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Company rivalry hinders junk food ad pledges, says study

By Sarah Hills , 30-Jun-2011

The food industry is under fire again for advertising foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) to children and this time competition is being blamed.

A so-called “civil war” between European food manufacturers is leading to large numbers of promotions and advertisements about these foods being aimed at children, according to the author of a new EU-funded study published today.

This is despite voluntary pledges from leading companies that such marketing efforts would cease, said the report: “A Junk-Free Childhood: Responsible standards for marketing foods and beverages to children”, published by the International Association for the Study of Obesity.

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) has also rounded on the food industry about the issue, for making what it calls “empty promises”.

This has led to fresh calls for tight regulation on “junk food” advertising to children – a move which the author, Dr Tim Lobstein, said would probably be quietly welcomed by the food industry.

Answer to shareholders, not children

Lobstein told FoodNavigator.com that many food companies might like a level playing field with regard to advertising.

He said: “These companies have to answer to their shareholders, not to children.

“The companies are caught in a very difficult position. Their legal duty comes first - protecting children is a bit of a bonus if you can.”

The types of foods being focused on are soft drinks, snack foods, sweet breakfast cereals and fast foods.

In the 2007 EU Pledge, 11 leading food and beverage companies agreed to stop junk food ads on TV, in print and on the internet to under-12s by the end of 2008.

The signatories included Burger King, Coca-Cola, Danone, Ferrero, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Nestlé, Unilever, LU Snack Foods (Kraft Food) and PepsiCo.

Lobstein said that among the voluntary pledges the nutrition criteria describing what the industry would restrict differed widely, for example, in the level of fats or sugar they considered suitable.

He added: “We found disagreement concerning what age the rules should apply, and whether or not company-owned websites should be included in self-regulations. We also found big gaps in what was covered, with companies disagreeing about the use of toys with products, brands in advergames, and equity brand characters like Tony the Tiger and Quiky the Nesquik bunny.”

He added: “The children's food market is worth billions of Euros and the struggle for access is tantamount to civil war in the food industry. In this context self-regulation is ineffective and only serves to defer proper controls.”

Lobstein said that the UK was leading the field, banning junk food TV ads when programmes aimed at children are shown, but an EU-wide approach was needed.

Last year the UK media watchdog Ofcom said that children had been exposed to less HFSS products through TV advertising since 2005 and it saw no need to tighten the current regulations.