About 350 food company executives, government officials, consumer advocates and academics packed a meeting room at the Federal Trade Commission's offices yesterday to discuss a wide range of issues on marketing food to children. One topic not up for discussion was the idea of government regulation.
As the food marketing to children comes under increasing criticism from legislators, advocacy groups and parents, food companies have often expressed the view that they would be better off regulating themselves than having the government intervene. The government, apparently, could not agree more.
In her opening remarks, the chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, Deborah Platt Majoras, said that having the government ban the marketing of certain types of foods was "neither wise nor viable."
"Under the right circumstances, industry-generated action can address problems more quickly, creatively and flexibly than government regulation," she said.
The meeting, attended by most major food companies that market products to children, was an outgrowth of a September 2004 report from the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, on preventing childhood obesity. The report endorsed the idea of industry self-regulation, but also concluded that the Federal Trade Commission "should have authority and resources" to monitor compliance with any industry-generated guidelines.
Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, sharply criticized the food industry's attempts at self-regulation thus far, which have consisted primarily of supporting a five-person organization called the Children's Advertising Review Board, or CARU.
"CARU has become the poster child for how not to do self-regulation," said Senator Harkin, who was one of the few speakers to use the phrase "junk food." The board, he said, "has shown itself to be a captive to the industry."
Senator Harkin has introduced a bill that would lift a 1980 ban on the commission's regulating of advertising aimed at children. He highlighted two surveys showing that majorities of consumers favoring some government restrictions on children's advertising.
"People are always shocked when I tell them that the F.T.C. has authority over ads to adults but not to children," Senator Harkin said. The bill has yet to get much Congressional support.
For its part, the food industry has pledged to strengthen the advertising review board. On Wednesday, an industry trade group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said it had appointed a task force that would look at how the review board oversees the video games most food companies now feature on their Web sites. These so-called "advergames" have been criticized by consumer groups as another way for companies to sell nutritionally deficient food to children.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association also called for an expansion of the board's staff and annual $650,000 budget. In addition, the association has urged that its guidelines be broadened to include monitoring promotional tie-ins with video games and paid product placement on television shows. An association spokesman, Richard Martin, acknowledged that food companies were not doing much of this. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which said that it was acting on behalf of Campbell Soup, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Nestlé USA, PepsiCo, Sara Lee and Unilever USA, also said it would look at having the advertising board monitor the popular and much-criticized practice of using licensed cartoon characters in food advertising and packaging.
In brief remarks, food company executives emphasized their efforts to sell healthier food and to provide more education to consumers about healthy eating and regular exercise. Brock Leach, chief innovation officer for PepsiCo, championed its SmartSpot program that helps consumers identify "better for you" products. Abigail Rodgers, vice president for wellness strategies at Coca-Cola, highlighted a middle-school program that would feature Lance Armstrong talking about exercise, and Michael Donahue, vice president for communications and customer satisfaction in the United States for McDonald's, said it now sold 300 million salads a year in the United States.
But critics complained that there was little talk by the companies of making real changes to their marketing to children. With the exception of Kraft, food companies have not committed themselves to altering substantially the kinds of foods they market to children.
In January, Kraft announced it would market to children only those products that meet its new nutritional guidelines for healthier choices. In a recent interview, Lance Friedman, Kraft's senior vice president for global health and wellness, said that ads for Oreo's cookies and for Jell-O had not been running on children's television shows all year.
But the food industry as a whole has so far balked at adopting similar standards. In the past, the advertising review board has limited itself to actions like approaching food manufacturers when products are being marketed in a misleading way or when ads for candy or snacks suggest that these items can be consumed as a meal.
The association says is it is opposed to nutritional guidelines because it does not believe there are any bad foods. "Any food can be responsibly consumed by everyone, including kids," Mr. Martin said.
Though much of the concern over food marketing to children is inspired by the seemingly endless number of times children see ads or promotions for unhealthy food, Dr. Pauline M. Ippolito, an associate director in the bureau of economics at the Federal Trade Commission, presented results of a study showing that over the last two and a half decades, the number of food ads seen by children on television has declined. But Ms. Ippolito acknowledged that as the television market has become more fragmented, food manufacturers have shifted their dollars to other forms of marketing and promotion.
MELANIE WARNER, The New York Times. July 15, 2005
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