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Member of the European Commission, responsible for Health and Consumer Policy



Brussels, 18 November 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to attend, for the first time, the CIAA's biennial congress, and to have this opportunity to set out my views on how best to address, in particular, the epidemic of overweight and obesity in the European Union.

We aim to foster the creation of a smart, sustainable and inclusive European economy delivering high levels of employment, productivity and social cohesion.

In order to turn this vision into reality, we need – as an essential foundation – a fit and healthy population.

But as you will know very well, recent decades have seen a dramatic rise in the levels of overweight and obesity across the EU, in particular, and most worryingly, amongst children. Some 24% of European children are currently estimated to fall in one of these categories.

This situation is indicative of a worsening trend of poor diets and low physical activity levels across the EU population.

The upward trends are likely to provoke a future increase in a number of chronic conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes type 2 and hypertension.

Left unchecked, both the human and the economic costs could be nothing short of catastrophic.

In the long term, these trends could even have a negative impact on average life expectancy in the EU, as well as leading to reduced quality of life for those affected by overweight and obesity, or by related diseases.

Allow me now to focus on the Commission's regulatory initiatives that contribute to the overall effort of combating overweight and obesity – in which I know CIAA members take a very close interest.

First – food information to consumers. The Commission's proposal for a Regulation on food information to consumers has certainly prompted a great deal of debate amongst stakeholders, Members of the EP and government representatives.

Many areas of modern food production take place within the context of significant and rapid change and innovation. This means that we need to ensure that our approach to food information is proactive and forward-looking.

The Commission's vision is to provide general principles for all food information, both mandatory and voluntary, that allow sufficient flexibility to respond to future developments.

Consumers should be able to make informed choices about what they buy. The basic guiding principle of the regulator and the industry has to be a high level of protection of consumers' health and interests.

With these points in mind, I believe that nutrition information should be given on the front-of-pack on the majority of processed foods – and I am pleased that the first reading opinion of the European Parliament has supported the front-of-pack inclusion of nutrition information on energy, fat, saturates, sugars and salt.

Another important aspect of the Commission's food information proposal is that information on substances causing food allergies or intolerances must be provided on all food, either pre-packed or non-pre-packed and food sold in restaurants.

I will now turn to the Regulation on nutrition and health claims.

Claims made about foods clearly influence consumer choice. For this reason, the Regulation on nutrition and health claims makes it absolutely clear that such claims must not be false; must not be ambiguous; and must not be misleading.

Claims must be substantiated by science and authorised on lists of permitted health claims to ensure that consumers are protected from being misled.

As many of you will be aware, according to the Regulation, in order to bear nutrition or health claims, foods would also have to comply with specific nutrient profiles. This is to prevent foods too high in salt, fat or sugars from being promoted as a benefit to health.

To help consumers make healthier choices, this important part of the Regulation must be implemented, which is why the Commission will move on with setting nutrient profiles.

But of course, the Strategy is not just about legislation. Indeed, we could not hope to successfully address the multifaceted phenomenon of overweight and obesity solely though information. As time is short, I only want to highlight one specific tool which has been developed under the Strategy and which is of particular interest to members of the CIAA:

It is the EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, which, as you know, brings together different stakeholders, food producers, advertising companies, professionals associations NGOs and others to work in concert to fight overweight and obesity.

The number of commitments made by Platform members now totals 292. These commitments span a wide range of actions including:

  • improving consumer information;

  • promoting physical activity;

  • responsible marketing and advertising in particular towards children;

  • work on reformulation issues;

  • and finally activities on lifestyle and education.

I was pleased to see the positive outcomes of the evaluation of the Platform published in July, and in particular regarding the favourable assessment of the self-regulation initiatives in crucial areas such as advertising to children and food reformulation.

I would expect your support for a critical assessment of what is on offer for children – from the food industry, fast food outlets, in restaurants and in places for children's leisure.

Your activities should clearly include continuing efforts in food reformulation, portion size and food labelling – and also reinforcing the responsible marketing of food and beverages, in particular to children.

I expect Platform members to renew their commitments for 2011 – in the positive spirit of scaling up of activities – and I hope that members will create new synergies between their actions to reinforce their potential impact.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This year marks the half-way point of the Strategy for Europe on Nutrition, Overweight and Obesity-related health issues, which was adopted in May 2007.

It is a good time to take stock of progress – to see where we have succeeded and where more work is needed.

Together with the Belgian EU presidency, we will host a conference in December, where the mid-term progress report for the nutrition strategy will be presented, together with the Commission's vision for the remaining three years of the Strategy.

I encourage Platform members to contribute to the success of this event.

Finally, we all recognise we have a tremendous battle on our hands to curb and then reduce the rates of overweight and obesity in European society.

There is no single cause; there is no single solution.

Multiple and complementary efforts must continue to be made if we are to be successful. The food and drink industry is pivotal in this process and has to play its role to find a solution.

I look forward to continuing positive and constructive relations with you in the years to come.

Thank you.

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