An EU-US conference on obesity, being held in Brussels today, will attempt to draw conclusions on whether industry self-regulation can work.
Hosted by the Commission, the conference will bring together officials, the food and drinks industry, advertisers, NGOs and representatives of civil society from the EU and US to compare good practices and set the basis for future cooperation on topics such as advertising, labelling and consumer education.
The Commission says that 14 million Europeans are obese or overweight, of which more than 3 million are children.
Obesity-related illnesses, which include heart disease and diabetes, account for up to 7 per cent of healthcare costs in the Union. In some Member States, over a quarter of the adult population is now obese.
"Europe's obesity crisis is every bit as severe as that of North America, with devastating public health and economic costs," said health and consumer protection commissioner Markos Kyprianou.
"A comprehensive strategy is needed to stem the rise in obesity in Europe, combining legislative and non-legislative initiatives.
"In parallel to the consultation launched by our Green Paper on Nutrition, our proposal on health claims and a review of food labelling legislation, the Commission is working with a wide range of players across the public, private and non-governmental sectors."
Kyprianou believes that the EU Platform on Diet, Physical Activity and Health is a good example of this. He said that the Platform had so far delivered 96 commitments for concrete actions.
"The Commission will be closely monitoring the implementation and impact of these pledges over coming months, before deciding on the next steps," he said. "I am sure the vast range of European and American expertise gathering in Brussels today will help us to drive ahead this process and put the brakes on this accelerating epidemic."
Deputy secretary Alex Azar of the US department of health and human services said that for the first time in history, people are challenged by excess of food.
"Meetings such as this EU-US conference on good practices for diet, physical activity and health give us the opportunity to share what practices and programmes we have found work and do not work in our different cultures, to learn from one another, and to help encourage all our peoples to adopt healthy behaviours and make smart lifestyle choices," he said.
The conference aims to tackle a number of key issues, including public/private partnerships for action on diet, physical activity and health. Delegates will discuss whether it is realistic to expect industry, NGOs, consumer groups and governments to work together on this subject.
In addition, the conference will look at how prepared industry is to reduce or adapt its marketing messages aimed at children, and how it can monitor the impact of initiatives in the long term. The conference also aims to pave the way for future EU-US joint work.
The EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, which was launched in March 2005, brings together 34 key players from the food industry and civil society to boost voluntary initiatives across the EU.
The Platform has now released summaries of its 2005 baseline and 2006 commitments for action. These represent a first set of 96 pledges its members have made to tackle obesity across the EU, including information campaigns to promote healthy lifestyles, reducing amounts of sugar and salt in food, improving nutritional information on packages and pledging not to market directly to children.