The proof that food marketing self-regulation works


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Last month, the EU Commissioner for Health spoke out in favour of the “EU Pledge,” an effort by major multi-national food manufacturers to change how they market their products to children. He described plans to extend the coverage of the pledge to more TV programming and company-owned websites as “an important step in the right direction”.

On the other side of the Atlantic, federal officials welcomed an announcement back in July 2011 by many of the same companies as part of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, to adopt common nutrition criteria for foods advertised to children. The Federal Trade Commission said they would consider these criteria as part of the food marketing guidelines that they have been working on since 2009.

Just last week, the FTC announced that the guidelines would be delayed. “Congress has clearly changed its mind," said their director of public affairs in a statement. “[The government] will be assessing its language and working toward congressional intent." US Congress has now requested a cost-benefit analysis before adopting any recommendations for marketing to children.

Cynics may point to the current economic crisis as a deterrent to statutory restrictions. But the single biggest reason why regulators have deferred taking any final decision is because self-regulation is quite patently working.

The World Health Organisation recommendations on food marketing adopted last year, called on industry “to reduce the impact on children of marketing of foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars or salt.” The industry listened and agreed. And resulting actions are making a real and tangible difference.

Reducing children's exposure to advertising for certain foods
The global food industry committed to changing how it advertised to children under 12 years old. Some companies, such as Coca-Cola and Mars, stopped all advertising to under 12s. Other companies pledged only to advertise better for you products. Importantly, they all agreed to getting third parties to monitor their commitment and measure the overall impact in terms of the foods advertised to children.

The results demonstrate real and substantial change. Independent data show how US children aged 2 to 11 saw 50% less food and beverage ads in children's TV programmes between 2004 and 2010. Comparing 2005 and 2010, European kids saw on average 85% less adverts for products not meeting better for you criteria in children's programmes and 48% less ads for these products during all TV programmes.

Stepping up the commitments
And these commitments have evolved with time. Originally, all TV programmes were covered if over half of the audience was under 12. Now, the commitments apply when just 35% of the audience is in this age group. The commitments always covered TV, print and third-party internet advertising. Now they cover company-owned websites as well. This means that over 90% of food marketing spend is covered in nearly all markets worldwide.

Making a difference globally
And this is key. In a globalised world where technologies cross borders, global companies simply cannot afford to play double standards. This is why they have made these commitments for all markets in which they do business and why the CEOs report back on compliance annually to the World Health Organisation.

Industry has listened to often legitimate concerns about food marketing and has taken note. Food marketing self-regulation has proven itself to work by responding in a meaningful, rapid and transparent manner and at no extra cost to either the state or the consumer. And it is doing so in every country worldwide. Regulators are increasingly acknowledging this but more needs to be done to get the message across at local level.

For more information please contact Will Gilroy

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