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Fast Food, Fat Food Debate Picks Up Heat

The New Straits Times, August 4, 2002

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

With increasing awareness about the growing risks of obesity, it is only a matter of time before the food industry comes under public scrutiny.

Hence, last week’s report of a 56-year-old 123kg man suing major fast food chains in the US is not unexpected (NST, July 28). Previous lawsuits accused the food industry of deceptive marketing such as claiming its French fries were vegetarian or, in another case, the so called vegetarian pizzas contained beef products.

This time, the claim is that the food contributed to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

The attorney who represented the case was quoted as saying: “Fast food chains failed to disclose the contents in terms of calories, fat grams and sodium. Even when posted, the information is not easily understandable to the public.”

The food outlets and associations involved, however, are quick to call it simplistic and ridiculous.

But what is interesting is that it sounds very much like the debate on smoking and the tobacco industry. After decades of obfuscation and denial, the truth finally surfaced, hammering the tobacco industry with multi-billion dollar lawsuits.

Could the food industry be next? “Is food the next tobacco?” asked writer Shelly Branch in an article published in the Asian Wall Street Journal (June 14-16).

In fact, the article noted, “US food and beverage makers are going on the defensive with obesity”.

The reason is obvious. The Surgeon-General’s report warned that obesity rates in the US have reached epidemic proportions. In the year 2000 alone, some 300,000 Americans reportedly died of obesity-related causes.

In a move apparently to offset the adverse publicity, some food companies are already contemplating advertisements that would discourage consumers from over-eating their products, wrote Branch.

Earlier in May, when the World Health Organisation released a preliminary report endorsing taxes on sugar-rich items aimed at children, in addition to stricter marketing rules and specific label codes for high-sodium and high fat foods, it was challenged by the food industry.

Now, the food industry allegedly has begun drafting its own social-marketing measures.

Anyway, regardless of what happens elsewhere, what should concern us Malaysians is how can we get the food industry to start labeling products as a matter of routine if not ethical practice. Very often these products contain little or no nutritional information. When there is, it is often not easily under-stood by the consumers.

Recently, the Food Quality Control Division in the Health Ministry has been cited as saying: “The purpose of nutrition labels is to help consumers choose more healthful foods and plan their daily diet.”

It is time to assert that obesity-inducing food must not only be labeled but accompanied by a health warning label as well.

Recommended site: www.msnbc.com/news/722933.asp



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