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EU health chief wants food labels to fight fat

The European Union's health commissioner wants to fight rising obesity by adding information about salt, fat and sugar to  food labels, despite strong opposition.
/ Source: Reuters

The European Union's health chief wants to introduce tougher food labeling rules to combat the growing problem of obesity across Europe, but is facing stiff political and industrial opposition.

EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou is due to unveil plans on Wednesday that would require food and drink companies to shake up labeling procedures and detail energy, sugar, salt and fat contents on the front of the packages they produce.

In an interview with Reuters last year, Kyprianou described obesity as "the greatest health threat facing the EU."

"General labeling ... and nutrition labeling is an established way for providing information to consumers to support health conscious food choices," reads the plan's latest draft, obtained by Reuters.

"Labeling can be strengthened as a means to support a consumers' ability to choose a balanced diet," it says.

According to the World Health Organization, obesity has more than tripled in most EU countries since the 1980s with the number of obese or overweight children rising from 14 million in 2005 to 22 million in 2007.

But Kyprianou is under intense industry pressure, notably from the alcohol sector — and also some EU governments — to water down his proposals before a key vote on the blueprint at a meeting of the 27-strong European Commission on Wednesday.

Industry angry
The Confederation of Food and Drink Industries — CIAA — representing companies such as Nestle, Kraft and Coca-Cola, favors a more self-regulatory approach and is especially unhappy with the "front of pack" requirement.

"We believe ... that the provision of information concerning a minimum 5 nutrients on front of pack is too much, and that it falls into the trap of 'too much information kills information,"' CIAA said in a letter sent to Kyprianou.

"Industry would like to remain in a position to take self-regulatory initiatives," said the letter.

The draft proposals exempt alcohol from declaring salt, sugar and fats, although do call for mandatory labeling of energy content for alcohol.

But the alcohol lobby want a complete exemption from all the rules and the European Spirits Organization — which includes Diageo and Pernod Ricard — is angry at Kyprianou's concession to the wine industry.

"It provides for specific rules to be adopted for beer and spirits whilst it foresees an exception from ingredient list labeling for wine," the draft proposal says.

A senior Commission source said Kyprianou had "a battle on his hands" and "may be forced to compromise on many points."

But an official close to Kyprianou, who has up until now shied away from mandatory rules for industry in his fight against obesity, said the Cypriot commissioner would not yield.

"He is very serious about this and will push very hard on every point. The issue of obesity is non-negotiable as far as he is concerned," the official said.