Politicians feast on food fight

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Food marketing is now officially a whipping boy for both political parties, and with heavyweights Hillary Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger doling out tag-team punishment to the already-beleaguered industry, tougher ad codes look inevitable.

Even as the nation's biggest fast-food marketer McDonald's unveiled a worldwide healthful-lifestyle ad campaign and marketers from PepsiCo to Kraft Foods rush to launch and promote more healthful products, Democratic New York Sen. Clinton and Republican California Gov. Schwarzenegger added their voices to the clamor for industry-wide action.

The Federal Trade Commission weighed in too, trying to kick-start that action with a two-day workshop this summer, to be attended by key players in the industry, to discuss food marketing to kids. Announcing the workshop last week, Federal Trade Commission Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras said it would debate whether further industry self-regulation is needed.

Asked whether the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which currently administers industry self-regulation, is doing enough, Ms. Majoras said, "Some people think they are. Some people think they are not. We want to sit down and figure it out. The self-regulation scheme of CARU has been in place a number of years. Markets have changed. Our nation has changed."

Ms. Clinton is more categorical. She said guidelines administered for the marketing industry by CARU must either be updated or supplemented by additional standards for food marketers.

While Mr. Schwarzenegger last week laid into the food marketers for selling so-called junk food in schools-saying it should be yanked from school vending machines-Ms. Clinton targeted food advertising and marketing. "Food advertisers should be more responsible about the effect they are having," Ms. Clinton told a Washington forum March 9 unveiling Kaiser Foundation research into children's media use.

"We have seen examples such as Kraft, which has agreed not to advertise unhealthful foods to kids under 12. I would like to see the entire food industry come together to develop voluntary guidelines that take their responsibility to children seriously. There are a lot steps we can take working together-the private sector and the public sector-to curb marketing and availability of unhealthy products to our children."

The good news for marketers is that both Ms. Majoras and Ms. Clinton appear to favor voluntary, self-regulatory action rather than legislative action.

"We applaud and support the chairman and the workshop goals," said Jim Guthrie, president of the National Advertising Review Council, which oversees CARU, noting that one goal is to hear about CARU's experience. "I believe this will be an excellent opportunity to showcase 30 years of CARU's effective regulation."


But other legislators aren't willing to wait for the food industry. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, agreed that the FTC's workshop-to be jointly sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services-"could provide a forum to look at what the industry can do to be more responsible when marketing to children." But he warned that it will only be effective if it "takes a serious look at the impact current junk-food marketing has on kids and addresses the remedies that should be implemented to protect kids."

Mr. Harkin has been even more aggressive in the past. In February he told the Institute of Medicine's Conference on Obesity Prevention Research that the time for voluntary action has passed. "We know that a strictly voluntary approach gets us nowhere. I take that back: It is the strictly voluntary approach that has allowed the epidemic of childhood obesity to grow so rapidly. We need action," he said. Mr. Harkin will offer legislation that would give the Federal Trade Commission greater leeway to limit food advertising to kids.

Food industry critics say CARU rules can use some tuning up to make what is barred clearer, and that CARU's truthfulness and accuracy target offers little answer to the biggest issue in the food debate: what foods should be advertised to a youthful audience.


"A lot of times CARU is focused on the minutia of the ads and misses the big picture that the foods advertised undermine health," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "CARU's guidelines don't address the nutritional value of products."

Marketers and advertisers defend their marketing and note recent moves by food marketers to introduce and promote more healthful products. McDonald's said last week it would change its theme line, "I'm lovin' it," to "It's what I eat and what I do ... I'm lovin' it" in the nutrition ads that will feature popular athletes. They also note the activities of broadcasters and cable companies to promote nutrition.

"Food manufacturers and advertisers agree with Ms. Clinton that obesity is a serious public-health issue and we are committed to helping Americans live healthier lifestyles," said a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

"With regard to advertising, the food and advertising industries have a nearly 30-year successful record of working with the Children's Advertising Review Unit to monitor ads to children to ensure they meet strict guidelines. Individual companies also have internal policies and programs that ensure that communications to children are done responsibly.

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