GENEVAObsession with the forces of evil, be they Al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein's real
or imagined weapons of mass destruction, is blinding us to much bigger, if
morally neutral, global killers.
A report published Monday by the World
Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization makes it starkly
clear that the biggest threats abroad in the world are not AIDS or malaria,
starvation or even automobiles and smoking, let alone terrorists. They are to be
found in what we eat every day.
The report by the two UN agencies posits
a gigantic public health challenge to governments, with huge implications for
the food industry worldwide.
The legal harassment of McDonalds in the
United States by tort lawyers placing blame for obesity and its consequences on
food providers rather than the overeater, may prove a rather minor issue
compared with the shake-up being demanded in global eating habits. The United
States may have a particularly acute weight problem, but other countries are
catching up, or have other eating-related problems.
The bottom line of the problem is that
"people are consuming a more energy-dense, nutrient-poor diet and are less
physically active." Nor is this primarily a problem of the rich. Chronic
diseases caused by bad diet and overweight conditions are increasing more
rapidly in developing countries. That is particularly so with middle-income
countries where lifestyles have changed with urbanization. But, as illustrated
by a dramatic increase in diabetes, it is also affecting countries such as
India, China and Indonesia - particularly urban residents.
Most noncommunicable diseases are
connected to eating and lifestyle issues. Too much fat - especially animal fat -
too much salt and too much sugar are the three main killers. The more familiar
evils, tobacco and alcohol, complete the list of major positive causes of most
cardiovascular diseases, cancers and diabetes. Lack of exercise is the other
dimension. Diet comes after tobacco as the largest cause of cancer, and is the
major contributor to cardiovascular and diabetic diseases.
Of course, doctors have been telling us
these things for years. The U.S. Surgeon General has issued warnings about the
cost of overweight and obese conditions. But the report gives new evidence of
the sheer scale of the global problem - and if governments take its warnings to
heart, the impact on the food industry will be dramatic.
It is not just a case of richer diets and
sedentary urban lifestyles taking their toll. The developed world has long been
urbanized and prone to inadequate exercise. What seems to be newer is the
impact, in the developing world as well as in rich countries, of increased
eating based around sugary sodas and sweets, fat-rich fast food and snack food,
and salt-rich canned and prepared foods - and combinations of all three.
Meanwhile the industrialization of eating
habits has led to reduced consumption of fresh vegetables and unrefined grains.
The report contains updated recommendations on nutrient intake and activity
goals - mainly reduced intake of energy-dense foods, more fruit and vegetables
and 60 minutes a day of physical activity.
The agencies do not cross swords with the
food industry directly. It may need their cooperation to change things. But at
least one alert stock analyst has noted the huge potential impact on food
companies if governments or populations get serious about addressing these
issues. UBS Warburg Global Equity Research recently devoted a report to the
risks to major food companies posed by the sort of legal and governmental
campaigns that previously hit the tobacco industry.
The report looks at globally invested
companies such as Coca Cola, McDonalds, Cadbury Schweppes, Unilever, Nestle and
Procter Gamble in terms of their relative vulnerability to campaigns against
"unhealthy" foodstuffs, whether such campaigns result in lower consumption,
restrictions on advertising or - less likely - the sort of damage claims that
have crippled former asbestos producers and badly dented the share prices of the
Let us face facts: We should all be more
worried about our lifestyles than about Al Qaeda. Buy more duct tape if you
must, but first buy the broccoli and not the cheeseburger.