With rising rates of childhood obesity and diabetes, you might think that when the federal government convenes a meeting on how food companies market food to kids, talk of how to regulate industry practices might actually be on the agenda.
But you'd be wrong. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services co-hosted a workshop in Washington entitled, Perspectives on Marketing, Self-Regulation, and Childhood Obesity. But what should have been a forum on how to set limits around the marketing of junk food to children turned into a PR opportunity for industry. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) got it right when he said in his opening remarks that "corporate America spends $12 billion a year on food ads to kids because it works."
The only reason that FTC and HHS bothered to hold the meeting at all was that the Institute of Medicine recommended they do so in its report on childhood obesity last year. Specifically, the IOM called on the government to "convene a national conference to develop guidelines for the advertising and marketing of food and beverages directed at children." They also recommended that "the Federal Trade Commission have the authority and resources to monitor compliance with food and beverage advertising practices."
But none of this was even remotely discussed in Washington. And no wonder. By conservative estimates, a full two-thirds of the panelists - hand-picked by FTC and HHS - had financial ties to either the food or advertising industries. To add insult to injury, from the chairman of the FTC on down, nearly every government official who had the chance made clear that regulation of junk food ads aimed at children was not on the table and wouldn't be anytime soon. FTC Commissioner Thomas Leary went so far as to warn against the government becoming a "nanny state." If this sounds familiar, it's because that's usually industry's line.
And industry should thank Uncle Sam for providing them with a very expensive press conference. Among the 350 attendees were reporters from all the major outlets. And sure enough, much of the media spin included the industry promises of doing right by America's kids, with only a modicum of criticism from public interest groups.
For example, Nickelodeon took the opportunity to announce that its popular children's character, SpongeBob, will soon be hawking spinach and carrots. Notably lacking was any promise of removing his image from such unhealthy products as Pop Tarts, Kraft Cheese-Its and Breyers cookie-dough ice cream.
Also, the Grocery Manufacturers of America - the major trade group for the food industry - announced with much fanfare a set of recommendations to boost self-regulation, an obvious attempt at staving off any government intervention, as if they had anything to worry about. But what GMA conveniently neglected to mention was how they are on record as opposing just about every school nutrition bill across the country. So much for caring about children's health.
The food industry works hard to keep the focus on self-regulatory mechanisms such as the Children's Advertising Review Unit, the industry-supported 5-person shop that cannot possibly monitor all the ways that children are bombarded with food marketing these days. Yet, Elizabeth Lascoutx, director of CARU, presented her organization as doing a stellar job of monitoring food ads, making several misleading statements in the process (which seems ironic for the head of an organization charged with monitoring deceptive advertising). For example, she said that McDonald's had agreed to alter an ad campaign to show healthier choices in their children's ads, when in fact, the company disagreed with CARU's determination that the commercials were misleading.
Coca-Cola also took the opportunity to misrepresent itself. Abigail Rodgers, vice president of "Wellness Strategies and Communication" claimed that the company does not sell soda in elementary schools. Trouble is, a survey of Kentucky schools revealed that soda is sold in 44 percent of elementary schools. And Coca-Cola was a powerful lobbying force against four legislative attempts to pass a state bill to get soda out of schools. But Ms. Rodgers forgot to mention that, along with the other state bills Coca-Cola has helped kill or weaken, including those in California, New Mexico, Arizona, Connecticut, Indiana, and Oregon.
There was precious little opportunity for advocacy representation or public participation. Only a handful of panel slots were allotted to public health or children's advocates. Even then, their voices were drowned out by the likes of PepsiCo and Kraft, who were each given two separate opportunities to speak, an honor not bestowed on anyone else. Moreover, questions from the audience were tightly controlled by government officials, pre-screened by moderators. Only in response to pressure from advocates did the FTC alter the agenda at the last minute to include a brief "open forum" at the very end of the day, after all the reporters and most attendees had already left. Clearly Uncle Sam was not interested in hearing from the public on this matter.
Senator Harkin said he hoped that the meeting would not be just window dressing, but it turned out to be far worse. The motto of the Federal Trade Commission is "For the Consumer" but with this meeting, it might as well have been, "For the Industry." It is certainly not, "For the Children."