September 23rd, 2008

Panel Hears Thoughts on Food Marketing to Kids

By Emily Fredrix
The Washington Post

Combating the growing obesity problem among children will require stronger action at all levels from food makers to governments and schools, witnesses told U.S. lawmakers Tuesday at a hearing about how foods are marketed to kids.

Some members of the Senate Committee on Appropriations in Washington heard from government entities including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the country’s largest food maker, Kraft Foods Inc., as they decide what measures might be necessary.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, the head of the CDC, said children can’t make healthy food decisions for themselves and they and their parents are being influenced by advertising. She said researchers must understand the relationship between advertising and obesity, and that there should be standards and agreement on what healthy choices are.

“This is job one for our nation,” Gerberding said. “This is our future. We owe it to our children and we’ve got to do a lot more than we have been doing to get this problem under control.”

The Senate panel had commissioned a report released in late July that looked at 44 companies and their marketing practices. The report by the Federal Trade Commission said the nation’s largest food and beverage companies spent about $1.6 billion in 2006 marketing their products to children between the ages of 2 and 17. Spending on soda marketing, it found, was worth $492 million, with most of it directed toward adolescents.

The report suggested media and entertainment companies limit the licensing of characters to just healthier foods and drinks, school should adopt meaningful nutrition standards and food companies that market food and drinks to children should do more outreach to educate children about healthy eating and exercise.

Marc Firestone, general counsel for Kraft, said many companies are pledging to curtail their advertising of certain products to children. He said Kraft, the maker of Oreo cookies, only advertises foods that meet certain criteria for nutrition _ like graham crackers _ to children ages 6 to 11.

He urged more companies to join the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a voluntary plan that includes a pledge for companies to devote at least half their advertising for children under 12 to promote healthier food choices. The initiative has 15 members, including foodmakers like ConAgra Foods Inc., General Mills Inc. and Kellogg Co.

“We would like to see the entire industry following a similar approach,” Firestone told the panel.

But Patti Miller, vice president of the advocacy group Children Now, said the companies must have uniform nutrition standards so that when they pledge to advertise healthy food, it is consistent.

Otherwise, “it creates situations where similar food products will be classified as ‘healthy’ for kids by one company but will be considered ‘unhealthy’ for kids by another company’s standards,” she said, according to written testimony.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, led the panel. He said the industry must regulate itself to come up with better standards.

“We are at a crisis stage in this and self-regulation is the better route to go _ but if it doesn’t work then the other steps move on forward,” he said.

Jon Leibowitz, a commissioner with the FTC, said the agency was monitoring the industry and would do a follow-up report if it were requested. 

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