In this system, industry self-regulating won’t work

A constant thread in US food politics is the issue of food marketing to children. While parents of unhealthy or overweight children are responsible  for their kids’ health, we seldom acknowledge that they are up against a billion dollar marketing machine that persuades children to buy their products: at school, in the classroom, on TV, on billboards– it’s sick the amount of energy that goes into crafting new ways to reach kids. I make it sound dramatic– that’s because it is. Kids are the ideal consumers because their minds are malleable. The Rudd Center has some quick facts that demonstrate how fast food sellers target children and minorities on the web and on tv.

Most recent data says that 12.5 million children today are obese, those are just documented cases. Everyone from public health experts, to USDA officials, FDA, Congress, and even Michelle Obama have identified marketing at kids as a central cause for the health statistics we’ve seen in children as of late (childhood obesity, and diabetes, overweight). Formal requests to food companies to change their practices and “voluntary commitments” from the same companies have been a recent trend. Congress asked the Federal Trade Commission to set up the Interagency Working Group and present guidelines on marketing foods to kids. But here’s the thing: companies have to market in order to maximize sales. They also aim to raise profits from the years prior, which places more emphasis on marketing. Guidelines that restrict their marketing also restrict their revenue. This has been stated clearly in the pushback from food companies and the media companies that do their advertising. Marion Nestle quotes one such company here,

Media companies also opposed the IWG guidelines, as shown by Viacom’s annual filing with the Security and Exchange Commission, a document forwarded to me by Jeffrey Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy:

…some U.S. policymakers have sought limitations on food and beverage marketing in media popular with children and teens. In April 2011, the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (the “IWG”)…requested comment on proposed nutritional restrictions for food and beverage marketing directed to children and teens aged 17 years and under.

Although the guidelines are nominally voluntary, if implemented by food and beverage marketers, they could have a negative impact on our Media Networks advertising revenues, particularly for our networks with programming targeted to children and teens.

Giants like PepsiCo exist to increase revenue, and cramping their style with marketing guidelines is wishful thinking. Thanks to our democratic system of lobbying, giants can afford to badger government out of enforcing regulations that may threaten their sales.

Foodpolitics.com: Last quarter PepsiCo spent $750,000 to lobby the House, Senate, Executive Office of the President, FTC, FDA and USDA on . This is about $3 million annually.

  • Childhood Obesity (generally, no specific legislation)
  • Food and beverage labeling (generally, no specific legislation)
  • Marketing and advertising issues in response to Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG) (see previous posts)
  • Restrictions on use of supplemental nutrition assistance program (no specific legislation)
  • Implementation of S. 3307-healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010

In fairness, PepsiCo has tried to promote children’s health through a soft drink campaign recently. But that’s just it: on one hand Big Food commits to PR campaigns that sell the idea of health, but such promotional campaigns are always linked to a sale, typically of a product that is unhealthy. Meanwhile lobbyists work behind the scenes to fight regulatory policies. A lot of fuss while avoiding the central problem: the products they sell are health hazards, and protecting consumers diet health is not a corporate priority.

What’s really important is the point that Nestle makes at the end of her recent post: If they don’t sell products to kids in the U.S., they will intensify efforts to sell products to kids in developing countries, thereby outsourcing childhood obesity. This trend is already on the rise, oddly across opposite class lines: Western diet foods are associated with luxury, so whoever can afford to consume them is susceptible to their attached risk. I’m hoping to write a post soon about this, childhood health trends in other countries and the Western Diet.

The bottom line is that voluntary self-regulation is unlikely to produce any powerful reversing of these trends.

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