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Sun, Jul 20, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Companies aim to meet demand for health foods

The war against fat has become a global conflict, and the rules of engagement seem to be changing: it's lawsuits in the US, while in EU regulations do the trick


Been to Germany lately? Every third child under age 12 and every fifth teenager there is overweight. How about Greece, land of the much-ballyhooed Mediterranean diet? More than 70 percent of adult men and women in that nation are above their ideal size. The Middle East? About 60 percent of the women in Egypt are overweight.

The problem of excess consumption has spread to every corner of the globe, except for pockets of Africa. The US, in other words, no longer enjoys a competitive advantage when it comes to corpulence.

Americans -- 61 percent of whom are overweight -- may take comfort in the fact that they are not the only ones packing on the pounds. But multinational food companies could soon find themselves carrying the increasing weight of the world upon their corporate shoulders.

For food companies, the stakes could be large. Last year, US companies exported 11.8 billion euros (US$13.22 billion at current exchange rates) of agricultural products to the EU, everything from cranberries and candy bars to cereals and sodas. It's not at all certain that corporations can satisfy shareholder hunger for growth and still fulfill demands by regulators to sell smaller portions and healthier foods.

Unhealthy exports

The message to consume less is hardly a capitalist notion. Food companies grow by selling to more people, or convincing existing customers to eat more. They don't have a lot of potential for expansion left in the US, said Marion Nestle, chairwoman of the nutrition and food studies department at New York University and author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (University of California Press, 2002). Because of that, she said, American companies have been exporting the salty, sugary foods they are known for and undermining the generally healthier eating habits of other countries.

Unlike the US, Europe has a tradition of regulating problems away. Chances are small that the Bush administration will threaten food companies with more regulations. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration recently made it easier for companies to make health and nutrition claims on food. The EU, on the other hand, proposed a directive last week that would make it much tougher for companies to make such claims.

David Byrne, the health commissioner for the EU, seemed to catch the food industry by surprise on Wednesday when he proposed the regulations, which would prevent companies from marketing a food as having a health or nutrition benefit if it was also high in salt, sugar or fat. Byrne has not yet completed the profile of what foods would be affected, so executives say it is too early to panic. The rules, if passed by the European Parliament, would go into effect in 2005.

Still, if Byrne has his way, the makers of most processed foods, from snacks to soups, may be barred from saying the products are nutritious.

WHO involvement

In March, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a report that connected improper diet, along with a decline in physical activity, to a devastating rise in chronic diseases like heart conditions, diabetes, osteoporosis and cancer. By 2020, chronic diseases will account for nearly three-fourths of all deaths worldwide, the report said. This fall, the WHO will release a draft of recommendations to its 191 member states on how to address the problem, and it is expected to consider important issues for business, like nutritional labeling and marketing to children.

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