Self-regulation of food marketing to children does work, says the head of the food industry’s initiative, but change is incremental and should be measured with a broad view over the landscape.
The self-regulatory Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) was set up in 2008 under the auspices of the Council of Better Business Bureaus to encourage firms to curb the marketing of high fat, high salt and high sugar products to children.
Last week the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) published a survey on improvements to food companies’ child marketing practices this year. It found that almost 80 percent of food ads on kids’ network Nickelodeon are for unhealthy food products.
Whilst this is a reduction from the 90 percent seen in 2005, the CSPI said the improvement is “modest and not quite statistically significant”, and said self-regulation is “not shielding children from junk food advertising”.
But vice president of the CFBAI Elaine Kolish told FoodNavigator-USA.com that, in her view, self-regulation is working.
“The landscape of childrens’ food ads has very noticeably changed. Dozens and dozens of products have been reformulated or developed with better nutrition profiles.”
Since the program was launched two years ago, she said: “Companies have done exactly what they said where were going to do. The program is still in its infancy, moving into toddlerhood.”
Nonetheless, it was always envisaged as “a dynamic program that would change over time”.
Kolish pointed out that companies are continuously in flux and they need to have a chance to assess the impact of a change they have just made.
Campbells, for example, has significantly reduced the salt level in its kids’ soup products. This reduction did not come overnight, nor all in one go, but is the result of a difficult scientific process.
Coca-Cola has continued a no child marketing strategy; but now Mars, Cadbury and Hershey have decided not to engage in any child advertising either.
“That’s a big change,” said Kolish.
Help or harm?
According to Kolish, it is helpful for there to be assessments of the program’s progress, but the right tools should be used.
CSPI’s findings were based on products being above or below their thresholds for certain nutrients; the CFBAI, on the other hand, prefers to look at the amount of change since companies joined the program.
“It is meaningful, but a yes or no matrix does not show that. Work has been done in reducing sugars, salt, saturated fat.”
Asked whether surveys like the CSPI’s are helpful or not, Kolish said: “A little of both. When it is perceived as negative, it can be discouraging for companies trying to do the right thing.”
There is still scope for getting other companies on board, too.
“We regularly reach out to those not yet participating. It’s a decision they have to make individually, but it is highly unlikely there is any company in the child marketing space that is unaware of the program,” Kolish said.