Showdown looms on food advertising to children

A simple Federal Trade Commission “conference” on food industry advertising and childhood obesity, scheduled for July 14-15, should turn into quite a heated affair, based on comments filed by groups wishing to address the meeting.

“Industry self-regulation of food marketing to children is a 30-year experiment that has utterly failed,” wrote Michele Simon, director of the Center for Informed Food Choices. “One only needs to turn on any children’s television show to see the plain evidence of this reality. Having a few well-meaning statements on a web site about such ideas as not taking advantage of a child’s imagination is insufficient considering the onslaught of marketing messages that bombard children on a daily basis.”

On the other hand, a number of food companies and food industry groups also had filed requests to speak. Mark Berlind, Kraft Foods’ executive vice president of global corporate affairs, wrote: “We have adopted advertising practices that we hope will help children and their parents make better food choices, such as beginning to restrict the products we advertise in television, radio and print media seen primarily by children 6-11 to those that meet our new Sensible Solution criteria.”

To which Simon replied: “Kraft’s new Sensible Solutions labeling program is just another clever marketing scheme. Nutrition experts agree that these health claims boil down to nothing more than marketing gimmicks.”

From some third parties: “We would like the opportunity to discuss the important role that advertising agencies play in the marketing and advertising process, and the mechanisms that agencies utilize to market products, especially to children, in a responsible way,” said the American Assn. of Advertising Agencies. And: “The preponderance of scientific data says childhood obesity cannot be blamed on any single factor, nor will it be solved by a single-minded approach. Experts across the health and nutrition spectrum agree that the rise in obesity is the result of a wide variety of economic, cultural, social and genetic factors,” according to the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition.

“My concern is that this process, like the great majority of related efforts, seems to undervalue the critical role played by physical inactivity in the obesity epidemic,” wrote Walter Bortz, who identified himself as being with the Stanford University School of Medicine. “The nutritional elements are voluminously documented and require address, but to do so without … exploration of the multiple impacts which societal physical inactivity play in this scenario is irresponsible and unworthy.”

“Product improvement and marketing initiatives can have demonstrably beneficial impacts on health and nutrition in the U.S.,” added Kendall Powell, executive vice president of U.S. retail for General Mills. “Without the ability to effectively advertise and market, however, companies would not be able to justify the investment in product improvements and consumer education efforts that positively affect consumer health.”

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