This article is part of our special report Food & Responsible Marketing.
Clearer food labelling and awareness-raising campaigns can help prevent an obesity epidemic in Europe, Liberal Romanian MEP Magor Imre Csibi told EURACTIV in an interview. But taxing high-fat foods is not part of the solution, he added.
Romanian MEP Magor Imre Csibi is a member of the ALDE group in the European Parliament.
What legislative initiatives can be taken at European level to combat the obesity epidemic?
Currently, at the European level, we are debating the regulation on food information for consumers. I consider this initiative from the Commission a very important piece of legislation in preventing obesity.
In the near future, the labelling of food products will provide consumers with clear and comprehensive information in order for them to choose the most convenient diet. Unfortunately, a first reading of that piece of legislation by the European Parliament was postponed until the next legislature.
Still, we need more action and initiatives, like for example to tighten up the regulatory framework for weight-loss products, putting greater legal emphasis on enforcing their effectiveness. I hope that in the near future the Commission will come up with an efficient proposal in this direction too.
What can be done at national level?
The national authorities should be serious in transposing European legislation and should carefully monitor its implementation. In addition, we need strong information campaigns, which should unfold in European cities in order to inform our citizens of the legislation and its benefits on the daily life of our citizens.
Nevertheless, we need to encourage EU citizens to do more sport. Regular physical activity will help reduce the number of overweight and obese persons.
Let us take for example cycling and walking, which are two simple forms of physical activity, affordable for the majority of the population. The only challenge for the authorities is to incorporate these forms of sport into the everyday lives of citizens.
By building more routes for bicycles and more green areas around the cities, we will make these sports more attractive.
Do food companies have a responsibility to help tackle obesity?
Yes. I will mention an important segment of the population, children. By 2010 in Europe, there will be 15 million obese children and adolescents. This is an alarming number. The food companies have to take responsibility for the significant influence they have on the behaviour of children. I refer especially to the advertising of the foodstuffs for children.
I can give you some positive examples in this regard. Eleven European major food and beverage companies committed themselves to change the way they advertise to children. They will help the parents in making the right diet and lifestyle choices for their children. At the same time, the children will not be so easily influenced by images and slogans. In the future, I hope that more companies will join this initiative.
Another example is the recent introduction by the majority of the food companies of the GDA (guided daily amount) labelling in the majority of European countries.
Should advertising of high-energy food be banned or curtailed in the way that cigarette and alcohol advertising is restricted?
I would suggest some solutions in this regard. I do not think that we will ever succeed in banning high-energy food, and in my opinion this is not a solution. First, we need to inform the citizens of the negative effects that excessive consumption of high-energy food will have on health.
Secondly, we should encourage the food and drinks industry to become more pro-active. As I already mentioned, the food industry must become aware of the impact which it has on people's food choices.
Thirdly, we must ban through legislation the misleading advertising for food products in what regards the beneficial effects which the consumption of some food can bring to the body.
Do you favour taxing high-fat foods?
I do not think this is the best solution. I believe that a clear food label will encourage the food companies to reduce the level of high fat in the products. This trend has already been proven in the UK, where food producers reduced the amounts of sugars, salt and fat in their products, after they voluntarily applied the traffic light or GDA label.
Would you support moves to levy/tax food companies to help pay for treating obesity-related illness?
I do not think that this is the best solution either. I believe that people should change their behaviour after having been informed properly by the authorities about the consequences of choosing an inadequate diet and of not doing sport in their daily lives.
An industry has grown up around weight-loss products, including low-fat foods and anti-obesity medications.
Do these have a role in controlling obesity or are you concerned that such medicines could be overused?
I believe that industry, manufacturers and retailers active on the weight-loss market have a positive role to play in obesity management should they responsibly manage consumer expectations and communicate openly and honestly with consumers about what constitutes healthy weight loss.
The market for these products is covered by different pieces of EU legislation. These different regulatory regimes require different scientific burdens of proof. Some are very tightly regulated and have to be based on robust and extensive clinical trial data, while some are not supported by scientific study.
The level of enforcement of these different pieces of EU regulation also varies from one member state to another, adding to the uncertainty regarding their effectivness. More effective legislation or better communication from responsible manufacturers have indeed important roles to play.
Do you think Europe needs an annual 'Obesity Day' in order to focus more attention on this issue?
I believe it is important to encourage overweight patients, the obese and the medical authorities from across Europe to come forward and express their opinions.
I believe that we should make legislation with the citizens for the citizens. I also believe that the time has come to recognise and to respond to the voice of Europe's growing obese and overweight population by the establishment of a European Obesity Day on 16 May each year, like in Belgium and Portugal.
Is there evidence that this has been effective in raising awareness of other health issues?
I did not look for evidence in this sense. But I believe that a European Obesity Day will raise awareness across the European Union on the epidemic proportions that obesity has reached.
At the same time, I am trustful that the people will become more aware of the benefits of physical activity in their daily lives and the importance of a healthy diet.