Elaine Kolish, who was speaking at an event on self-regulation in advertising organized by the Washington Legal Foundation yesterday, said that having worked as a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) prosecutor, she was not against government intervention in the food industry per se.
The products being advertised to children are perfectly legal
However, in many cases, self-regulation was the “only practical and effective approach”, she argued, although the threat of government intervention often served to focus minds in industry and accelerate self-regulation activities.
“Food advertising to children is a perfect example of a topic that is wholly inappropriate for government regulation. The products being advertised to children are perfectly legal to sell and in most instances the advertised products are being purchased by adults.
“The purported rationale for regulation in this area is to reduce pester power… but as the Washington Post recognized 30 years ago, protecting parents from their children is a role for a nanny not the government.”
Industry can move more quickly than government
Philosophical arguments about the role of government in food marketing notwithstanding, there was also a practical argument that industry could move far more quickly than government to address issues concerning the public, she said.
“In less time than it might take the government to propose and issue a rule [on advertising food to children], the CFBAI was not only created but substantially enhanced several times.
“Most recently in a process that spanned about 13 months, the CFBAI developed new category specific uniform nutrition criteria [for food marketed to children] that will replace company specific criteria by the end of 2013.
“In contrast, an interagency working group (IWG) charged by Congress in March 2009 to deliver a report to Congress by July 2010 … took nine months to issue its first tentative guidelines and then another 16 months… to issue its revised tentative nutrition principles for public comment.”
Technological and consumer acceptance issues
And the net result was a set of principles that were unreasonable and unrealistic, she claimed.
While the IWG acknowledged that there would be technological and consumer acceptance issues with reformulating products to its standards, it “greatly underestimated” them, she said.
“Even experienced, well-informed regulators are unlikely to appreciate as well as the scientists and other nutritional professionals working for companies …the enormity of a proposal that says whether you make bread, cereal, soup or lunch meat, your product needs to contain no more than 210 milligrams of sodium in five years, even if that means reducing sodium by more than 50%.”
But she added: “I am greatly cheered that the IWG thinks that our new criteria are a significant development and one that it intends to take into account when preparing its report to Congress.”
Set up in 2006, the CFBAI is a voluntary self-regulation program supported by major food and beverage companies including Kraft, Mars, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, Nestlé USA, PepsiCo, Dannon, Post Foods, General Mills, Sara Lee, Hershey, Unilever and Kellogg.
It is designed to shift the mix of foods advertised to children under 12 to "encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles".