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Fed Obesity Report Seen as Boon To Self-Regulation


Sonia Reyes

Brand Week
May 08, 2006

NEW YORK -- Food giants might agree with critics that the fed's latest report on childhood obesity is largely irrelevant, but for different reasons.

Critics say the 78-page report, by the Federal Trade Commission and the Dept. of Health and Human Services, offers few, if any, real mandates. But firms that sell food or target media at children could say that the recommendations don't matter much because they were being followed before the report was released and even going beyond it. The report, aired last week, offered recommendations including:

• Public health or nonprofit groups should explore an on-pack logo/seal program that flags healthier, lower-calorie foods;

• The industry's self-regulating Children's Advertising Review Unit should explore additional sanctions against repeat offenders. The report also recommended that CARU monitor product placement in movies and videogames as well as on TV;

• CARU and the food companies should set baseline nutrition standards for food that can be marketed to kids.

Critics said the report didn't go far enough. "This new report has one purpose: to stave off legal or legislative action that was recommended in December's [Institute of Medicine] report," said Marion Nestle, professor at New York University’s department of nutrition, food studies and public health. "The industry has had plenty of time to self-regulate. It can't and won't. So I'd call this smoke and mirrors." The IOM report on childhood obesity called on the U.S. Health and Human Services secretary to review, within two years, what progress has been made on the issue and enact legislation if necessary.

Likewise, Susan Linn, instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood coalition, said delegating the heavy lifting to CARU isn't working. "Self-regulation has failed. Junk food marketing to children has escalated unchecked during the decades under CARU's watch," she said.

In the FTC's defense, Michelle Rusk, staff attorney in the division of advertising practice at the FTC said there are "limits" to the FTC's jurisdiction to tighten rules. "It's not where we want to put our resources," she said, adding the food giants' party line: "The industry has shown a willingness to take on the tougher issues of marketing to kids."

Without any direct measures by the FTC, Kraft has curbed its ads to kids under 12, Coke and Pepsi have promised to pull sugary sodas out of schools by the end of the decade and Nickelodeon has had SpongeBob push spinach instead of sweets. Pepsi's Frito-Lay unit has initiated a Smart Spot program flagging nutritious foods that's strikingly similar to the FTC's labeling recommendation.

Most recently, General Mills promised to unveil new ad guidelines for film and music promotions aimed at kids under 12 that will restrict it to products with fewer than 175 calories per serving, and meet other nutritional goals.

"This is a new line in the rock, not sand," Jeff Peterson, director of corporate promotion marketing at General Mills, told an entertainment marketing audience last week in Napa, Calif. The change has led to some "casualties" and "some brands you are used to seeing in movie promotions are not eligible anymore," he acknowledged. Among the products now "off the table" are the Totino's Pizza line, Pillsbury Toaster Strudel and most of its ready-to-bake cookie lines.

Striking a conciliatory tone, the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington suggested in a statement that it would be satisfied if the food industry followed the report's advice: "If the industry wants to salvage [the self-regulatory] system and avoid lawsuits by angry parents, food companies and CARU, it should immediately implement these new government recommendations."

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