Food firms moving in right direction

Related tags Food industry Nutrition

Proposals to tax fatty foods, under discussion at the World
Economic Forum in Davos last week, were once again strongly
rejected by food makers, who highlighted the progress already made
by their industry.

A special session devoted to the obesity problem was attended by Unilever chairman Antony Burgmans, US health secretary Tommy Thompson and other consumer and charity representatives.

Ed Mayo, chief executive of the UK's National Consumer Council (NCC), said that corporations bear some responsibility for the problem. Because of rising health costs, he said, "we're essentially subsidising the food industry to peddle junk food to kids. It seems to me bizarre to rule out any one tool."

However, Burgmans disagreed vigorously. "We tried tax with tobacco and it didn't work."

Instead the food industry saw a vote of confidence from the US health official Tommy Thompson, who said that companies like Unilever, Pepsi and Coke had all voluntarily changed their products andpractices to respond better to health concerns.

"Good quality foods right now are good for the bottom line,"​ he said. Unilever, for example, was asked to reduce trans-fatty acids and in response eliminated them altogether. Regulation, however, is the wrong road to follow and there is no need to raise taxes to convince food manufacturers to create healthier products, argued Thompson.

The US response was unsurprising given its recent stance on the World Health Organisation's diet strategy report. The report, which advocates lower consumption of sugar, fat and salt and proposes that governments offer incentives for makers of health foods, has faced considerable pressure from US industry and government.

This, in spite of facts higlighted by Thompson at the session in Switzerland : in 1991, no US state had an obesity rate higher than 14 per cent, while today, no state except Colorado has an obesity rate lower than 15 per cent.

But industry leaders such as PepsiCo are doing much to improve health, he said. PepsiCo now generates 60 per cent of its revenues from healthy foods, versus 40 per cent a few years ago.

The food industry does however need better labels to tell consumers which elements a product contains, said Burgmans. "That is an area where we can remarkably improve."

Regulation on health claims, under discussion in the European Parliament this week, could go some way to improve the marketing of health foods but the food industry is hoping that the Commission's original draft sees a significant number of amendments.

Article 4, preventing health claims on foods that do not meet the required nutrient profile, has received heavy criticism from the industry. This could see staples, such as bread, prevented from targeting healthy eaters due to a high salt content, for example. Parliament is expected to vote on the regulation in the first week of March.

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