The European Commission yesterday adopted a white paper setting out a European strategy on nutrition, overweight and obesity, including plans to review progress in three years.
The white paper, presented by health commissioner Markos Kyprianou, builds on existing efforts to address the problem of obesity, including the EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, initiated in 2005, and green paper on promoting healthy diets and physical activity published the same year.
Its main purpose is to set out an integrated approach to reducing ill health as a result of poor nutrition, overweight and obesity across the EU.
The estimated prevalence of overweight in children in 2006 was 30 per cent, indicating a worsening trend of poor diets a low physical activity levels - which can be expected to increase chronic health conditions.
The paper sets out principles for action and advocates a partnership approach. But a key element is better-informed consumers, allowing them to make informed, evidence-based decisions about what foods to buy.
The commission is presently conducting a review of nutrition labelling, which it will propose as a stronger channel of communication to consumers. It also says that the new nutrition and health claims regulation, which entered into force in January this year, aims to ensure claims are evidence-based and not misleading or confusing.
With regard to advertising, it says that voluntary efforts to ensure adverts aimed at children are appropriate should be combined with rules at the level of individual member states, such as those recently implemented by the Office of Communication in the UK.
Moreover, it cites the review of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as having an effect on ensuring health options are available. For instance, the element relating to fruit and vegetables allows for surplus to be distributed to educational institutions and children's holiday centres.
The CIAA is referenced in the white paper for its 2006 survey indicating that one in three companies reformulated 50 per cent of their products in 2005 and 2006.
The Commission is planning a study in 2008 to explore the potential for reformulation of foods to reduce negative nutrients, given their role in chronic disease development. It is also intending to form partnerships for salt reformulation campaigns and others campaigns aimed at general improvements to the nutrient content in manufactured foods across the EU.
"What consumers eat is up to them, but they should be able to make informed choices, and have a range of healthy options available to them" said Kyprianou. "That is why the Commission is reviewing the options for nutrition labelling, and calling on industry to advertise responsibly and reduce levels of salt, fats and sugar in food products."
He added: "Given the urgency of the matter, it is better to try with self-regulation at first and see, in 2010, if there is a need for legislation."
The CIAA has welcomed the white paper, but did not actually mention the approach to reformulation in its statement. Rather, welcomed the emphasis on the importance of encouraging physical activity, and said it "supports the Commissions' intentions to take pro-active steps to reverse the decline in physical activity levels in recent decades".
The food industry has fought against being seen as a scapegoat for obesity, advocating action in partnership with governments and educational bodies.
The white paper has also been welcomed by the commerce sector, with Eurocommerce secretary general Xavier Durieu saying he hopes it will stimulate the development of more education programme in schools, since nutrition and healthy lifestyle education should start at an early age.
However the European Consumers Organisation BEUC was less enthusiastic, calling the white paper "a disappointing, unambitious and minimalist response to the problems of obesity and diet related diseases".
It says what consumers urgently need is simple and understandable on-pack labelling to help them make the most appropriate nutritional choices, since they cannot rely on advertising.
Promotion of foods high in fat, sugar and salt for children exerts pressure on parents, but the solution, it says, relies on the source of this pressure (ie advertising) in its solution.
"Reading the White Paper it seems that Mr Kyprianou and the Barroso Commission have already decided to leave much of the work to their successors - who will no doubt themselves wish to 'review the situation' before deciding what to do", said BEUC director Jim Murray.
"Like many slimming regimes the White Paper is built on false hopes and unrealistic expectations."