In kicking off the Federal Trade Commission's Dec. 15 public hearing on food marketing and childhood obesity, FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz called on the food industry to "supersize" its efforts and "boldly reinvent the food marketplace."
Leibowitz acknowledged "heartening" progress made by the food industry since a 2005 FTC/Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) workshop on food marketing to children, including healthier food offerings and changes in marketing practices implemented by the now-14 food companies and two restaurant chains (McDonald's, Burger King) participating in the Council of Better Business Bureaus' self-regulatory Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. He also acknowledged that marketing is "only one factor" contributing to childhood obesity.
However, Leibowitz noted the non-participation of some key food and beverage companies -- such as Yum Brands -- as well as other restaurant chains, and maintained that change has been coming in "small increments."
He said that the FTC and other government agencies comprising the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketing to Children "continue to believe that the food industry and children's media are trying to effect positive change," but added that companies "cannot simply congratulate themselves" on meeting self-regulatory pledges. "We need to be sure that the pledges are adequate," he said.
Leibowitz said that the magnitude of the health and societal issues posed by obesity among children requires faster implementation of recommendations made by the FTC in its 2008 report on marketing food to children. That report was based on analysis of 2006 marketing data subpoenaed from food companies and quick-serve restaurants.
Specifically, he said that it's time for all food and beverage firms to adhere to "meaningful, nutrition-based standards," and that self-regulatory standardization is needed to "close nutrition loopholes."
He also said that marketing-to-children standards should span all media, including virtual media and in-store and packaging promotions. He described children's food marketing as "more integrative and immersive than ever before," citing examples of highly trafficked, branded online game sites such as Millsberry.com.
Leibowitz warned that while the FTC and other agencies involved "continue to encourage" the industry's self-regulatory approach,"many in Congress" will call for more direct regulatory oversight "if action doesn't come from the private sector."
As noted in a statement during the forum by Dan Jaffe, EVP at the Association of National Advertisers, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has proposed repealing the limitation on the FTC's unfairness rulemaking authority over children's advertising that Congress put in place in the late 1970s. In addition, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has circulated a letter to Congressional colleagues stating that he intends to introduce legislation to eliminate the current tax deduction for advertising of "fast food and junk food" marketed to children.
Leibowitz also said that it's time for the entertainment industry, and particularly children's cable television networks, "to play a constructive role" in changing the children's food marketing environment. Nickelodeon already has indicated that it will adjust its practices accordingly once uniform standards exist, he reported.