French government orders fast food to carry health warnings

Last updated at 17:30 01 March 2007

Less fat, less sugar, less salt - even the French are cracking down.

With processed snacks and fast food encroaching on France's tables and culinary traditions, the government fears the nation's youth face a growing risk of obesity.

It is ordering food ads to carry cautions to stop snacking, keep active and eat your fruits and vegetables.

The move affects advertisements on television, radio and billboards and the Internet for processed, sweetened or salted food and drinks.

The Health Ministry, which designed the measure, says it will help children "guide themselves" in making eating decisions.

Advertisers who refuse to run the messages will be fined 1.5 percent of the cost of the ad, to be paid to the National Institute for Health Education.

They currently have a choice of four warnings, which Health Minister Xavier Bertrand said would be regularly updated to keep them effective:

They are:

• For your health, eat at least five fruits and vegetables a day

• For your health, undertake regular physical activity

• For your health, avoid eating too much fat, too much sugar, too much salt

• For your health, avoid snacking between meals

The advice flies in the face of the image of the svelte and cuisine-conscious French, perpetuated by books like Mireille Guiliano's bestseller French Women Don't Get Fat.

The book argues that the French can eat croissants and foie gras without ballooning because they take time to savor flavors and eat judiciously.

But growing numbers of processed snacks and ready-made meals with high fat, salt and sugar contents are changing that image.

According to government figures, 5.9 million of France's 63.4 million people are obese and 20 million are overweight.

Across Europe, the World Health Organization says 20 per cent of children are overweight - and their ranks are swelling by 400,000 a year.

France's National Association of Food Industries has advised members to affix the health messages "to show that the industry prefers information and education measures."

Some consumer groups have already criticized the measure, saying the health messages will only have a tiny impact and predicting consumers will not pay attention after a couple of weeks.

The Consommation Logement et Cadre de vie association says the measure is not "up to snuff" given the high stakes of consumers' health.

The WHO urges profound changes in the way food is marketed and processed to turn the tide of the growing obesity epidemic, which is predicted to cause millions of people worldwide to suffer early death or disability.

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