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updated 1/19/2005 6:18:59 PM ET 2005-01-19T23:18:59

The food industry has been given a year to stop advertising junk food to children and improve product labeling or face possible legislation in the European Union.

Markos Kyprianou, EU health and consumer affairs commissioner, warned in an interview with the Financial Times that urgent action was needed to tackle Europe's obesity problem, particularly among the young.

Kyprianou believed self-regulation in the food industry was the quickest and most effective way to tackle the problem. But he warned the European commission would resort to legislation if progress proved disappointing.

He said: "The signs from the industry are very encouraging, very positive. "But if this doesn't produce satisfactory results, we will proceed to legislation."

The commission can initiate legislation under rules covering the EU single market it recently banned newspaper tobacco advertising under these rules or on consumer protection grounds.

Brussels also wants to encourage initiatives to promote healthy lifestyles, involving national governments, the food industry and health bodies.

Kyprianou said that until recently Europe "considered obesity to be a U.S. problem ... we made fun of Americans in a way. It is a European problem now."

A recent report showed the condition was a problem across Europe, worse in some southern countries normally associated with a healthy Mediterranean lifestyle than in the north. It found that 36 per cent of nine-year-olds in Italy were obese.

The CIAA, the food industry's umbrella group in Europe, said it was already working with the commission to develop new proposals for more rigorous advertising and labeling regimes.

"There is a need for improvement but there is no magical solution for doing this in practical terms," it said, adding it would be pressing for self-regulation rather than legislation. The US food industry is already changing its practices in response to pressure from health campaigners. Kraft Foods said last week it would stop marketing products such as popular Oreo biscuits directly to children.

Kyprianou said he wanted other companies which sell products with high fat, sugar or salt content to follow suit. "I would like to see the industry not advertising directly to children any more," he said.

He also urged food manufacturers to adopt clearer labeling "more easily understood by a consumer who doesn't have a PhD in chemistry". The commissioner will announce a new "platform" in March with the food industry to agree the new self-regulatory standards, which he hoped would produce commitments by the end of this year, or early 2006. In the UK, initiatives are being discussed to cut television advertising of junk food to children.

© The Financial Times Ltd 2013. "FT" and "Financial Times" are trademarks of the Financial Times.

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