Delegates to the Annual Obesity Europe conference, which will be held in Brussels next month, will be warned that they could face product liability claims unless they increase their efforts to educate consumers about health issues.

Ursula Schliessner, a European food and product safety expert with law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge, will tell delegates that the widespread lack of knowledge surrounding health and dietary issues could carry legal ramifications for food manufacturers. 

"The lack of consumer awareness and inertia right across Europe on food, both as regards nutrition as well as food handling and hygiene, is alarming and increases the legal risks of doing business," Schliessener cautioned. 

In a UK study, Schliesserner said, only 7% of consumers were aware of the recommended daily level of fat, protein and carbohydrates. While an EU-wide survey of attitudes to risks found that only one-in-four consumers made the connection between their health and the food they eat. 

"Under current law, products are considered unsafe and defective if they do not comply with the law and do not provide the characteristics that 'averagely well informed' consumers may expect," said Schliessner.

"If that 'average' standard of knowledge progressively decreases, but simultaneously consumer expectations increase because of the on-going obesity debate, then this seriously increases the risks of claims being brought whether they are successful or not."

Schliessner has suggested that to circumvent the risk of legal action the food industry must step-up its efforts to increase product information. "Although in many cases there is no legal obligation to put calorie amounts and other nutritional information on food packaging, this might nevertheless be a worthwhile investment for industry to think about.

"But it is not the responsibility of the industry to teach parents and children on how to better eat and live.  The industry can inform but should not teach.  The education part is a public responsibility and must be done by governments, authorities, the health system and schools.

 "It's also not enough just to tell people that eating the wrong things leads to ill-health - we have to make sure they can tell what the wrong things are and that they then act accordingly.  If this is not done, consumers will claim that they had no information by which to judge the nutritional value of a particular item of food, that they did not understand the information they had been given, or that they thought industry had taken care of things." 

Schliessner intends to urge the food industry to increase the pressure on public bodies to combat obesity.