UN Expert Calls for Regulations on Unhealthy Foods

17/09/2011 - The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has called for counter-efforts to the promotion of unhealthy, processed foods, the advertising of which especially impacts children.

Yesterday, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter, called for taxes to be introduced on the unhealthy foods and for regulations on harmful marketing practices. Unhealthy eating and its consequences lead to the deaths of roughly 3 million adults every year.

On Monday, a high-level General Assembly session on non-communicable diseases will begin, ending on Tuesday. Non-communicable diseases include chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and lung diseases. Such conditions are much more associated with lifestyle choices and the consumption of processed foods than with other factors.

Unhealthy diets are one of the key drivers of rising public health care expenditures in member countries of the  Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Expenditures in this sector have risen 40 per cent of the past decade.

"It is crucial for world leaders to counter food industry efforts to sell unbalanced processed products and ready-to-serve meals too rich in transfats and saturated fats, salt and sugars. Food advertising is proven to have a strong impact on children, and must be strictly regulated in order to avoid the development of bad eating habits early in life," said Mr. De Schutter.

These ideas appear to be gaining some momentum. Last month, a series of articles in the respected medical journal,The Lancet, urged governments to tax unhealthy foods and limit advertising to children in order to curb the obesity epidemic. According to one of the studies, 1.5 billion adults are overweight, while another 500,000 are obese.

In the province of Ontario, a new healthy eating policy came into effect this month. The policy requires  all school boards to moderate food sold on campus. Snacks like chips and candy will be taken off the shelves, as 80 per cent of school menus must now include items with the highest level of essential nutrients and lowest quantity of fats, sugars and salt. However, there will be a 10-day allowance for times such as pizza days, when not all of these regulations must be strictly observed.

In Ontario, 28 per cent of children aged two to 17 are obese. Less than half of adolescents consume the daily recommended number of fruits and vegetables.

While other countries, including the United Kingdom, have restricted junk food advertising to children, most countries in the developing world have yet to do so.

South Africa's Minister of Health, however, is among those set to take on the junk food industry. The country's health ministry will use regulation to address advertising campaigns for unhealthy foods that are geared at children, possibly including a ban on toys that are often given away with fast-food children's meals.

Minister Aaron Motsoaledi was speaking at a summit on non-communicable diseases in Johannesburg this week. Fast-food companies will soon be banned from advertising unhealthy foods on television during children's shows. He also warned that fast-food companies that may have soon have to replace fatty options with healthy alternatives. The ministry will likely involve other government departments in hopes of developing innovative ways to make fruits and vegetables accessible and affordable to all families and their children.

High-sodium foods are among the products at the top of the priority list. White and black south Africans alike may consume nearly double the daily recommended intake of salt. High sodium consumption is linked to an elevated risk of high blood pressure. Salt content in bread and other foods will be regulated in an effort to combat heart disease. Though these changes will be gradually introduced over the next 5-10 years, it is expected that salt reduction in bread alone can save 6,500 lives every year.

Ensuring that families choose healthy meal options for their children is of growing importance, as too many children are at risk of contracting non-communicable diseases – diseases that can have chronic, or long-term, health impacts. Globally, these types of diseases account for 60 per cent of all deaths. By 2030, non-communicable diseases are expected to account for 75 per cent of worldwide deaths.

The World Heath Organization (WHO) estimates that 35 per cent of all deaths on the continent of Africa are from non-communicable diseases. In South Africa, 23 per cent of children are obese, making them more likely to have heart attacks later in life or suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure.

Next week's General Assembly session, only the second-ever to deal with health issues, will be attended by at least 34 heads of state, 50 government ministers and health specialists. As the UN Special Rapporteur warned, world leaders should not "miss a once-in-a-generation opportunity" to change practices and fill public policy gaps.