Ultimatum on Europe's Growing Waistlines

The EU has given the food industry three years to make its products healthier or it could face tougher regulations

In the popular European imagination, the bureaucrats of the European Union are seen as constantly interfering in citizens' diets, dictating the acceptable curvature of different classes of bananas and banning so-called "feta" cheese if it's not made in Greece.

Now European Union officials are taking new steps to promote healthy eating in the 27-member bloc, warning producers of fatty foods to shape up -- or face regulation.

European Union Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou Wednesday issued an ultimatum to Europe's food and drink industry, giving it three years to take action against obesity. "Industry must realize that time is running out if we are to get results at EU level," he told a news conference. "We have given them enough incentive to become more energetic and involved, or risk legislation." The EU wants the food industry to make a bigger effort to cut levels of sugar, fat and salt in processed foods.

Kyprianou emphasized, however, that he prefered self-regulation by the industry over legislation, saying he believed it "gets quicker results."

The European Commission also unveiled proposals Wednesday for revising nutrition labeling on food products, promoting healthy eating programs, and tightening advertising standards on unhealthy processed food. It also wants sports organizations to encourage youngsters to do more physical exercise.

The moves are in reaction to increasing obesity among EU citizens. More than 15 million people in the EU are technically obese or overweight, out of a total population of 490 million, while an estimated 3 million schoolchildren are now obese. The new plans follow the model of an "obesity platform" set up by the European Commission in 2005, which brings industry, consumer groups and health experts together in attempts to combat obesity and which favors self-regulation over a legislative approach.

Consumer groups, who have called for a more pro-active approach from Brussels, were critical of the new initiatives. "It seems that the Commission has taken the easy way out by adopting a voluntary approach," said Jim Murray, director of the European consumers' organization BEUC.

Unsurprisingly, groups representing the food industry welcomed the plans. "It's not about good and bad food, it's about good and bad diet," said David Zimmer, general secretary of the Association of the Chocolate, Biscuit and Confectionery Industries.

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