WFA Analysis: What next for food marketing?

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02/07/2010
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It may have taken the best part of a decade of deliberation but finally, in May, the World Health Organisation (WHO) adopted a set of recommendations on food marketing to children. These represent guidelines for the 193 member states of the United Nations.

Faithful to the industry in question, they offer an la carte menu of policy options. It will be up to individual governments to implement the recommendations as they see fit in their national contexts.

Door is open to self-regulation
The WHO advocates "a variety of approaches" of which statutory regulation is one and industry-led self-regulation another, "and can be independent of government regulation."

This is a significant departure from previous WHO rhetoric. At the WFA-hosted Global Advertising Summit in 2004, Catherine Le Gals-Camus, former Assistant Director General for Health and Non-Communicable Diseases, unequivocally stated that self-regulation had not worked in the past and was not perceived by WHO as a legitimate policy option.

Over the past six years, industry has managed to significantly change perceptions about the potential benefits of effective self-regulation. This is no small achievement and can be put down to three overriding factors: meaningful engagement, the development of a vision of responsibility and independent data to demonstrate delivery.

Defining responsibilities
In 2008, The International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA), representing the industry's largest global food manufacturers wrote to the WHO Director General, Dr Chan, making five commitments to be undertaken over five years. One of these was on food marketing communications to children.

Critically, this opened a direct dialogue with the WHO on the basis of tangible deliverables. In parallel, WFA formulated a comprehensive vision for responsible food and beverage marketing. This blueprint lays out industry's responsibilities in terms of food marketing and children.

The Blueprint is based on two fundamental pillars: changing the "nature" and "balance" (or "power" and "exposure", to use WHO terminology) of food advertising to children. In other words, "how" you advertise (the marketing techniques employed) and what you advertise (the product itself). IFBA and WFA has committed to implementing this vision globally. The rapid development of pledge programmes around the world - critical to changing the types of product marketed to children - is testament to this commitment.

Monitoring to engender trust
Children's health is a highly emotive issue and one which wins political votes. Activists have successfully won hearts and minds worldwide with sensationalist headlines suggesting companies put profit before the health of young people. Trust in industry is in short supply. It's all very well to say that we are self-regulating but are industry commitments really making a difference?

Independent data from trusted third parties show that they are. The EU Pledge, a commitment by eleven major food manufacturers, has made a very real difference to the types of food being advertised to children in the EU comparing 2005 to 2009/10.

These companies have reduced advertising of all their products by 61% across European children's programmes and by 30% in all programmes on all channels at all times. Children's programmes witnessed a 93% decline in advertising for products that do not meet companies' nutritional criteria and a 56% decline in advertising for these products across the board. These figures are significant. But, most importantly, they are independent and irrefutable.

Global change
The EU Pledge has become the blueprint for the IFBA company commitments globally. We would therefore hope that the same trend is being replicated across the globe. It will be essential that IFBA and WFA - and its industry partners worldwide - demonstrate that company commitments are having a real and tangible impact.

Self-regulation has shown it can be successful in responding to the policy objectives of the recommendations, that is to say, changing how and what food is promoted to children. It is critical that success is only measured against these indicators. There is consensus that obesity is a highly complex and multi-factorial issue. Marketing does have an effect on food choice. Of course it does. But all the evidence shows it to be just one, relatively small, factor among a complex web of determinants.

Industry is part of the solution but not the whole of the problem. We can only play our part in addressing overweight and obesity. But while waistlines grow, particularly in developing nations, pressure will remain on the food industry to continue to engage with policy-makers, explain and implement our vision of responsibility and provide independent data to demonstrate that we are delivering.

US support
The WHO recommendations were met with support from the US Surgeon-General, Regina Benjamin: "[They] should play a significant role in helping member states promote healthier patterns of eating as part of efforts to reduce the growing epidemic of childhood obesity," she stated. "This is a priority for the Obama administration, in particular for the First Lady, who has raised awareness of childhood obesity and the importance of healthy eating."

In May, Michelle Obama unveiled a 70-point plan for reducing childhood obesity within a generation. It includes a call for marketing healthier food, but stopped short of recommending regulatory action. Yet, all policy options remain on the table.

It may be that the world's largest economy - and biggest waistline - sets a precedent that others will find hard not to follow.


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