The Junk Food Wars
Quebec scores sweet victory in battle against childhood obesity
January 27, 2009
Fresh from taking down Igor the Gorilla for peddling cakes to preschoolers, Quebec consumer-protection advocates have set their sights on three snack-food kingpins: Ronald McDonald, the Burger King and Lucky the Leprechaun.
Saputo Inc., makers of Vachon snack cakes, yesterday pleaded guilty to 22 charges under a Quebec law -- unique in Canada-- that prohibits advertising at children younger than 13. The company was fined $44,000 for a 2007 campaign that involved distributing Igor cakes and merchandise in daycare centres.
Yesterday's court decision is a signal that Quebec intends to use the law, which has been in force since 1980 but has rarely led to prosecutions, to advance the fight against childhood obesity. A spokesman for Quebec's consumer protection agency said similar charges are pending against fast-food restaurants McDonald's and Burger King as well as General Mills, makers of Lucky Charms cereal.
"This is a victory for children, considering the impact of junk food on child health," Suzie Pellerin, director of an anti-obesity group called Coalition Poids, said of the Saputo fine. "The World Health Organization has identified junk-food advertising as one of top five causes of the current obesity epidemic."
Her group joined with the Union des consommateurs to file the complaint against Saputo after the cartoon gorilla began appearing in daycares across Quebec. The daycares had been told the gorilla would improve the children's fitness as they would learn to do the Igor dance. The cakes themselves, which were shaped like a gorilla and had strawberry, chocolate or vanilla filling, were billed by the company as "a delicious and nutritious snack" when combined with fruit and milk.
Karine Vachon, a Saputo spokeswoman, said yesterday that the Igor cakes have been temporarily removed from the market while the recipes and packaging are revamped. She described them as "healthier than other Vachon cakes" and said the Igor marketing was aimed at getting children moving.
"We pleaded guilty, among other reasons, to be able to focus our energy on other projects," Ms. Vachon said.
Ms. Pellerin said she hopes the charges against Saputo will send a message to other companies. "Using children to sell products goes against the law," she said. "Since we cannot act on the content of food offered to children, we can at least reduce their exposure to this advertising."
Her group was also instrumental in prompting the charges against McDonald's, Burger King and General Mills, expected to go to court this year. McDonald's is facing nine charges related to its sponsorship of a series of children's movies broadcast on Tele-Quebec during the Christmas holidays. Burger King faces 11 charges stemming from the distribution of toys with their kids' meals.
"These collectible toys are a form of advertising that encourages children to increase their visits to Burger King restaurants and demand the meal needed to obtain these toys," the Coalition Poids stated when its complaint was filed in December, 2007.
General Mills faces one charge for its Lucky Charms web site, where children can play games featuring Lucky the Leprechaun.
Jean-Jacques Preaux, spokesman for Quebec's Office de la protection du consommateur, said the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act shielding children from advertising have only been tested in the courts once before.
Irwin Toy took its challenge to the Supreme Court of Canada and lost in 1989. The court ruled that the sections of the law were a "reasonable limit" upon the company's freedom of expression.
"Children are not as equipped as adults to evaluate the persuasive force of advertising," the court wrote. "The legislature reasonably concluded that advertisers should not be able to capitalize upon children's credulity."
Elsewhere in Canada, however, legislatures have left it to broadcasters and advertisers to regulate themselves. The Canadian Code of Advertising Standards allows advertising directed to children but says it "must not exploit their credulity, lack of experience or their sense of loyalty, and must not present information or illustrations that might result in their physical, emotional or moral harm."
Cathy Wing, co-executive director of the Ottawa-based Media Awareness Network, said Quebec is "one of the few places in the world that has legislation like this." But she said it is debatable how effectively any law can protect children from marketing in the Internet age.
"Kids go online, where it's an unregulated environment," she said. "A lot of the education we do is around how kids are targeted online, and they don't really understand the marketing messages in these immersive environments, where entertainment and marketing content are combined."
Her organization's research has shown that Quebec children are being bombarded by online marketing as much as children in the rest of Canada. "When it comes to new media, education is the most important resource that we can put our money into at this point," she said.