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Food producers in France are backing a government campaign to encourage healthy diets, but the industry argues that a wider national response is required to persuade consumers to fight obesity effectively. Peter Crosskey reports.

Since the beginning of this month, all food advertising in France must carry one of four standardised health messages, as part of the second phase of the French national nutrition and health plan PNNS2 (just-food, 13 September). Any advertisements not featuring these government-drafted texts now pays a 1.5% penalty to the health education agency INPES (Institut National de Prévention et d’Education pour la Santé).

French food manufacturers’ association ANIA (Association Nationale des Industries Alimentaires), represents 23 national federations and 15 regional associations and speaks for the country’s food industry. It is recommending that members apply the health messages, on the grounds that it is more responsible to comply than to be taxed for omitting government health messages.

In practice, however, the requirement is little more than a nod in the direction of a growing national problem. It requires a wider national response for the food industry’s contribution to be effective, ANIA argues.

In France, consumers are expected to carry a greater degree of responsibility for their decisions than might be assumed elsewhere. Product liability is rigorously enforced in the case of faulty goods, but the consequences of overindulgence would not generally be blamed on manufacturers.

Taste, food safety and traceability top the list of what French consumers expect from food manufacturers. Detailed dietary information is present on packaging, but manufacturers cannot decide what the buying public eats in a day.

“It is necessary to educate consumers and promote a healthier lifestyle. To us, it would be more responsible to take on the problem of obesity in its entirety,” observes ANIA president Jean-René Buisson.

All four required texts start with the words “For your health…” and continue by urging consumers to “…eat at least five [portions of] fruit or vegetables a day,” or “…undertake regular physical activity.” The two other recommendations are to avoid eating foods which are “…too fatty, too sugary or too salty,” and “…avoid snacking between meals.”

Some ANIA members have reservations about the real impact of these messages on consumers as well as the way they are to be applied. Is advertising really the best place for these messages? Or is it just the cheapest way to get someone else to pay for their transmission?

The whole food industry, including ANIA, is fully committed to PNNS2 and the aims of improving the nation’s health in the face of daunting odds. In fact, the government looks on the food industry as an unofficial partner in the implementation of PNNS2.

There have been changes to product formulations to cut sugar, salt and fat levels to help to make existing products healthier. However, this is only part of the solution, since a far wider health education programme is required.

“Our work on the formulation of foods on offer is only a small part of the action that needs to be taken to improve peoples’ eating habits,” stresses Buisson. “ANIA reminds all concerned that to resolve the problem of obesity and its consequences, it is necessary to work as far upstream as possible on all its factors. Therefore it is vital to pay close attention to public nutritional education.”

Should the French nation fail to heed or act on health warnings, there is very little chance that any good will come of reducing fat, salt and sugar levels in food products, either.