Monday, April 23, 2012

The powerful junk food lobby still faces a tough fight

CI’s Food Safety and Nutrition Programme Officer Anna Glayzer looks at the countries doing the best work in controlling food marketing to children and what it will take to motivate the rest.

Speaking at the European Network on Reducing Marketing Pressure on Children in Copenhagen last month gave me the opportunity to take stock of the efforts being made around the world to tackle junk food marketing.

Our member organisations are doing some fantastic work all over the world, most recently in Chinese Taipei, Fiji, Germany, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, South Africa and the UK.

The breadth of activity shows that, not only is the targeting of children by advertisers of high fat, salt and sugar foods an almost universal health threat, but also that consumer groups, along with other NGOs, are a vital part of efforts to protect our most vulnerable consumers.

But is our campaigning really making a difference? Is it actually pushing governments and companies to act?

A few national governments around the world are taking encouraging steps towards tighter controls on food marketing. For example, the Fijian Ministry of Health is currently drafting regulations. Also, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has drafted a code which includes applying restrictions to advertising aired during programmes for which more than 50% of the audience is younger than 18.

This code has prompted complaints from the Irish Breakfast Cereal Association, who lamented that it would result in the banning of ads for 75% of breakfast cereals. Given the nutritional quality of many children’s cereals, I would take this as an encouraging sign.

Meanwhile, in Norway the government is developing new legal restrictions on food marketing, including the development of a rigorous new nutrient profiling model. Both the Irish code and the Norwegian legal restrictions are due to come into force on 1 January 2013.

At the international level there is also progress. The World Health Organization (WHO) has worked extensively on marketing to children. It has just published A Framework for Implementing the Set of Recommendations on the Marketing of Food and Non-alcoholic Beverages to Children.

As the title suggests, the Framework is intended to assist national governments in implementing the recommendations agreed by the World Health Assembly in 2010, in which governments were urged to act to protect children.

The WHO is also producing a manual for governments to use to develop a nutrient profiling model suitable for appliction to restrictions on marketing. Similarly, CI’s Manual on Monitoring Food Marketing is suitable for both governments and NGOs to use.

There is no shortage of tools on offer to help governments take simple, cost-effective, preventative measures on public health. The problem is that not enough governments are willing to commit to tackling non-communicable diseases (NCDs). This was borne out by last September’s much anticipated UN High-Level Meeting on NCDs, which resulted in a disappointing output. A political declaration was produced but no time-bound targets were agreed. The voluntary targets since proposed by the WHO look set to be watered down further following consultation with member states.

As Jane Landon of the UK’s National Heart Forum pointed out whilst speaking in Copenhagen, the food industry has ‘wriggle room’ when it comes to re-formulating high fat, salt and sugar food or front-of-pack labelling. It cannot, however, be expected to co-operate meaningfully with measures for which the ultimate goal is: sell less processed food.

The only really effective solution therefore is legislation. The onus, for the time being, is on national governments to be a bit more like Norway.

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