'Fat tax' plan to target food prices in Romania

Foods packed with high fat and sugar may face a new tax in Romania under plans to encourage healthier eating.

Foods packed with high fat and sugar may face a new tax in Romania under plans to encourage healthier eating.

Burgers, chips and fizzy drinks will also be targeted.

“We have to relearn how to eat,” a Health Ministry spokesman said.

The ministry says that – in marked contrast to the situation under communism - half of Romania’s 22 million people are overweight, while instances of obesity have doubled among 10-year-olds.

If the plan goes through, Romania will be aligning itself with – and even outdoing – other countries looking to crack down on fatty foods and encourage better eating choices.

Taiwan also recently floated a fast food tax, while Denmark and Austria have made artery-clogging trans-fats illegal. Britain, Norway and Sweden have banned junk food commercials from TV at certain times of the day, while Norway also taxes sugar and chocolate.

In the US Michelle Obama this month unveiled a public awareness campaign called “Let’s Move” to fight against childhood obesity, while both New York and California have gone on the legal offensive by outlawing trans-fats.

Critics of the Romanian proposals agree the government should stick to educating rather than taxing, especially during a recession. Some also criticise the government’s plans for exempting pizzas and kebabs and other potentially high-fat dishes, saying the exclusions showed the measure was a “McFat tax” - targeting certain Western fast food outlets – and not something that was truly meant to help the public.

Fast food franchises were not available under the Communist dictatorship that was overthrown in 1989. In the years that followed, the country was so poor that - as elsewhere in Eastern Europe – Western-style fast food was considered a luxury.

When they arrived in the mid-1990s, McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants were widely prized, becoming more affordable and ever more popular as the country developed. In 2007, Romania joined the European Union.

Romania’s Health Ministry has been analysing the nutritional content of some 40,000 fast foods and drinks over the past weeks to decide what exactly should be taxed before submitting the legislation to Parliament next month.

But as Romanians love both their traditional food and fast food options like kebabs, there would likely have been a public outcry if all such foods had been targeted for the tax, nutritionist Gheorghe Mencinicopschi said.

Experts warned against labelling all fast food as bad or all home-cooked food as healthy. For example, a typical Romanian lunch of sarmale – stuffed cabbage rolls smothered in sour cream – followed by walnut-studded yeast cake for dessert is unlikely to be on any recommended diet plan.

“It is dangerous to use generic terms,” Mr Mencinicopschi said, noting that different ingredients and cooking style can transform a takeout meal from healthy to horrible.

Romanians spend 40-50% of their income on food, to which a 19% value-added tax is already applied.

The new fast food tax, if passed, could lead people to pay 20% more for fast food products, food industry experts said – a blow to the average Romanian earning around €415.

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