A growing focus on childhood obesity has caused food marketing to children to become a rising issue. A panel of experts will discuss the topic in a session entitled "To Market, to Market: Selling Food to Children" at the upcoming International Dairy Show in Dallas on Sept. 14. Food Manufacturing spoke with panelist Elaine Kolish about the state of advertising to kids in the food industry.
Q: Why is marketing food to children such a hot topic right now?
A: With childhood obesity reaching epidemic proportions, there is great urgency to reverse this trend. Although experts agree that obesity is a complex problem, requiring a multi-faceted response, food marketing to kids is so visible that it receives a great deal of attention. This provides opportunities for food marketers to engage and be a part of the solution. At the same time, it is important to remember that multiple strategies are needed to combat childhood obesity. The First Lady’s “Let’s Move!” Initiative does just that. Its strategies include providing healthier food in schools and ensuring access to healthy affordable food.
Q: What is wrong with the current way food companies market to children?
A: The concern is that foods high in calories and high in fats, sugars and sodium are being heavily advertised to children and affecting their dietary preferences and eating habits. The participants in BBB’s Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) have stepped up to be a part of the solution and to address those concerns through rigorous and comprehensive self regulation that has changed what’s being advertised to kids.
Q: What voluntary actions is the food industry making to limit marketing to children?
A: Under the CFBAI, 16 leading food companies have agreed to limit what they show in advertising primarily directed to children under 12 to products that meet solid, reasonable nutrition standards that are familiar to nutrition professionals, or not to advertise to them at all. For example, five companies are not advertising to kids at all or are not advertising their candy products to them any longer. For others, because of their use of nutrition standards some products are no longer being advertised, and many others have been reformulated to meet the standards and new products that meet the standards have been developed. None of the products are high in calories. For example, no individual product has more than 200 calories, no entrees more than 350 and no meals more than 600 calories.
Since the beginning of the program in 2007, the participants’ commitments have applied to child-directed advertising on traditional measured media (TV, radio, print and Internet) and child-directed company-owned sites. The program recently expanded and now participants’ commitments also apply to emerging social media advertising outlets such as cell phones, PDAs, and word-of-mouth advertising. We also now cover advertising on child-directed interactive games and DVDs. Additionally, the participants have agreed not to seek out or pay for product placement in media that is child-directed, and not to advertise their products in schools to children in pre-kindergarten through 6th grade.
Q: There are several government proposals seeking to limit foods marked to children. What changes are these proposals recommending?
Congress had directed the FTC, USDA, FDA and CDC to work together (Interagency Working Group) to submit a report to Congress by July 15, 2010 with recommendations on nutrition standards for food marketing to children under 18. That deadline was not met, however. The tentative, proposed standards released in December 2009 would limit the foods that could be advertised to foods low in fat and saturated fat, had no more than 200 mg of sodium and had little added sugars, and at the same time had significant amounts of positive food groups. Since December, the IWG has received lots of informal feedback on these standards. For voluntary standards to be effective they need to take into account some fundamental realities of food science, such as the difficulty of significantly reducing sodium content while maintaining palatability. We all want the nation’s children to have healthy body weights, but creating and marketing foods that kids won’t eat won’t make kids healthier. As currently drafted, the standards would exclude virtually all foods currently advertised to kids, including products widely viewed as wholesome such as whole grain breads, yogurts, low or fat-free flavored milks, peanut butter, packaged oatmeals, many cereals with whole grains, and many products with small serving sizes. The IWG plans to publish its proposal in the Federal Register and seek comment before issuing its report to Congress, and whether the agencies will seek comment on the proposed standards as previously released or a new version is unknown. The standards, when finally issued in the report to Congress, will not have any legal effect, but one can expect advertisers will be asked to adopt them voluntarily.
Interview by Lindsey Coblentz, Associate Editor