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WHO: food, beverage companies' efforts to fight child obesity are inadequate print

By UTA HARNISCHFEGER | Associated Press
November 16, 2005

GENEVA - Efforts so far by the food and drink industry to improve the nutritional value of their products to fight childhood obesity are simply not good enough, the World Health Organization said Wednesday.

"The industry's efforts are commendable, but inadequate. They are only a drop in the ocean," Colin Tukuitonga, who oversees the WHO's global strategy on diet and physical activity, said before a meeting with representatives of the food and soft drink industry.

Some industry giants such as Kraft, Nestle and Unilever have recently reviewed their recipes and reduced the salt, sugar and fat content of some of their products. They have also pledged to change some of their advertising and marketing practices.

"These are selected companies doing one-off changes," Tukuitonga said. "They are making a genuine effort ... but we need an industrywide approach."

Wednesday's meeting is part of WHO's global strategy on diet and physical activity launched last year after health ministers from around the world approved the plan.

The agency believes profound changes in the way food is processed and marketed are essential to turning the tide of the growing obesity epidemic, which is predicted to cause millions of people worldwide to suffer early death or disability.

Officials want companies to make additional commitments or set specific targets.

"We are already doing a lot on a company level," said Nina Backes, spokeswoman at Nestle. "I am not aware that we will make a specific commitment toward the WHO."

Backes said Nestle has cut fat, salts and sugars in some 700 products in recent years and changed its labeling policy to provide additional information to the consumer.

Tukuitonga said he hoped the food industry "would voluntary agree on some self-imposed actions and targets," particularly for processed foods. "We are a long way from what we consider healthy foods," he said.

He said guidelines by WHO and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization recommend, for instance, that that each adult consume no more than 5-6 grams of salt per day. Consumption of salt around the world varies greatly, but the global average is at least double the recommended amount, officials say.

Neville Rigby of the International Obesity Task Force, a network of eminent obesity scientists and policy experts, lauded some companies for making "pretty strong statements," but said it was hard to monitor how they delivered on their pledges.

Kraft, for example, has pledged to reduce television commercials for snacks during prime time for children.

Tukuitonga said progress would be slow, but that the nature of food and drink makes it almost impossible and certainly very impracticable for WHO to impose binding rules, as it did with the global tobacco treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Rigby said WHO must aim at aligning food industry interests with its fight against child obesity.

"It is all about replacing junk food with healthy food ... and the industry stands to make a lot of money from that," Rigby said.

There are already anti-obesity drives in many countries. France has banned carbonated drinks and junk food vending machines from schools, and the Norwegian nutrition council has recommended a complete ban on junk food marketing to children.

About half a million children in Europe are suffering health problems of the middle-aged such as high blood pressure and raised cholesterol because they are too fat, according to new estimates by the obesity task force.


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