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MEXICO CITY, May 28 2010 (IPS) - Consumer organisations and experts say the Mexican government’s plan to remove junk food from schools is a step in the right direction in the fight against obesity in this country, which has the highest rate of childhood obesity in the world, and the second highest rate for adults, after the United States.
The ministries of education and public health decided to take the bull by the horns and tackle the problem of overweight and obesity in children and young people, starting next August when the new school year begins.
The new regulations, which have yet to be approved by the Federal Regulatory Improvement Commission (COFEMER), would ban products like soft drinks, packaged juices, fried foods and snacks containing more than 400 calories from snack shops in 220,000 primary and secondary schools.
The plan is to last three years, giving the food industry time to review and modify its ingredients for some 20,000 high-calorie products.
Some 4.5 million children aged five to 11 are overweight in Mexico, a disorder of epidemic proportions that can lead to diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.
Eating junk food and not enough fruits and vegetables leads to overweight or obesity, the main risk factor, along with a sedentary lifestyle and smoking in adults, for non-infectious illnesses that are the cause of 60 percent of deaths worldwide, the WHO says.
Julieta Ponce, a nutritionist with the Centro de Orientación Alimentaria (COA), an NGO offering nutritional advice, criticised the government plan for putting such a strong emphasis on calories, when “nutrition is more than that.”
“The plan is very poorly designed in terms of promoting the traditional diet,” she told IPS.
Mexican television broadcasts 20,000 commercials a year targeted at children, 8,000 of which encourage consumption of high-calorie products.
In January the government of President Felipe Calderón launched the National Agreement for Nutritional Health and Strategy against overweight and obesity, which aims to reduce the incidence of overweight in children aged two to five, reverse the trend toward overweight in teenagers and slim down heavier adults.
At break times, schoolchildren consume on average over 500 calories. The goal is for preschool children under six to reduce that consumption to between 217 and 240 calories, 290 calories for primary school children aged six to 12, and between 362 and 400 calories for secondary school children aged 13 to 15, according to the public health minister, Ángel Córdova.
A 2004 study by the state National Institute of Medical Sciences and Nutrition (INNSZ) found that children spend some 1.5 billion dollars a year in school snack shops on sweets, soft drinks and fried foods.
“It’s important to change the food habits of overweight people, which means taking measures to introduce behavioural changes covering the whole population. The measures should be focused on the diet, rather than on isolated components,” Héctor Borges, a researcher at the INNSZ, told IPS.
Obesity treatment costs the government more than five billion dollars a year. By 2015, spending will rise to about 7.6 billion dollars, according to official estimates.
Parent-teacher committees will oversee enforcement of the new regulations, but it is not yet clear how they will monitor compliance or what will happen to schools that do not abide by the rules.
The processed food and beverages industry opposes mandatory regulations, and NGOs fear it may lobby COFEMER to modify the government proposal.
“This project is an important step forward, because schools have become obesity factories. But no one is talking yet about good food or healthy food,” Calvillo said.
Products like soy milk-based juices, powdered drinks, fruit cakes and pastries, solid yoghurt and milk beverages with added sugar will be banned from school playgrounds, said Xaviera Cabada, a Consumer Power nutritionist who is campaigning against junk food in conjunction with other organisations.
“At last, parents will have the legal means to insist these regulations are observed. But the community should be encouraged to play a part in school compliance with the new rules,” said Ponce.
This year the pre-packaged food and beverages industry will have to change its product labelling and guarantee that full nutritional value information is provided, by order of the Federal Commission for Protection against Health Risks (FECOPRIS).
“This is a very complex scenario. We have a large and growing health problem which is affecting people at ever younger ages,” said Borges.
In April, the lower house of the Mexican Congress approved reforms to the General Law on Health, to eliminate junk food from schools and make physical education obligatory. These separate reforms are now being debated in the Senate.
Local legislatures have regulated the sale of high-fat, high-calorie foods in school snack shops in 18 out of Mexico’s 32 states.
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