Just before the market melt-down captured the attention of Congress, a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee held the latest in what has become a series of hearings on the state of food marketing to children and its links to the obesity epidemic.
In testimony that reads much like students reporting on the progress of long-term research assignments, the various constituencies-regulators, industry representatives and advocates-weighed in. Presiding was Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who convened the public-private Joint Task Force on Media and Childhood Obesity, and who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.
In testimony that mirrored a report submitted to the subcommittee in July, Federal Trade Commission Commissioner Jon Leibowitz cited with approval the food industry’s self-regulatory efforts through an initiative established by the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB). Under the CBBB initiative, participating companies develop individual pledges to limit their advertising to young children to healthier foods.
“Under the right circumstances, industry-generated solutions have the potential to address a public health problem of this magnitude quickly, creatively, and flexibly,” Commissioner Leibowitz stated.
However, Patti Miller, Vice President of Children Now, disagreed as to the effectiveness of the CBBB initiative. “The initiative is insufficient for three main reasons,” she stated. She cited the lack of uniform nutritional standards defining healthier foods and beverages, a “loop hole” that allows companies to advertise “better for you” foods that contain reduced amounts of sugar and fat, but are nonetheless not healthy, and the lack of participation by media companies.
Some media companies have taken steps to limit advertising to healthier foods, restrict licensing of their popular kids’ characters to healthier foods, and provide healthy lifestyle messaging, testified Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin.
Nonetheless, Chairman Martin also pronounced himself “disappointed in those media companies [that have] made no solid commitments in these areas.” He cited the UK’s communications authority, Ofcom, which has banned advertising of high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) foods and beverages to children on children’s television channels.
“While it was-and always is-my hope that we will not have to resort to actual requirements, and I strongly encouraged the media companies to propose some voluntary limitations on advertising targeting our children, in the end no widespread voluntary commitment on behalf of the media industry was forthcoming,” he said.