29 September 2004

--- Just a Concession

In overweight Britain, which is fast becoming Europe's "fat capital," more than 2/3rds of men and nearly 6 in 10 women are now so overweight that their health is at risk from conditions like heart diseases, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes. Like other industrialized environments, Britain has fallen into the trap of indolent lifestyles and junk food inclinations that has resulted into a nation suffering from an epidemic of weight-related diseases, which are already claiming 30,000 lives a year. According to their health service, only 16 percent of their men and 5 percent of their women take part in regular physical activity. It is an accepted fact by now that for those with "couch potato lifestyles," any extra calories consumed are converted into life-threatening fat.

There is something commendable about Britain's officials and I'd like to mention it here. Since they noted that there was an "obesity timebomb" ticking, they sought ways to defuse it immediately. Since May this year when the health select committee of the British parliament released its 146-page obesity report which you can read here in full, there was a palpable and concrete pressure felt on all society sectors to curb the obesity problem. The main target were obese children and adolescents. You can read the recommendations proposed by the British MPs and other health officials on the left panel (I got that from the BBC). You can also get the detailed full recommendations here.

As the campaign against obesity goes on, the food industry is beginning to feel the heat.

The Observer reported:

"... the tactics of the food industry became more apparent. Their intensive lobbying of government, right up to private seminars in Downing Street, was exposed. Faced with new EU regulations that would mean food labels having to show nutritional value, they fought a successful campaign to delay the scheme. Chocolate manufacturer Cadbury came to The Observer with a proposal for a 'good news' story about how it was helping schoolchildren become much healthier. Its Get Active Campaign encouraged them to collect tokens from chocolate bars in exchange for sports equipment. It had managed to get the scheme endorsed by no less than Richard Caborn, the sports minister, apparently with the backing of Tony Blair. But, as we revealed, it became clear that you would need to buy thousands of bars to get any equipment. This cynical approach appalled teaching organisations and health campaigners, and last week was still the subject of huge controversy within government."

In an open war against obesity, one cannot help but think of how this problem came to be. I have always believed that our actions are always predicted by the choices presented to us. Again, The Observer has noted that:

"Much of the controversy in recent years has centred on how much blame can be laid at the door of the junk food manufacturers and how much is down to sheer laziness. Currently in Britain, just 40 percent of men and 26 percent of women take enough exercise --- defined as 30 minutes of moderately intense physical activity on five or more days a week. In Australia and Finland, levels of physical activity are higher."

Enough talk already! I think both laziness (on the part of the people concerned) and the food industries' commitment to profits are to blame for the obesity problem.

The latest development in the anti-obesity campaign is the scrapping of king-sized chocolate bars and extra-large snacks by some of the Britain's biggest food manufacturers, foremost of which is the confectionery giant, Cadbury Trebor Bassett, which manufactures the larger versions of Mars, Snickers, Crunchie and Boost bars. Cadbury Trebor Bassett will no longer manufacture King-sizes in the second quarter of 2005. Cadbury is the world's 3rd largest softdrinks company. Other companies like Kraft Foods said it was developing "single-serve versions" of its cheese and snacks and reducing portion sizes. Nestle said it was also switching its focus to bite-size versions, such as mini-Rolos and KitKat Kubes.

In a previous development, and owing I think to public pressure, Britain's more than £66 billion Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which counts Cadbury Trebor Bassett, Coca-Cola and HJ Heinz as members, came up with a Food and Health Manifesto that sets to "reducing levels of sugar, fat and salt in products and providing lower salt, lower sugar and lower fat options where technologically possible, safe and acceptable to consumers."

This move has been described by British media as a concession to British authorities and

"part of the food and drinks industry's efforts to persuade the Government that tough new laws on issues such as labelling, advertising to children and school vending machines are unnecessary." [Telegraph]

If you ask me though, I welcome the "traffic-light system" of labelling food products. When food items are color-coded, it becomes easy for consumers to see which are harmful to their health and which are not.

Nutritional information labels --- the ones we have now --- are still crude. How many mothers and other buyers at supermarkets do you think look at the nutritional info labels of food products before buying them? A better question might be: Do they understand at all the impact on their health of the nutritional info labels?

As to the removal of the King-sized choco bars, I can see two possible outcome scenarios:
  • Filipinos need not worry about this because I'm sure Cadbury will dump any unsold or excess King-sized choco bars to the Philippines and other third world countries which hardly whimpers when "import goods dumping" occurs.

  • Just like population control (which will be a subject of another post), anti-obesity campaigns are not a priority of the present leadership here, and so, chocolates --- small, medium, large, and extra-large --- will always be welcome here.

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