Transatlantic Cooperation on Food Marketing, Labeling, & Nutrition Urged to Help Curb Obesity Epidemic
In response to sporadic pressure from regulators on either side of the Atlantic, food companies occasionally improve their labeling or marketing practices, or reformulate products to have a better nutritional profile. But the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is urging governments to pressure companies to make such improvements the standard practice in all countries in which they do business, rather than just doing the bare minimum to keep each country’s regulators at bay. The nutrition and food-safety watchdog group says that regulatory cooperation that spreads food companies’ best practices could help curb a growing global epidemic of obesity and diet-related disease.
“Food companies respond to ad hoc laws, regulations, and exhortations from American and European authorities, but tend not to export their nutritional or labeling improvements overseas,” said Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Some food companies maintain that it’s impossible to adopt one practice or another, when in fact, they’ve already done so in another country.”
In a report released today, CSPI found that in the United Kingdom, where sodium reduction has been a major priority of the government, General Mills has reduced the sodium content of Honey Nut Cheerios to 500 milligrams (mg) per 100 grams (g). In the U.S., the same cereal has 700 mg per 100 g, and the company has no plans to change. Similarly, Kraft reduced the salt content of Dairylea Lunchables in the UK by one-third but did not make corresponding reductions in the U.S. Dairylea Lunchables “Ham stack’ems” contains 800 mg of sodium per 100 g in the UK, while the U.S. equivalent product contains 1040 mg of sodium per 100 g.
In some cases, European consumers can’t enjoy advances made in the United States. Here, Masterfoods’ Mars candy bars have full nutrition information, but in Europe, the company lists only a handful of nutrients on labels. PepsiCo has placed limits on the calorie content of its single-serving Frito-Lay snack products sold in U.S. schools, but has not shown similar restraint with its Walker Crisps line sold in the UK. PepsiCo has begun to produce a smaller size package of chips in the UK that is directed to children.
In European countries where food marketing aimed at children has come under intense scrutiny, Coca-Cola has removed in-school branding on vending machines. In the U.S., the soda industry has not done that, but the American Beverage Association did urge its members to pull soda out of elementary schools (though it left the status quo largely intact in high schools). California and New Jersey acted on their own to remove most soda from all schools entirely over the next several years.
“We welcome advances in nutrition on either side of the ocean, but there’s no reason food companies can’t enact new policies consistently,” Silverglade said. “If American and European regulators cooperated and actively pursued a unified strategy against obesity and diet-related disease, companies would take notice.”
In 1998, the U.S. and the European Union (EU) agreed to work cooperatively on some trade issues with the formation of the Transatlantic Economic Partnership (TEP). To date, though, the only regulatory cooperation in the nutrition area involves narrow, technical projects, such as developing standardized testing methods for measuring nutrients in food. According to CSPI, the TEP could be used to help identify and implement best corporate practices on both continents.
CSPI co-chairs the food policy committee of the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD), a coalition of American and European consumer groups that makes recommendations to the U.S. and the EU on matters affecting consumer welfare and trade. The TACD is co-sponsoring a conference on transatlantic policy initiatives related to food marketing, diet and health on December 1-2 in Brussels Belgium. The conference, “Generation Excess II,” will examine how the U.S. and the EU are responding to the obesity crisis and related problems concerning diet and health.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed a global strategy for combating obesity and diet-related disease that includes recommendations on reducing partially hydrogenated oils, added sugars, and salt in processed foods and for curbs on junk-food marketing aimed at kids. The WHO also says that international collaboration is crucial, since many companies operate globally. The WHO strategy has been greeted more warmly by European regulators, who are beginning to recognize the seriousness of the obesity epidemic there, than by their counterparts in the Bush Administration.
“Regrettably, the Bush Administration has done very little to address obesity, unless you include its initial – and unsuccessful – opposition to the World Health Organization’s effort to develop a global anti-obesity strategy,” Silverglade said.
Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).