Food cos. must respond to study

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The government-sponsored study on food marketing set off a firestorm last week with its call for a law to limit advertising of unhealthful foods to children if the industry doesn't take action. More regulation is a bad idea. But if the food industry wants to avoid that outcome, it must step up and prove it can act responsibly-and accept more responsibility for the epidemic of childhood obesity.

A heated debate about more legislation misses the bigger point in the report from the National Academies' Institute of Medicine: This complex problem requires a complex solution.

Yes, parents bear responsibility to make kids eat better, be more active and spend less time in front of the TV or PC. Yes, schools can do more. But the food industry also is culpable, and its response to date inadequate.

The 500-page report-"Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?"-proposes many intriguing ideas. It recommends that the industry-sponsored Children's Advertising Review Unit extend self-regulatory guidelines beyond traditional advertising "to include evolving vehicles and venues for marketing communications." It proposes that government and the private sector jointly create "a long-term, multifaceted social marketing program" to promote more healthful diets.

The report makes one conclusion Madison Avenue won't deny: Advertising works. Sen. Tom Harkin, who pressed for this study, noted: "The industry doesn't spend $11 billion a year marketing junk food to kids in order to waste money. They spend $11 billion a year marketing junk food to kids because it works brilliantly."

The industry has taken some positive action. Kraft, notably, moved early this year to halt advertising unhealthful foods to young kids ("Kraft takes lead in responsibility," Jan. 24 editorial).

Blanket criticism of this report won't solve problems. It's time for serious discussion about specific recommendations. Legislation won't be necessary-if the food industry accepts responsibility for its role in the problem and solution.

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