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Prevention Institute

July 28, 2011

At Local, State, and National Levels, Industry Undermines Efforts to Improve Food Marketing

As local, state, and national advocates make headway on policies that limit the harmful impact of junk food marketing, there is an increasing tug-of-war between health experts and industry. While food, beverage, and chain restaurant companies make small concessions on the front end, they’re working overtime behind the scenes to de-rail community efforts. Though seemingly disparate stories, our round-up of recent events paints a picture of the tactics industry is using to undermine public health:

  • Fast food restaurants have been working in states across the country to quietly pre-empt local ordinances aimed at improving the nutritional quality of restaurant foods. Senior attorney Samantha Graff of Public Health Law and Policy said in reaction, “all of a sudden we’re seeing this legislation get slipped into pending bills at the 11th hour under the radar of public health advocates.”  But it’s not the lobbying that fast food companies are highlighting in press releases. On Tuesday, July 26th, McDonald’s announced they will be adding a serving of fruit or vegetable to all meals aimed at children, and will shrink the portion of French fries. This follows on the heels of the recently introduced “Kid’s Live Well” initiative, where 19 participating restaurants have agreed to offer at least one healthier kids meal on their menu. If these companies were serious about kids’ health, they’d move beyond baby steps and offer a truly healthier kids’ meal as the default and back it up with marketing dollars. And they’d stop interfering with local policy. Until then, we’re not impressed. 

  • Last April, the Interagency Working Group (IWG), a collaboration of four federal agencies including the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), released its long-awaited, proposed voluntary nutritional guidelines on foods marketed to kids. For the first time, the proposed guidelines would set strong, evidence-based nutrition criteria. But from the first day IWG released its guidelines, food and beverage companies have been campaigning hard against them. And on July 14th – the same day the public comment period for IWGs guidelines closed -- the Council of Better Business Bureau’s Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), comprised of 15 food and beverage industry leaders, announced their own, much weaker set of uniform standards for food marketing to children. In response to the release of CFBAI’s new marketing standards, Margo Wootan of Center for Science in the Public Interest states, "It's great news that, at long last, the industry realizes that the current patchwork of inconsistent company pledges is not working, and that industry-wide nutrition guidelines are needed," However, the announcement from the CFBAI is "a transparent attempt to undermine the stronger standards proposed by the government's Interagency Working Group.”

  • The American Beverage Association (ABA) has begun a series of legal attacks against health departments across the country over efforts to educate communities about limiting consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. This effort to squash community education aimed at reducing soda intake is a stark reminder that industry initiatives, such as the ABA’s recent “Clear on Calories” labeling campaign, are about promoting the brand -- not improving public health.

Take Action

  • Submit online comments to at least one of the stories mentioned above.

  • Write a blog, op-ed or letter to the editor of your local paper in support of policy efforts to limit the harmful impact of junk food marketing. Read our tips for how to get published.

  • Send a letter to Kraft and General Mills, telling them to stop aggressively lobbying Congress to keep IWG’s voluntary standards from moving forward.

Here some angles to cover in your online comments, letters to the editor, blogs, and op-eds:

  • Industry needs to stop putting up barriers to health efforts. Food and beverage companies say they want to be part of the solution. If they care about the health of kids and families, and not just their bottom line, they will support science-based guidelines on marketing to kids, and they’ll let local communities decide what kinds of foods should be available and marketed. For those food companies who really do want to be part of the solution, it's time to walk the talk.

  • When it comes to families and kids, we’ve got to put health ahead of profits. The evidence is clear: food marketing influences what kids eat. Yet almost 100% of the ads they're seeing are for foods that are high in fat, sugar or sodium.

  • A strong step in the right direction. Food companies spend $2 billion a year on food marketing to children – most of it unhealthy – and it’s paying off.  Today, nearly 40% of kids’ calories come from unhealthy fats and added sugars – the building blocks of junk food.  If we’re going to safeguard child health, it will take initiatives like this to move companies in the right direction.

  • We need policies that protect children and families, and that means stronger government oversight of food marketing. The current system puts the onus on parents to shield their kids. But when food marketers have access to children in schools, in stores, on television, and increasingly on the internet, parents have the odds stacked against them. Limiting the reach of junk food marketing helps shift the balance in the right direction. After all, parents can't do it all alone.

  • We can’t afford not to invest in prevention. Preventable illness and chronic disease related to unhealthy eating and lack of physical activity accounts for nearly 17% of our health care costs —that’s $168 million a year in medical costs alone. Policies that limit the marketing of junk food to kids are critical strategies if we are to reverse unprecedented surges in Type II diabetes and an array of health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and cancer.

Did you pitch a story, submit an editorial, or get something in the news?
Send us a quick note so we can make sure your efforts are recognized.

Food Industry: Walk the Talk to Protect Our Kids' Health

Federal guidelines that would help support healthy foods for kids are under attack. Larry explains why in his Huffington Post blog.

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