Food companies 'failing to tackle diet crisis'

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The world's 25 biggest food companies are failing to take the global crisis in diet seriously and often only change their practices when faced with adverse publicity that could damage their sales, a new study claims.

From Wal-Mart to Aldi and McDonald's to Coca-Cola, the world leaders of the food industry are accused of a "pathetic" performance on meeting targets set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2004 to tackle obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Just four of 25 said they were taking action to reduce the total fat content of their products. Only five said they were cutting sugar and 10 said they were reducing salt. The comprehensive review of the policies and practices of the companies, including four British conglomerates, found that their global reach meant they were largely unaccountable for how they addressed the epidemic of diet-related disease.

Researchers at City University in London, who studied the annual reports, accounts and websites of the companies, said the only factor which seemed to produce action on issues such as salt and fat content was public discontent.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy, who led the study, said: "Our findings are worrying. There is a pretty poor overall picture, with too many companies appearing not to care a jot.

"It seems the best way to get companies to take health seriously is to have critics who give them a hard time. Eventually the companies who are targeted wake up but others keep their heads down and the result is no health innovation or consciousness seems to take root. There are exceptions but generally these companies are not fulfilling their social responsibilities on health. Often they are so big and so global in their activities that they are not accountable, and they ought to be."

The study rated the companies on how they were meeting the WHO's health strategy - a policy thrashed out in 2004 under intense lobbying from the food industry to set out basic action to improve diet.

According to the WHO, non-communicable diseases such as cancer, heart-disease and obesity account for 60 per cent of global deaths. That figure is predicted to rise to 73 per cent by 2020.

The City University study looked at the response to this problem by the top 10 food manufacturers, top 10 retailers and the top five caterers and restaurateurs, including McDonald's and Burger King. It included four British companies, Cadbury Schweppes, Tesco, the catering giant Compass and the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate, Unilever.

Each was judged on 10 sectors, including responsible marketing, in particular to children; reductions in fat, sugar and salt; and developing healthier new products.

The researchers found some action being taken in the manufacturing and catering sectors but the retail sector was found to be lagging behind, with two supermarket groups - the German-owned Aldi and Schwarz chains - reporting no action on any of the 28 indicators set by the study. Wal-Mart, the US giant which owns Asda in Britain, was found to be taking action on only two indicators. Tesco, which had 14 areas of action, was the best performing retailer.

The food industry, which is worth an estimated £100bn annually in Britain and £1.8trn worldwide, was judged to be years - if not decades - away from developing the awareness of diet-related issues that the corporate sector now has for the environment.

The report found that 21 of the 25 companies had not developed policies on advertising to children, despite spending large proportions of their turnover on marketing.

In one key area - the reformulation of products to reduce the fat, sugar and salt content and overall portion size - only one company was taking action to cut all four, the American-owned manufacturer, Kraft. Seven of the 10 supermarket groups were found to be taking no action at all.

Representatives of the food industry in Britain insisted its members were taking concerted action to make their products more healthy. A spokeswoman for the Food and Drink Federation said: "If the report's authors want the food and drink manufacturing industry to take more action on food and health, they are pushing at an open door."