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Venezuela battles obesity amid dearth of good food

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 26, 2014 at 11:13 pm •  Published: August 26, 2014

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Venezuela's socialist government is sounding the alarm about growing waistlines in a country where record food shortages are making it harder to put healthy meals on the table, prompting many people to fill up on empty calories.

Authorities launched a public relations campaign Tuesday to halt a steady rise in obesity that threatens to lead to a costly, public health crisis if left unchecked.

Under the slogan "Get informed, eat healthy" President Nicolas Maduro's government hopes over the next five years to cut in half the nearly 40 percent rate of obesity among Venezuelans, a condition putting them at greater risk of heart disease and diabetes.

According to the World Health Organization, 67.5 percent of Venezuelans over age 20 are overweight, more than in any country in South America and nearly equal to the 69 percent rate in the United States.

The battle against the bulge comes as most Venezuelans complain they can't find enough to eat.

Rigid price controls and a shortage of U.S. dollars make it difficult for even the country's largest food company, Empresas Polar SA, to import needed supplies and turn a profit. As a result, everything from corn flour to milk is in short supply in the oil-rich nation. When staples do suddenly appear in supermarkets, hours-long lines generally follow.

To combat the shortages, the government last week unveiled plans to install fingerprint scanners at grocery stores nationwide. Opponents blasted the plan as a form of Cuban-styled rationing, though the government says the extra controls are needed to stop hoarding and smuggling.

"The fingerprint scan is going to restore freedom because it will help us find and capture the smugglers," Maduro said in a speech Tuesday in which he held out his family's grocery list when he was a child — two cartons of milk, three packages of corn flour — as an example of rational consumption for Venezuelan households to follow.

To safeguard domestic food supplies, the government Tuesday also announced it was banning the export of 21 food items, including sugar, tuna and rice.

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