Today one in three American children are overweight or obese. Restricting unhealthy food marketing to youth is one important step in addressing this crisis. Corporations spend close to $1.6 billion marketing food to children each year. Kids see unhealthy food marketing on television commercials and product placements, on websites featuring “advergames” based around foods, and even in schools.
Unfortunately much of the food that’s marketed to children is terrible for their health: sugary cereals, soda and drinks loaded with sugar and corn syrup, fast food and snacks.
At the request of Congress, the federal government recently proposed best practices for food marketing to children and teenagers. The new proposed guidelines recommend that food and beverages marketed to children have low levels of added sugar, salt, and fat and that they make a “meaningful contribution” to a healthy diet. Public health advocates have praised the guidelines as a useful step in changing the food marketing landscape. Note that the guidelines are not regulations, but recommendations for voluntary action. There are no legal repercussions whatsoever should food companies chose not to follow them.
So, how do some food companies respond when the government suggests voluntary best practices? That perhaps high sugar cereals and desserts branded with children’s cartoons aren’t the best things to market to children?
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) claims that the standards are needlessly strict. Food industry organizations have protested that some soups, vegetable juices, cereals and yogurts currently marketed to children would not meet the standards, that any ostensibly healthy food would not meet the standards brings into question just how common added fat, sugar, and salt are in processed foods marketed to children.
They propose weaker alternatives:
The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), an industry self-regulatory effort made up of seventeen food corporations led by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, has proposed an alternative set of standards that are much weaker than the government standards. While most foods currently acceptable under CFBAI would not meet the government standard, two-thirds would meet CFBAI’s new uniform standard. Most products that do not meet the new CFBAI standard would require minimal adjustments to do so. In other words, the CFBAI’s new standard does not actually make significant improvements over the current situation. (See a list of foods and beverages currently considered healthy enough to market to children under CFBAI.)
They lobby Congress:
General Mills, Kellogg, and PepsiCo — three companies that participate in CFBAI — have lobbied Congress to weaken the Principles as part of a media and food industry effort called the Sensible Food Policy Coalition. It seems they would like to have their cake and eat it too, claiming credit for their efforts to reduce junk food marketing to kids all the while working to ensure the government creates the weakest definition of junk food possible.
Whom do we trust to create better guidelines for food marketing to children: collaboration of experts from the Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or a food industry collaboration that includes companies lobbying for weak definitions of junk food?