Weak-willed food makers need a prod

Jennifer Wilkens
Albany Times Union

December 3, 2006

It's no fun to be a U.S. food marketer today, especially if your product is nutritionally questionable and you're targeting children. And it must have caused a collective food industry headache to see yet another country -- this time the United Kingdom -- inching closer to restricting food marketing to children, something U.S. marketers fiercely oppose.
Ofcom, the U.K.'s media regulator, has proposed a ban on advertisements for food and drink high in fat, salt or sugar during television programs "of particular appeal to children under the age of 16." The changes would cost broadcasters an estimated $73 million in lost revenue, and have an untold impact on food company profits.

Lest stateside observers start thinking, "Hey, why don't we do that," a set of voluntary marketing guidelines is in the works. On Nov. 14, the Council of Better Business Bureaus and the National Advertising Review Council unveiled The Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.

Ten of the largest food and beverage companies endorse the program. Cadbury Schweppes, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, McDonald's, PepsiCo and Unilever, which together account for two-thirds of food and beverage advertising directed to children, agreed to have at least half their advertising to children "promote healthier dietary choices, and/or create messages encourage good nutrition, or healthy lifestyles."

Been there. Done that. Since its inception in the 1970s, the industry-based Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) has promised responsible marketing through self-regulation. To Michele Simon, author of "Appetite for Profit," "CARU's message is this: 'We've got it covered, so government -- hands off.' We know from 30 years of abysmal failure -- whether through CARU or individual corporate policies -- that self-regulation doesn't work."

In that time, the obesity rate has tripled for 2- to 5-year-olds and youth ages 12 to 19 years, and more than quadrupled for children 6 to 11.

The food industry spends $36 billion a year on marketing -- nearly $12 billion of it to reach children. Is it worth it? Annually, children spend about $8 billion of their own money and influence $300 billion of parental spending, If effectively branded, they will spend untold amounts over a lifetime.

Food marketing is but one of many factors contributing to this public health crisis. But, as the Institute of Medicine report, "Food Marketing to Children and Youth," makes quite clear, it is a powerful one.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest urges companies not to market junk foods to children. But food companies are unlikely to make this radical shift unless required by law. Why? "They can't," answers Marion Nestle, author of "Food Politics and What to Eat." "The conflict of interest between the corporate and social responsibility of a food company means that any move toward self-regulation will be superficial at best. Corporate responsibility requires food companies to expand, to increase their quarterly earnings. If they could do this by selling healthy foods, they would."

It's time we demand meaningful government policies on food marketing to children. Some well-meaning corporate executives may even be grateful to be required to change course in the name of children's health.

The Institute of Medicine report aptly quotes Goethe: "Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.