In what became a verbal food fight, a Washington consumer group held a press conference yesterday urging food marketers to voluntarily quit promoting junk food to children, and industry representatives showed up to rebut the proposals immediately afterward.
The jousting started when the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which regularly weighs in on nutrition issues, outlined voluntary guidelines calling for a complete halt to promoting soda, caffeinated drinks and sugary drinks; foods largely devoid of nutrients, fruits, vegetable and whole grains; foods high in fats, added sugars or salt; and large-portion products.
The advocacy group also asked food companies and television stations to stop advertising junk food on shows with more than a quarter of the audience under age 18 and to halt the use of toys, games, contests or other incentives to promote nutritionally poor foods. That would mean no more toys in kids' meals at fast-food restaurants unless the meals were more healthful, the group said. It also urged food companies to limit cross-promotions with movies or television shows and to completely stop marketing unhealthful food in schools.
"Clearly, parents bear the primary responsibility for feeding their children a healthy diet," said Margo G. Wootan, the group's nutrition policy director. But, she said, "parents are fighting a losing battle against food marketers," which have more than doubled their marketing spending in the past 10 years to $15 billion. Every day, children see about 58 commercial messages from television alone, and about half of those are for food products, the group said.
Food and advertising officials disagreed with Wootan's facts and proposals, handing out press releases and giving television interviews after the CSPI news conference.
Daniel L. Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers Inc., which represents more than 300 companies that advertise more than 8,000 brands, said his group's research has shown that food and restaurant advertising aimed at children dropped between 1993 and 2003.
"By narrowly focusing on advertising and marketing, CSPI misses the point," the Grocery Manufacturers of America said in a statement. "Effective solutions must incorporate sound nutrition, increased physical activity, consumer and parent education and community support."
Industry's quick reaction to the consumer group's proposal shows the heightened sensitivity to the issue of marketing to children, as health officials have become increasingly concerned with childhood obesity. "Over the last 20 years, the rates of obesity have doubled in younger children and tripled in teenagers," CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson said.
In addition to its voluntary guidelines, the group recently hired a director of litigation to develop lawsuits against food industry practices, Jacobson said after the press conference. One example, Wootan said, would be suing a manufacturer of fruit snacks for making it appear that there was a lot of fruit in the product when there was really more sugar than fruit.
Lawsuits will help pressure the industry into making foods more nutritious, Jacobson said. "A well-planned lawsuit would be like being smacked by a two-by-four."
Caroline E. Mayer, Washington Post. January 7, 2005
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