While words of praise sprang forth from watchdog and activist groups for the progress being made by food companies to join the fight against childhood obesity, they were tempered by words of caution and a wait-and-see attitude.
The self-imposed rules include pledges by seven companies that will no longer use licensed characters to advertise online or in print media unless they're promoting their healthier products. Four other companies said they do not advertise at all to children under 12.
The 11 companies, all participants in the Council of Better Business Bureau's Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, are: Cadbury Adams, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Kraft, Mars, McDonald's, PepsiCo and Unilever. It is estimated that these companies accounted for more than two-thirds of children's food and beverage television advertising expenditures in 2004.
Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, lavishly praised industry leaders Kraft and Kellogg, both of whom already have adopted policies to curb their advertising to children.
While she called the commitments "a positive and historic development," Wootan noted that while the companies have agreed to no longer use licensed characters in ads, "many will still use these kid-friendly characters on packaging, and that's a problem."
She urged Hershey, Mars and Coke to join Kraft and General Mills in agreeing not to market unhealthful food to children in middle and high schools. "Coke and Pepsi, in particular, could signal their commitment to kids' health by agreeing to support the school foods bill" sponsored by Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Wootan said.
The absence of Burger King, ConAgra, Nestle and Chuck E. Cheese's "points to the need for much stricter scrutiny of junk food marketing aimed at kids on the part of the Federal Trade Commission and Congress," she added.
Marion Nestle, a noted professor of nutrition at New York University, wished she could be more optimistic about "what seems like amazingly generous concessions by food companies."
While empathizing with what she called the companies' "impossible dilemma: even if they want to do the right thing, they can't if it means losing sales," Nestle cautioned that the companies have made similar promises in the past that were not kept.
"Maybe--just maybe--the companies will behave better because so many are joined in the effort," she said. "But who will hold them accountable? I say, let's give them six months and see if they do what they say."
"The big unanswered question is how stringent each company's nutritional guidelines are," said U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, (D-Mass.). "My hope is that they meet or exceed those developed by Kellogg and that they eventually develop unified nutritional guidelines.
"Most importantly, I would like media industries to set their own voluntary commitments. Disney should be commended for being a leader in the TV industry along with Sesame Workshop ... but we haven't heard anything from Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network. As the chair of the [House] telecommunications subcommittee, I will continue to press them."
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood called the pledges "great PR for food companies," but said that "taken has a whole, they are unworkable and unenforceable and are yet another indication that self-regulation has failed.
"We need a uniform set of enforceable standards that prohibit marketing unhealthy food to children. It is clearer than ever that the food industry is unwilling or unable of adopting such standards. It's the role of government, not corporations bound by law to maximize profits, to safeguard public health."
Tony DiResta, a partner in the regulatory litigation group of Reed Smith who has served as the regional director of the FTC's Southeast Office, said that in order for the FTC to act, advertising must be deceptive or unfair.
"Today's presentations appear to applaud the efforts of self regulation. And they don't provide any basis for the FTC to act unless the companies break their promises to consumers."