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Marketing to kids: Nestle, Dannon non-committal could lead to regulations

By Lorraine Heller , 12-Oct-2007

Nestle and Dannon, two of the nation's leading food companies, have declined to join a widespread industry move to limit advertising of unhealthy foods to children.

This non-committal at a voluntary level could well lead to the consideration of new regulations, according to the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet Edward Markey. Nestle and Dannon, which were amongst the last big firms to announce voluntary measures to restrict their marketing of 'junk food' to children, were last month contacted by Chairman Markey. Other companies to receive letters in Septemeber were ConAgra, Chuck E Cheese and Yum! Brands. These five companies were asked to provide guidance on what measures they plan to implement, and their timelines for doing so. The letters followed the establishment of the Council of Better Business Bureau's (CBBB) Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which was set up last year as a voluntary self-regulation program for industry. Participants adopted nutrition standards for all marketing aimed at children, and also committed to devote at least half of their kids' advertising to promote healthier products, good nutrition and healthy lifestyles. ConAgra earlier this month responded to Chariman Markey, announcing that it would join the initiative. This is now made up of 13 participants: Cadbury Schweppes, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Kraft, McDonald's, PepsiCo, Unilever, Masterfoods, Burger King, and ConAgra. Out of the other remaining companies contacted last month, Chuck E Cheese agreed to join the CBBB initiative in part, while Yum! Brands declined. Chairman Markey yesterday published a statement declaring that Nestle, Dannon and Yum! Brands have been "slow to act". "At a time when our country is facing a serious childhood obesity crisis, the responses from these companies raises the question of whether voluntary industry action will be sufficient to combat this important public health issue," he said. Indeed, there have long been signs that if the food industry as a whole fails to adequately step up to the issue with voluntary measures, it is highly likely that new regulations will be implemented to enforce advertising restrictions. According to American law, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has three major ways it could address the problem: it could place a ban on all junk food ads; it could limit the overall advertising minutes available for advertising to children; or it could disqualify broadcasters from renewing their licenses if children's programs are aired with junk food ads. In June Chairman Markey chaired a hearing in the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, during which he said that in the absence of a proper response from industry, he is prepared to "press the FCC to put on the books rules that will protect the children of our country from these unhealthy messages". "The fact that Dannon, Nestlé, and Yum! Brands are unwilling to restrict marketing to kids is disappointing, given that 13 of their competitors have found that it is possible to act in a socially responsible manner without harming their bottom line," said Chairman Markey yesterday. In their response letters, the three companies all highlighted their individual efforts to provide healthy options to children. Dannon said it "has not made at this time a decision as to whether or not it will join the CBBB initiative", while Nestle stated "this is a complex issue and, as a global company, Nestle is currently evaluating our internal children's advertising standards around the world. This process will be completed in 2008."

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