New voluntary labelling initiatives, a tighter advertising code and increased investment in innovation could be on the way for food manufacturers as the European Commission, along with a dozen stakeholders, launches a platform to curtail the rising numbers of obesity in Europe, reports Lindsey Partos.
Fresh figures released yesterday show in excess of 200 million adults across the EU may be overweight or obese.
And the number of European kids overweight is rising by a hefty 400,000 a year, according to the data from the International Obesity Task Force (IOFT), one of the stakeholders contributing to the new platform.
The European food industry has also been plucked out by Brussels to participate in the platform that brings industry, consumer groups, health experts and political leaders together to discuss voluntary actions to combat obesity.
For the moment, self-regulatory notions will guide discussions. Food industry fears that the Commission might eventually draw up legislation proposals for food, particularly on labelling and advertising, may not be realised, at least not for now.
"My preference is not to have to regulate," the health and consumer protection Commissioner Markos Kyprianou told the press conference.
But he cautioned that if nothing comes out of the platform forum, or other European initiatives, "there is the possibility of action for legislating".
Obesity, defined as a Body Mass Index over 30, is a risk factor for a host of (expensive)illnesses including heart disease, hypertension and respiratory disease. According to the Commission, obesity accounts for between 2 to 8 per cent of healthcare costs in Europe.
Regular working groups will look at the fields of consumer information and education and promotion of physical activity, they will also investigate the composition of food and portion sizes, as well as marketing and advertising.
Kyprianou's initiative has the backing of the food industry, with the CIAA, the voice of the €600 billion food and drink industry in Europe, representing industry in platform discussions.
Jean Martin, president of the CIAA and a signatory of the platform, believes industry is "part of the solution" to fight obesity.
"There is no bad food or good food, but there are bad diets and good diets," he tells FoodNavigator.com. Educating the consumer, he says, is the industry's "duty".
Criticisms that the food industry is on board the platform to avoid the threat of legislation are swiftly denied by Martin. "We believe we can be effective without it, and we don't think legislation is necessary," he adds.
As the 'window' to a food product, labels will come under some scrutiny at the stakeholder forums, along with methods to improve presentation of the nutritional value of a foodstuff.
Martin is in agreement that labelling is key to educating the consumer. "Nutrition labelling we do well, and can do better," he says, adding that labelling has got to be expanded.
But the traffic light system, that alerts the consumer to high, medium or low levels of key nutrients, he vehemently believes is not the way forward."Its simplistic, confusing and will never help the consumer improve their diet".
Indirectly, the launch of the platform compounds the place of the increasingly powerful market for health promoting foods.
"The challenge is to come up with health products that are just as tasty," said Commissioner Kyprianou yesterday.
Food manufacturers are already tapping into the growing trend for health positioned products. French consumers alone spent €360 million on functional foods and drinks in 2002, with Datamonitor forecasting spending to rise by 40 per cent to €506 million in 2007.
Market analysts Datamonitor claimed earlier this year that the numbers of functional food consumers in major European markets are growing each year by around 6 to 7 per cent.
With the European food industry spending an approximate 3 to 4 per cent on R&D, new product design to formulate foods that push health benefits will play a fundamental role.
Advertising and marketing of foods are also on the platform's agenda; Kyprianou is confident "we will come up with a solution".
Representing the World Federation of Advertisers, and a further signatory to the platform Stephan Loerke told the press conference: "We recognise the responsibility we have to rising obesity levels and there is a willingness on our side to be part of the constructive solution."
Too early to disclose details, the WFA told the press conference it will "revisit codes of advertising to children". In national states there are already signs that change is underway. A recent report from Mintel shows a significant difference in some advertisers' spending on promoting their products to children.
Masterfoods, for example, spent €8.21 million on promoting its Mars bar tin UK children's media in 2000, but this had dropped by a massive 71.4 per cent by 2003, to €1.72 million - a change attributed to growing consumer concerns about health.
Using the stakeholder working groups of the platform as a means to formulate a set of action plans, Kyprianou hopes the initiative will act as a catalyst for the launch of fresh actions in member states to fight obesity.
The Commissioner said yesterday he was looking for an agreement on the new self-regulatory standards by 2006, although an exact timeline has yet to be published.