Obesity Statements Delivered to Absentee Congressional Panel

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WASHINGTON ( -- A collection of food marketing groups appeared on Capitol Hill yesterday to defend their advertising practices before senators who didn't show up.
Photo: AP
Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, a former marketer of frozen peas, was the only panel member to hear the food industry testimony.
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In one of those odd scheduling conflicts that can create somewhat surreal experiences here, marketing groups and food and restaurant trade associations assembled to testify as members of the Senate Commerce Committee panel were called away to the politically charged floor debate over gun control legislation. Only the panel's chairman, Sen. Gordon H. Smith, R-Ore., was on hand to hear the obesity-related testimony.

Stung by studies
Undaunted, food business representatives had their say for the record. The marketers were sharply stung by two recent reports suggesting a link between their advertising and the obesity epidemic now plaguing American children.

The national concern about children's obesity and unhealthy eating habits was again emphasized at the hearing by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard H. Carmona, although he declined to blame advertising practices. Instead, he discussed whether consumers understand the meaning of commonly used food terms such as "calories" as they relate to healthy eating.

R. Lee Culpepper, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association, said restaurants, including fast-food establishments, have been working hard to create more healthy menus. He pointed to McDonald's Corp.'s disappointing experience promoting a McLean Deluxe sandwich, and said restaurants can not survive unless they offer what customers want to buy.

Restricting ads
The Association of National Advertisers' president-CEO, Robert D. Liodice, warned against any advertising regulation. "Banning or seriously restricting advertising aimed at children would curtail the development of children's programming," he said. He also suggested that based on experiences in Sweden and in the Canadian province of Quebec such advertising curbs would have little effect.

"Parents need to be parents and the government cannot replace their responsibility by censoring advertising," Mr. Liodice said.

He said the advertising industry voluntarily reviews ad complaints through the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. He said the reviews demonstrated that the industry sees itself as part of the solution.

Blames marketers
Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, however, said marketers are responsible for the problem and expressed dismay that while marketers are using popular cartoon characters to promote all sorts of high-fat foods, there is no one promoting alternatives.

"I certainly wish Harry Potter would urge my daughter to eat her zucchini," she said. "It's not that marketing is bad. It's that the very [foods] that are marketed are the ones that we as parents would like [our children] to eat least."

C. Manly Molpus, president-CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said food marketers couldn't be successful for long if they didn't earn consumers' trust.

"The industry is continuing to ensure that its advertising and marketing practices do not encourage overeating or inappropriate consumption of foods," he said, adding that the industry is working to make sure its marketing accurately portrays products.

More obesity studies
While no other senators attended, the hearing transcript will be routed to the other committee members, Sen. Smith said. The senator, a former marketer of frozen peas, said he expects to request additional information from the industries and may hold further hearings later in the year after more studies are completed.

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