How Can Asia Lead the Way on Tackling Childhood Obesity?

Childhood obesity is a complex and multifactorial issue, and it is recognised that for it to be dealt with effectively, the causative factors must be addressed.

As the recognised voice of the food industry in the region, Food Industry Asia (FIA) was recently invited to participate in a regional consultation with the World Health Organisation’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO). In its submission to the Commission, FIA supported the views set out in the Commission’s Interim Report and stressed the importance of deploying multi-sectoral and science-based solutions to a problem that requires a whole of society response in Asia.

Cross-sectoral, matrix-based solutions are particularly relevant in Asia, where the obesity issue is amplified by the dual burden of poor nutrition. The prevalence of chronic disease caused by malnutrition and obesity is a multi-factorial issue requiring complex solutions. The food industry understands the challenge and is responding. Governments in Asia are beginning to see tangible benefits of a self-regulatory approach on interventions such as marketing to children and nutrition literacy and they are working with non-profit industry associations to nurture innovation and change.

While there is strong alignment between the actions championed by FIA in Asia and many of the policy options recommended in the Interim Report, FIA cautioned against unilateral fiscal and regulatory policies that are not rooted in evidence or that cannot be realistically applied across Asia.

“A number of the proposed policy options in the Commission’s Interim Report are ones we have been championing in Asia in line with the commitments made by the International Food & Beverage Alliance (IFBA) and the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF). These include actions to reformulate products to improve diets and reduce obesity, enhancing the clarity and consistency of nutrition labelling, responsible marketing, and promotion of balanced diets and healthy lifestyles,” says Brad Jaffe, Committee Chairman of the Public Affairs Committee of FIA.

In its submission, FIA highlighted how together with its network of national industry associations throughout Asia, it has been working constructively with governments and academic experts on these complex nutrition issues with the goal of promoting a joined up dialogue spanning all points of the supply chain and capturing the views of all businesses, large and small.

“We have shown to date that investing in new science, focusing on empowering consumers, and putting our full weight behind public-private partnerships can help develop successful policies that deliver strong outcomes to tackle serious issues such as childhood obesity,” says Bev Postma, Executive Director of FIA.

“On the contrary, research shows that standalone supply and demand measures such as taxes can be too simplistic to address the underlying causes of these complex health challenges. We need to scale up our respective resources in Asia and work collaboratively to find more innovative, sustainable solutions” she added.

So, how is the food industry in Asia working in partnership with governments and civil society to tackle the joined up problems of obesity and non-communicable diseases?

FIA outlines a number of areas where food and beverage companies and non-profit associations in Asia are taking action to promote balanced diets and healthy active lifestyles and contribute to ending childhood obesity.

» Product formulation and innovation: The food industry is scaling up its investment in research and development to create healthier and affordable food options with more vitamins and minerals, reduced sodium, less fat, less sugar, and fewer calories. FIA is also playing a major role in the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN), which was launched this year to provide a multi-stakeholder forum for effective debate on tackling obesity and chronic diseases in Asia.

» Consumer information: FIA Member Companies are rolling out a standardised system of nutrition labelling in the form of Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs). By the end of next year, all products in all markets in Asia will carry clear information on key nutrients of public health interest, and a ‘GDA’ for calories will be clearly marked on the front of every pack.

» Responsible Marketing: The food industry is committed to upholding strict codes of practice on marketing to children. FIA Member Companies are working with Governments and national industry associations in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and India to enhance a suite of voluntary pledges on responsible marketing and to put in place independent monitoring to ensure that advertisements for products are not targeted directly at children unless they meet independently-evaluated nutrient criteria.

» Consumer education: Food companies in Asia and working individually and collectively to promote balanced diets and healthy lifestyles for all consumers, and emphasising the importance of providing nutrition education and access to physical activity for young people wherever they live.

By working with industry through its Member Companies, FIA has helped facilitate progress in all of these key action areas where we believe can drive a real difference to addressing serious issues such as childhood obesity.

The achievements would not be possible without the support of strong public-private partnerships, and a focus on transparency in our multi-stakeholder relationships. Our progress over the last five years highlights the importance of cross-sectoral dialogue and communication to build a shared vision for a prosperous and healthy Asia.

For more information on the work of Food Industry Asia visit here.

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