BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European and U.S. health chiefs on Monday ruled out imposing new regulations on the food industry to fight obesity, in spite of concern that the problem is becoming a serious threat to health worldwide.
European Union Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou and Deputy U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar told Reuters they would not bring in laws such as those used to reduce smoking.
"The government can't tell someone what to eat. They can't say that something is tasty if it's not tasty," Azar said in an interview with Reuters television.
"The business case has to be there for healthy food. If there's not a business case for it, it won't happen."
Food and drink companies breathed a sigh of relief at the news that their industry was being left to regulate itself.
Last Friday, the United States and the EU launched an "obesity platform" which calls on stakeholders such as companies, health experts and consumer groups to finds ways to combat obesity.
As part of this initiative, the soft drinks industry on both sides of the Atlantic had already committed to a voluntary ban on advertisements aimed at children.
Nine soft drink companies including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Cadbury Schweppes have agreed to the ban, which will apply to ads in print media, and on websites and television shows aimed at children under the age of 12.
Two industry bodies, the Confederation of Food and Drink Industries (CIAA) -- the food industry's umbrella group in Europe and the Association of the Chocolate, Biscuit & Confectionery Industries in the EU (CAOBISCO) welcomed the news.
"Industry does not forget that authorities can still regulate and this is an excellent stimulus for us to do this properly," said a spokesman for the CIAA, which represents companies such as Unilever and Coca-Cola.
CAOBISCO, which represents firms including Cadbury Schweppes and Nestle, said the public needed to be educated about the issue, rather than focusing on the companies.
"It is not about good or bad food, but about good and bad diet," CAOBISCO general secretary David Zimmer said.
Three-hundred million adults worldwide are technically obese or overweight, including 14 million in the 25-nation EU. Of the total, more than 3 million are children, a figure that is increasing at a rate of 400,000 a year.
Obesity-related illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes, account for up to 7 percent of health care costs in the EU, official data show. In some member states, more than a quarter of the adult population is obese.
"Obesity is a time bomb which is a real threat to the people of the world," Kyprianou told a joint news conference earlier with Azar.
Asked whether he was willing to ban unnecessary sugar and salt additives in the same way as the EU was trying to ban smoking in public places, Kyprianou said there was no need.
"I don't know if I will name and shame but I will definitely name and praise," he said.
"I said that from the beginning last year that I will not hesitate to come out and specifically mention companies and industries that have made positive commitments, which is just as important."
The European Parliament will vote on Tuesday on new rules regulating health nutrition claims on food and drink products.
If the Parliament agrees, from 2007 products will require clear definitions for claims such as "low fat," "high fiber" and "reduces cholesterol." At present, the only barriers relate to weight-loss claims made on diet products.