Senate panel hears testimony on marketing to children

by Eric Schroeder
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WASHINGTON — Addressing rising obesity rates among children will require more widespread action and more collaborative interaction among food and beverage makers, government and media outlets, according to witnesses who presented to the Senate Committee on Appropriations on Sept. 23.

The hearing, which included testimony from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) and Kraft Foods Inc., among others, comes two months after the Federal Trade Commission released a study on food marketing to children and adolescents.

The F.T.C. report examined the marketing practices of 44 companies, and found that the nation’s largest food and beverage companies spent about $1.6 billion in 2006 marketing their products to children between the ages of 2 and 17. The findings prompted the F.T.C. to suggest recommendations, including asking media and entertainment companies to limit the licensing of characters to only healthier foods and drinks and encouraging food and beverage companies to step up education efforts about healthy eating and exercise.

"Simply put, whether or not food and beverage marketers are part of the problem — and in my view, we all share some responsibility — they have to be part of the solution," said Jon Leibowitz, commissioner of the F.T.C.

Speaking on behalf of Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods, Marc Firestone, executive vice-president of corporate and legal affairs, told the committee that many companies are taking the right steps toward addressing childhood obesity. He pointed to the efforts of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative as an example of a voluntary plan that companies have joined in an effort to limit product promotion to healthier food choices.

But he cautioned that it will take a concerted effort among industry, government and consumers to make progress.

"We recognize that childhood obesity is a serious public health issue," he said. "For any one person, the key is to find the right balance between calories in and calories out, but individual choices all take place within a broader context. Unfortunately, there’s no simple way to improve diets and increase physical activity."

Julie Gerberding, director of the C.D.C., and administrator for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, echoed Mr. Firestone’s recommendation of working together.

"No single cause or factor is to blame for the epidemic of obesity among children and adolescents," Ms. Gerberding said. "We have learned a great deal about effective strategies for promoting physical activity and healthy eating among young people. We know that no one strategy alone will be sufficient to slow or reduce the obesity epidemic. Our chances for success will be greater if we use multiple strategies to address multiple factors that contribute to the imbalance between calorie consumption and physical activity and if we involve multiple sectors of society at the community, state and national levels."

But even as companies work together, Patti Miller, vice-president of advocacy group Children Now, stressed problems still remain.

"For the industry initiative to effectively address the concerns about childhood obesity, there must be a uniform nutrition standard for defining healthy foods that food/beverage companies adopt," Ms. Miller said. She said the absence of a level playing field in regards to nutrition standards does more harm than good.

Ms. Miller also called for an end to the promotion of "better-for-you" products, some of which she said remain non-nutritious and pose a risk of obesity.

Finally, Ms. Miller said media companies "must play a critical gatekeeper role by monitoring their advertising environments to ensure that unhealthy food advertising is significantly reduced, while advertising for healthy food products is enhanced."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, September 30, 2008, starting on Page 23. Click here to search that archive.

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