Wed, Feb 11, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Science behind obesity campaign under attack

FOOD FIGHT Developing nations said the proposal, which labels various food items as good or bad, was unscientific and imposed arbitrary diet restrictions

AP , ROME

A group of developing countries rejected the science driving the UN's effort to fight obesity worldwide, saying the dietary recommendations are based on flawed research and "not worthy of serious consideration."

The scientific report underpinning the global obesity strategy recommends that countries strive to limit their people's intake of sugar and fat while encouraging increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. The report, which has been heavily criticized by the sugar industry, was being reviewed on Monday by a key committee of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Worried that changes in eating patterns could harm agriculture, the Colombian delegation, speaking on behalf of the G77 group of developing nations and China, told the agency on Monday that the report was shoddy and that the answer was better nutrition education, not arbitrary limits of specific types of food. That argument mirrors what sugar and other food industry representatives contend.

The UN food organization, together with another UN agency, the World Health Organization (WHO), is building an unprecedented strategy aimed at reducing the worldwide burden of obesity-linked diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The scientific report behind the strategy is considered to be the most significant statement in more than a decade on what the world should be doing about its diet.

The strategy, which is supposed to be finalized in May at the annual meeting of the governing body of the WHO, was launched in response to a mass of evidence that illnesses caused by bad diet and lack of exercise are no longer just the preserve of the Western world.

The proposals to governments include pushing manufacturers to make deeper cuts in fat, sugar and salt content and changes to advertising and tax policy to promote healthier eating.

The International Obesity Task Force, an independent expert group whose chair headed the scientific panel, stood by the findings and said criticisms were a ploy to delay adoption of the plan.

The US, which has been accused of kowtowing to the food industry, welcomed the strategy at a key UN meeting last month but asked that governments be given a further month to examine it and comment on it before it is adopted.

At the time, US Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the extra month was needed to ensure there was "more scientifically-based evidence in the guidelines."

The US delegation did not speak on the scientific report at the meeting in Rome, other than to say that "the United States supports limiting intake of ... sugar in the United States. However, numeric goals should be associated with individual intake and supported by a scientific basis."

objections

The objections by the G77 and China mark the first time that developing countries have publicly attacked the recommendations.

"For the sake of better nutrition and health safety, the members of the G77 are open to proposals for changes in the prevailing diets, provided that such proposals are science-based ... causing no harm to the prevailing food production system, food processing and food trading practices," the Colombian delegation said.

"Regretfully, it is the view of the G77 that the ... report fails the test of scientific rigor, objectivity and fairness," the group said. "Any uniform or `one size fits all' diet is an illusory concept and not worthy of serious consideration."

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