"There is enough evidence here to indict [the food industry] but not necessarily to convict," said Dan Gerstein, deputy communications director for the campaign of the Connecticut senator. "If [marketers] don't believe there is enough to justify alarm, they are denying reality."
Sen. Lieberman, who has earlier blasted the marketing of violent movies, music and video games to kids, turned his ire on food marketers while stumping in New Hampshire Dec. 4. Food companies, he said, are "literally feeding an epidemic of obesity. It's time to stand up to the companies marketing to children products that can be harmful to their health."
The charge comes as critics have stepped up the pressure on food marketers following surveys indicating children are becoming increasingly obese. The Food and Drug Administration recently held an all-day workshop on ways it could act to increase health-food choices and the Federal Trade Commission recently began looking into a KFC ad that suggests fried chicken can be part of a healthy diet.
Sen. Lieberman called on the FTC to "develop standards" for disclosure of high-fat, high-sugar or low-nutrients in ads directed to kids. He also asked for the elimination of junk food and drinks in school vending machines and called for better labeling information in restaurants and supermarkets.
The senator unveiled the attack as part of a plank in his "valuing families" agenda with an accompanying fact sheet saying government has "a moral obligation to parents" to act, because "American children see an average of 10,000 food advertisements a year. And for the industry, that advertising pays off."
Marketing and food industry groups responded that the FTC is already closely watching food and fast-food ads, and cited the praise the FTC has given to self-regulation efforts by the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the National Advertising Review Council.
"Sen. Lieberman's heart is in the right place but his plan to focus on the advertising and marketing sector is a little misguided," said Adonis Hoffman, senior VP-counsel for the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "The food industry has demonstrated a remarkable sense of responsibility and self-regulation."
Richard Martin, VP of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said his group is committed to responsible advertising. "We take the obesity problem very seriously and we are doing our part to become part of the solution. We don't think restrictions on advertising are part of the solution." He noted the group has offered a number of its own initiatives underway, including petitioning the FDA to set a standard for low-carbohydrate claims.
Tom Foulkes, manager-media relations for the National Restaurant Association, said the senator "is missing the target here. Rather than increased regulation of advertising, the time might be better spent on promotion of healthy diets and lifestyles to all Americans."