IRELAND'S fondness for fast foods, confectionery and fizzy drinks has pushed us into an obesity epidemic – but the industry is big business with manufacturers and sellers making a hefty profit.
Governments have been warned they could slow or even reverse the growing levels of obesity if they introduced more regulation for foods such as burgers, chips and fizzy drinks.
Measures, including a controversial sugar tax and economic incentives for growers to sell healthy goods, could prevent people becoming overweight and developing diabetes, heart disease and cancer, researchers claimed.
But industry chiefs argue 230,000 jobs are linked to the agri-food sector, with more to be created as exports soar to an expected €12bn by 2020.
Consumers already face high tax on certain foods, according to the Food and Drink Industry Ireland (FDII), with 23pc on sweets, chocolates, confectionery, crisps, ice-cream and soft drinks and 13.5pc on flour- or egg-based bakery products like cakes and biscuits.
"Discriminatory taxes on food and beverages should be avoided as they are not evidence-based and are damaging to the economic well-being of the sector," said Paul Kelly, FDII director.
The retail food industry in Ireland is big business, with Euromonitor International reporting 2013 figures projected to show:
* Some 16,600 tonnes of sugar confectionery were sold in Ireland, valued at €192m.
* Pastilles, gums, jellies and chews record the highest expected growth, up 6pc to €96m.
* Chocolate sales rose by 1pc to €577m at 41,000 tonnes.
* Frozen processed food had a 2pc rise in value sales, with ready meals dropping to below €271m because of the horse-meat scandal.
* Snack bars recorded 4pc growth to €27m, with strong sales in energy and nutrition bars and granola/muesli bars.
* Baked goods remained steady, reaching €550m.
Separately, figures show more than €2.4bn worth of fizzy, energy and soft drinks were sold in 2012.
But Mr Kelly said everyone needed to take responsibility to tackle the growing obesity problem.
"To reduce obesity rates, all stakeholders including Government, food companies, retailers, the education system, GPs and many more, must work together to use their influence over the consumer to nudge them towards healthier lifestyles," he said. "Taxation has not been shown to be an effective tool and the focus should now switch to collaboration between all these stakeholders."
More than one-third of Irish adults are overweight, with one-quarter in the obese category, while one in four schoolchildren is overweight or obese.
The epidemic is costing the country an estimated €1.13bn a year, with €398m spent on healthcare costs and two-thirds (€728m) linked to reduced or lost productivity and absenteeism.
Elsewhere, McDonald's Ireland posted profits of €12.7m for 2012 as sales rose 4.3pc to €81.35m, and Supermac's recorded a profit of €4.1m.
"Unless governments take steps to regulate their economies, the invisible hand of the market will continue to promote obesity worldwide with disastrous consequences for future public health and economic productivity," said Roberto De Vogli of the University of California in the United States.
Suggested policies to prevent obesity include cutting subsidies to growers and companies who use large amounts of fertilisers, pesticides, chemicals and antibiotics; and tighter regulation of fast-food advertising.