Mohan Murti

Flavour of the season

Mohan Murti | Updated on November 12, 2013

‘Fat tax’ discourages unhealthy eating.

Europeans are adjusting their eating habits to the faster pace of modern life.

While working for the United Nations in Paris in the early 1980s, I learnt to value the importance the French placed on their dejeuner (lunch). In those days, lunch breaks in France were generally two hours to give people time to ‘switch off’ from work, cook and enjoy their most extravagant meal of the day.

Between 12 noon and 2 p.m., most shops and offices in Paris downed their shutters. No one answered the phone. The traditional Paris Bistros were full.

Today, the traditional UNESCO-honoured three-course lunches have become a myth. Restaurants and bistros wear a deserted look. Instead, the queues in American fast-food joints such as KFC, McDonald’s and Subway are swelling.

The change is partly because French workers’ lunch breaks have been drastically shortened from two hours to around half-an-hour. Problems on the economic front have made office workers and professionals disinclined to frequent the local bistro.

Not just in France, food habits across Europe are changing rapidly. Apart from adjusting their eating habits to the faster pace of modern life, Europeans are also re-inventing and transforming fast food and sandwiches to suit their individual culture, tastes and lifestyle.

Food labelling law

Across the EU, health experts regularly slate fast food outlets — especially those peddling food that makes people fat. Since the consumers expect healthy and safe food and increasingly demand to know where their food comes from, some of the world’s largest fast food companies are continually on their toes to make their products healthier.

Giants such as Coca Cola, Burger King, McDonald's, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Mars, Unilever and KFC are now required by law to add a ‘cigarette-style’ health caveat to food wrapping — especially where high levels of fat, sugar and salt are involved. Without this, fast food firms could face legal action if it is found they were misleading consumers and knowingly putting their health at risk.

Fighting obesity

To discourage unhealthy eating and limit the population’s intake of fatty foods, thereby easing the current obesity epidemic, an increasing number of countries across Europe also levy a ‘fat tax’ on unwholesome food. This in effect, is like a ‘Pigouvian tax’ similar to that levied on cigarettes, alcohol, gambling and environmental emissions. Denmark already has such a tax on foods; the British have a Danish-style ‘fat tax’ to address obesity. Meanwhile, Hungary introduced a tax on food item for consumptions considered excessively salty, sweet or with high caffeine levels, which is levied on the producer or first distributor. To top it all, the French government recently increased excise taxes on fizzy soft drinks. And, stirred by the French example, the Irish government has a tax on carbonated soft drinks.

Similarly in France, advertisements for unhealthy food and beverages must carry health messages. In Sweden, Norway and Ireland, there is a ban on TV advertisements for sweets and fast food and the endorsement by celebrities and sports stars for junk food.

Noticeably, there is a significant reduction in advertisements for junk snacks and fizzy drinks across the continent.

Fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Burger King tend to work out more expensive and are, therefore, less popular in Scandinavian countries. In most European cities, there are several healthy options on fast food menus for the health conscious consumers.

In Germany, for instance, fast food sold in furniture chains such as Ikea, Dodenhof, Kraft, and Hoeffner come ahead of KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s. So, what are furniture shops doing right that the American fast food chains are not doing in Europe? They are adapting to the European’s palate and pockets — offering value and a wide assortment of healthy food with unmatched service at sensible prices. Guten appétit!

(The author is former Europe Director, CII, and lives in Cologne, Germany.)

Published on November 12, 2013

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