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U.S., European food groups back U.N. diet plan

Sugar industry lobbyists may still stall a U.N. diet campaign against obesity, despite last-minute backing for it from two of the world’s largest food business groups, health sources say.
/ Source: Reuters

Sugar industry lobbyists may still stall a U.N. campaign against obesity, despite last-minute backing for it from two of the world’s largest food business groups, health sources said on Wednesday.

The announcement late on Tuesday by the U.S. Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) and the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the European Union was a boost to those pressing for approval of the blueprint by the World Health Organisation’s annual assembly.

The plan, on which debate is due to begin later on Wednesday, recommends people limit intakes of fats, sugar and salt -- blamed for a surge in cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers around the world.

These chronic diseases account for nearly 60 percent of the 56.5 million deaths a year worldwide that are deemed preventable, according to the WHO.

The U.S. and European food groups called the campaign “an important step forward in improving nutrition, promoting physical activity and combating obesity worldwide.”

According to the World Heart Federation, 1.1 billion adults and 22 million children under age five are obese worldwide, with over-eating or poor eating habits replacing malnutrition as a health problem in many developing nations.

Unlike the United Nations’ drive against smoking, the subject of the first-ever international health treaty which was approved at last year’s assembly, the move to get people to eat healthier food and take more exercise will not be legally binding on the WHO’s 192 member countries.

Moral message
But it sends a strong moral and political message, which is why, supporters say, the sugar industry and big sugar producers, such as Brazil and Mauritius, have expressed reservations.

Brazil, the world’s largest cane producer, has said it wants some amendments before the end of the assembly on Saturday. Delegates said the changes would be aimed at softening references to sugar in the 22-page text.

“I’m still not convinced that it (the plan) will not all go down the tubes,” said one delegate to the six-day meeting.

The blueprint was drawn up by WHO experts after long consultations with governments, health activists and the food industry. It was given provisional backing by the U.N. agency’s executive board in January.

But some consumer groups want to toughen it, saying it puts too much emphasis on individual choice and too little on the responsibility of the food industry. They also want stronger recommendations to curb junk food advertising aimed at children.

“The U.S. and the food industry have preferred provisions that focus on the responsibility of individuals rather than on corporate accountability,” said Kathryn Mulvey, executive director of U.S. consumer group Infact.

The United States strongly criticised an initial report by the WHO and the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), on which the plan was partially based, for suggesting sugar intake should be below 10 percent of daily calorie consumption.

Washington argued that there was no scientific basis for such an assertion, and the U.N. plan, which the United States has said it will support, sets no such guidelines.