Gro Harlem Brundtland, director-general of the U.N. health agency, described the talks as a "positive beginning." Senior figures from companies including Nestle, Unilever, The Coca-Cola Company, The Kellogg Company, PepsiCo Inc., Cadbury Schweppes plc, and McDonald's attended.
"We have seen a major shift away from traditional diets, and the increased consumption of energy-dense diets with high levels of fats and sugars, as well as salt. At the same time, the consumption of fruit and vegetables is going down," Brundtland told the meeting.
"As a result of all these factors, as well as tobacco use, the global profile of disease is changing. Cardiovascular disease, cancers, diabetes, respiratory disease, obesity and other non-communicable conditions now account for approximately 60 percent of the 56.5 million global deaths annually," she said.
The former Norwegian prime minister, who is a medical doctor by training, said WHO wanted to work with rather than against the food industry. But she said the industry must live up to its responsibilities.
"We would like food companies in some countries to promote smaller portions. We would like to see real moves to cut the amount of fat, sugars and salt in foods. We think consumers have a basic right to know what they are eating and the effects it can have on them. That means clear, informative, accurate and scientifically proven labeling of food products' benefits or potential harmful effects."
"And we want food companies to reassess what they are marketing to young children, and how they are going about it."
WHO now plans to meet representatives of consumer groups — many of which accuse the food and drink industry of trying to undermine WHO's proposed global strategy on diet, physical activity and health. The strategy is meant to be adopted by WHO's annual assembly in 2004 and will form the basis of international policy for years to come.
Francois-Xavier Perroud, spokesman for Nestle — the world's biggest food and beverage company — said that the industry wanted to work together with WHO. He said that success in the battle against obesity and ill health would come "not through opposing opinions and attitudes" but through cooperation based on sound science.
The meeting comes in the wake of a controversial WHO report which — for the first time — said that people should cut consumption of sugar to less than 10 percent of their calories and reiterated findings that fats should account for 15-30 percent of energy intake.
The report infuriated the industry. The Sugar Association, which represents U.S. growers and refiners, slammed it as "misguided and non-science-based" and a waste of taxpayer's money. It threatened to lobby the U.S. Congress to challenge the U.S. contribution of US$406 million to WHO. The U.S. National Soft Drink Association and the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the world's largest association of food and beverage companies, also oppose the 10 percent limit.
In her speech to the meeting, Brundtland defended the report's recommendations.
Pekka Puska, WHO director of non-communicable disease, said the talks focussed on future cooperation rather than specific criticism of WHO's recommendations.
"There were some questions about the report, but the criticism wasn't taken up by either Pepsi or Coca Cola," he said.
"We acknowledge it was a first dialogue," he said. "It's quite clear that industry has their agenda, we have our agenda. But we agree that if we want to change toward healthier diets, that we have to continue the dialogue."
By CLARE NULLIS