But in spite of this impressive effort, a study commissioned by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University concludes that while the pledges address some types of advertising for the very worst products, they will likely result in few substantive reductions in children’s exposure to all unhealthy food marketing. The study appears in Public Health Nutrition.
The food industry’s pledges were made from 2005 to 2009 after the Institute of Medicine recommended that the industry stop marketing products high in added sugar, salt, and fat to children, and stated that if the industry was unable to voluntarily do so, Congress would intervene with legislation.
The Yale researchers looked at pledges that were in effect as of December 2009 to determine their potential to actually reduce unhealthy food marketing to children. According to lead author, Corinna Hawkes, Ph.D., “Our findings were puzzling. When we compared the commitments that U.S. companies have made around the world, we found numerous inconsistencies and exclusions that were hard to explain. For example, McDonald’s defines children as under 12 in the U.S., but under 14 in Australia. Similarly, Kellogg’s pledged to incorporate only products that meet its nutrition criteria in online interactive games targeted to children — but exempted brand characters such as EggoMan or Pop-Tarts characters.”
In addition, major marketing techniques were excluded, such as child-targeted packaging, commonly used to attract children’s attention. Companies also used different nutrient criteria — 29 between all the companies — to define the foods that could not be marketed to children.
“The development of pledges on food marketing to children in such a short time span is impressive,” noted co-author Jennifer L. Harris, Ph.D., M.B.A., the Rudd Center’s director of marketing initiatives. “However, limitations in pledge coverage and inconsistencies between different pledges and individual company commitments leave the impression — true or not — that companies are less than fully committed to reducing children’s exposure to food marketing.”
Cognizant of the limitations of self-regulatory pledges, the World Health Organization recently called on governments to set uniform standards for food marketing to children, and an Interagency Working Group in the U.S. has proposed uniform nutrition and marketing standards for food companies that wish to market their products to children.
The Rudd Center offers a database with updated information on all pledges and commitments. The online resource can be found at www.yaleruddcenter.org/marketingpledges. The study was funded by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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