RIGA - Latvia took an unprecedented step last week when the government decided to ban the sale of all junk food in public schools, becoming the first EU country to do so. Starting Nov. 1, all foodstuffs and drinks that are high in sugar, salt, artificial colorings and flavorings will be banned from kindergartens, primary and secondary schools. Health Ministry officials, who initiated the ban, said the decision was based on an increasing number of complaints from nutritionists that children's health was deteriorating.
What's more, artificial colorings and flavorings can result in allergic reactions, and children are more sensitive to chemicals such as caffeine. Since many children find these drinks tasty, they tend to consume them in large amounts, unaware of the health risks, explained the ministry.
The decision came despite a plea from former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who wrote a letter to President Vaira Vike-Freiberga expressing concern that any such ban would harm the interests of U.S. drink manufacturers, particularly Coca-Cola. Albright now heads the Albright Group, a Washington-based consultancy.
The Latvian president responded by saying she had no qualms with the ban, since children cannot be the best judges of what they should or should not eat.
Coca-Cola Latvia refused to state its stance on the all-out ban. "Coca-Cola supports industry self-regulation and this strategy is implemented through the UNESDA Code of Conduct, that Coca-Cola has signed in December 2005," the company said in an e-mail.
"The [soft drinks 's ed.] industry has recognized its responsibility [in the fight against obesity] by certain voluntary actions in the field of marketing to children, choice of beverages, school channel sales, innovation, consumer information," the company went on to explain.
Latvian food retailers have objected to the ban and insisted that the ministry prove its claim that certain foods or their additives are unhealthy. Snack manufacturer Latfood told the Dienas Bizness daily that it never marketed its chips as part of a balanced diet.
A Health Ministry official was uncertain whether there would be legal challenges from junk food producers. "It's hard to say right now," said Zaiga Barvida, head of the ministry's media department, adding that a full list of regulations has yet to be published.
Meanwhile, obesity experts have praised Latvia for being the first EU member state to take this healthy step.
"What happened in Latvia is a major step, very welcomed news," Neville Rigby of the London-based think tank International Association for the Study of Obesity, told the Associated Press. "Selling junk food in schools sets a bad example. It gives a sense that junk food is endorsed by authorities."
School principals also support the ban. "As children are effectively captive in the school environment for several hours a day, it is a perfect opportunity to promote good eating habits, and for some children it may be the only place they can do this," said one Riga school principal who asked to remain anonymous.
School children have expressed mixed opinions on whether the ban will work. Some said they would bring soft drinks and candy to school anyways, since the ban does not prohibit this.
"We can always bring our own soda to drink," said 10th grader Sergey Petrenko.
Eighth-grader Alina said she hopes the standards won't be too limiting: "I like having chips and bubble gum, but I don't mind buying them somewhere else."
Barvida explained that the ban only prohibits the sale of junk food in schools, not the consumption of such products.
"A school is not prison, and if children think they can't survive without Coca-Cola drinks or sweets, they can bring it with them. Nobody is going to check their school bags," she said.
To improve children's health, the ministry will further promote the sale of milk at schools and the sale of nuts, oatmeal cookies and other healthy fare.
Snack and junk foods have not yet been banned in any other European Union school system, although Britain has a voluntary recommendation. Seven schools in Riga have implemented junk food bans because of pressure by parents.