GENEVA - Consumer groups accused the United
States on Friday of trying to sabotage a global fight against
obesity targeting junk food and soft drinks.
The World Health Organization (WHO) executive, which
includes the United States and 31 other countries, will debate
on Tuesday a plan drawn up by the U.N. agency after talks with
member states, nutritional experts and the food industry.
The Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health
says poor diets and lack of exercise are the leading cause of
illnesses including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain
cancers. These account for nearly 60 percent of 56.5 million
deaths a year deemed preventable.
As well as recommending lower intake of sugar, sodium and
artery-clogging trans-fatty acids, the WHO plan urges countries
to restrict food and beverage advertisements aimed at children.
It also suggests that governments gear their taxation and
subsidy policies to encourage healthy eating habits.
But activist groups charged that the U.S. administration,
under pressure from the domestic food industry, aims to weaken
the plan when it comes before the executive board, which meets
from January 19-24.
Senior U.S. health department official William Steiger, who
sits on the board, has challenged some of the findings of a
nutrition study carried out with the U.N. Food and Agriculture
Organization, which forms the basis for the strategy.
In an interview with the Washington Post on Friday, he
said: "We have a whole series of potential changes we'd like to
see... What's lacking is the notion of personal responsibility
as opposed to what the government can do."
LEAKED TO ACTIVISTS
In a letter to WHO chief Lee Jong-Wook, which was leaked to
activists, Steiger said the WHO-FAO report did not meet U.S.
scientific standards, including peer review criteria.
"The assertion that heavy marketing of energy-dense foods
or fast food outlets increases the risk of obesity is supported
by almost no data," his letter said.
"No data have yet clearly demonstrated that the advertising
on children's television causes obesity."
Steiger also said the WHO/FAO Report exceeded the two U.N.
agencies' mandates by addressing "broad areas of trade,
agricultural subsidies and advertising."
"The Bush Administration is putting the interests of the
junk food industry ahead of the health of people -- including
children -- on a global scale," Commercial Alert, a non-profit
group based in Portland, Oregon, said in a statement.
WHO officials said they expected a significant number of
lobbyists representing the Grocery Manufacturers of America and
the Sugar Association as well as food interests from other
countries to be in Geneva for the meeting.
"These tactics are reminiscent of the tobacco industry's
sinister efforts to oppose global anti-smoking initiatives,"
said the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public
Copyright 2004 Reuters Ltd