease problems now occur in developing countries.

Cardiovascular disease, cancers, diabetes, respiratory disease, obesity and other noncommunicable conditions account for 59 per cent of the 56.5 million global deaths annually, and almost half, or 45.9 per cent, of the global burden of disease, according to WHO figures.

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