EU health commissioner Markos Kyprianou last week praised the food industry for its efforts to tackle obesity at a controversial press conference in Brussels. The Cypriot commissioner faced a barrage of criticism from journalists over his apparent endorsement of companies such as McDonald’s and Kraft that are still seen by many as the root of the obesity problem, but gave a vigorous defence of his actions. Chris Jones reports.

“I expected criticism,” Kyprianou said. “But I have been criticised by the food industry in the past for not doing enough to support them, so I am happy to praise them when they are making real efforts to reduce obesity. Everyone is part of the problem – food companies, parents, consumers, doctors, public authorities – but we can also be part of the solution if we work together.”

The companies praised by Kyprianou – McDonald’s, Kraft and Unilever – have all committed to take action via the European Commission’s Platform on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, launched in March last year to tackle the growing obesity problem. Up to 27% of men and 38% of women in the EU are considered obese, while the number of overweight children is growing by 400,000 a year and is currently more than 14 million.

Kyprianou shrugged off criticism that the commission should distance itself from the industry it is meant to be policing, arguing that working together was the best way to achieve successful – and rapid – results. “This is a new approach to a complex problem that cannot be solved through legislation. The EU legislative process can take years to complete, as we all know, and we need to act faster than that.” But he warned that self-regulation by the food industry had to be closely monitored to ensure that companies “do what they say will do”.

“We won’t hesitate to take action in the future if we think the system of self-regulation isn’t working,” he added. “It is entirely right for companies to want to make a profit – that is what their shareholders require. What we would like to see is companies linking their profits to greater social responsibility. I welcome the efforts of the companies here today to do this, and hope that other food industry players will choose to do the same.”

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Fastfood chain McDonald’s was praised for its EU-wide nutritional labelling campaign, which has seen the company publish guideline daily amounts (GDAs) for calories, protein, fat, carbohydrates and salt on all its packaging. “Commissioner Kyprianou has obtained measurable commitments from the food industry in a very short time, showing our willingness to be part of the solution,” said Denis Hennequin, president of McDonald’s Europe.

Kraft, meanwhile, was applauded for its efforts to change the way it advertises its brands to children, according to executive vice-president Marc Firestone. “We have committed to only advertising better-for-you products to children between the ages of six and 11, and have stopped all advertising to children under six altogether.”

Miguel Veiga-Pestana, spokesman for Unilever, told just-food that Kyprianou had congratulated the company for its efforts to reformulate its products, but that this was only a small part of the story. “We are taking action in a number of areas, including supporting health living through sponsorship of events such as the London Marathon. We want to show that this is not just demand driven – yes, we are listening to our consumers, but we are also thinking of new initiatives of our own that can, in turn, generate more demand.”

Veiga-Pestana warned that critics should not expect miracles, however. “You cannot expect things to change overnight – people need time to get used to different flavour profiles if you reformulate foods. But there is recognition from the EU that we cannot do this on our own. We are not passing the buck – but we do need to ensure that everyone is making changes.” This includes public authorities, medical practitioners and customers themselves, he added.

So if Unilever can reformulate its entire range of products to make them healthier, what happens to the so-called less healthy ones? “People have a right to choose what they want to eat,” said Veiga-Pestana. “They shouldn’t have to stop eating what they want, but they do need to understand the implications of doing so – a bit of indulgence is fine, but it shouldn’t be all the time. So the ‘original’ versions of healthier products are not likely to disappear altogether – although of course some may if consumption patterns shift far enough.”