Category Archives: Food & Beverage

Senators and Activists Agree: No Soda in Schools

Soft drink companies agreed to voluntary guidelines to remove sugar dense sodas from public schools in a deal brokered by the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association in 2006, but advocates for healthy food choices are calling for tighter restrictions. The global campaign, Dump Soft Drinks, and new legislation being drafted in the Senate are calling for nutrition-based limitations in the food and beverages available in easy-to-reach school vending machines.

Proposed Amendment Seeks to Reduce Soda and Junk Food in Schools

After years of advocating for improved nutritional standards in schools, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R., AK) and Tom Harkin (D., IA) say they will offer an amendment to the Senate farm bill that will “improve the diets and nutrition of America’s school children by setting reasonable, common-sense standards for the foods and beverages that are sold in school vending machines and similar outlets” [1].

The nutritional standards for food sales haven’t changed since the late 1970’s, “when microwaves were considered cutting-edge, newfangled technology,” Harkin told The Wall Street Journal [2]. The proposed legislation would eliminate soft drinks and other high sugar beverages from elementary and middle school, but would allow low-fat flavored milk products, diet sodas, and sports drinks in high schools. It would also place limits on salty, high calorie and fatty snack foods.

 

Global Dump Soft Drinks Campaign

Setting nutrition standards for school vending machines is just one of Dump Soft Drinks‘ recommendations. The campaign is lead by two advocacy groups well versed in both national and global public health fights for healthy diets and food. With theDump Soft Drinks campaign, the Center for 

Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and their global counterpart, theInternational Association of Consumer Food Organizations (IACFO), work to inform consumers about how soft drinks contribute to diet-related diseases like obesity and diabetes.

The campaign emphasizes global health effects beyond schools. In the US and Europe, rates of obesity and diabetes are increasing due to unhealthy diets and lack of physical activity, a trend now reaching global dimensions. In their report “Soft Drinks and Obesity—Global Threats to Diet and Health” [3], Dump Soft Drinks shows specific examples of the correlation between increasing soda consumption and rising diabetes rates in countries like Mexico and China. The report also points to the role played by transnational corporations that market nutritionally empty products in developing countries—many of which, paradoxically, continue to be burdened by under-nutrition.

The campaign calls for marketing restrictions on companies like Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. that spend billions on target marketing each year. Following the United Kingdom’s new legislation that limits marketing to younger audiences, Dump Soft Drinks wants to see the end of US soft drink marketing to children and teenagers under 16. They also advocate for labeling regulations and propose a value-added tax to soft drinks that would go toward boosting government health and nutrition education programs.

Dump Soft Drinks: Recommendations to limit soft drink companies’ contribution to diet-related disease

1. Increase the promotion of new lower-sugar products, sell existing high sugar products in smaller portions, and support independently funded research on the use of safe substitute sweeteners.

2. Cease all marketing of sugar-laden beverages to children under 16, including print and broadcast advertising, product placement, the Internet, mobile phones, athletic event sponsorship, signage, merchandising, and other means.

3. Prominently display the calorie content, per serving, of all beverages on the fronts of containers and the outer labels of multi-container packages, along with the number of servings per bottle or can as part of a comprehensive labeling system utilizing simple and uniform symbols to convey nutritional value. Sugary beverages should also include rotating consumer alerts such as “High sugar – drink only occasionally” or “For occasional consumption. Drink water to quench thirst.”

4. Stop promoting and selling sweetened beverages, including sports drinks and fruit flavored beverages and teas, in all public and private elementary, middle, and high schools; sell fruit juice in container sizes of 250 ml or less.

5. Pay a modest Value Added Tax on soft drinks – with governments using the proceeds for nutrition education and physical activity programs and to subsidize the costs of fruits and vegetables.

6. Ensure that sponsorships involving the promotion of physical activity and health be made in a transparent fashion only to independent health charities or government agencies which, in turn, use such funds for programs not associated with the company’s logo, brands, or other proprietary information. Physical activity and nutrition education programs sponsored by beverage companies should not convey the impression that all products produced by the company are healthful and nutritious.

Opponents cite declining US and European soft drink sales and ask “Why not let parents and children make their own food and beverage decisions?” In an interview with Fox News, CSPI spokesperson, Bruce Silverglade, addressed this concern. “Coca-cola and Pepsi spend almost $5 billion dollars a year advertising their products worldwide. That is a sum that is exponentially higher than the amount spent on nutrition education… Marketing undermines … parental authority and counteracts the efforts by parents to teach their children to live more healthily” [4].

Working to fight the childhood obesity epidemic, both The Global Dump Soft Drinks Campaign and the Senate farm bill amendment agree that as a learning environment, schools are obligated to model healthy food choices as nutrition education by limiting the sales of soft drinks and junk food.

CSPI worked with Senators Harkin and Murkowski to develop legislation that would receive broad support. Health advocates and food and beverage industry allies are now standing behind the proposed federal nutrition-based standards. Though battles to push the legislation through Congress remain to be fought, it is currently endorsed by the American Dietetic Association, the American Public Health Association and the National PTA, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Cadbury Schweppes and the American Beverage Association.

 

References

1. Harkin-Murkowski amendment will update decade-old nutrition standards in schools nationwide. Senator Lisa Murkowski, United States Senate Press Release. Dec 4, 2007. Available athttp://murkowski.senate.gov/pressapp/record.cfm?id=288191.

2.McKay B. Soda Makers Support Tougher Curbs. The Wall Street Journal. Nov 9, 2007:B2. Available athttp://online.wsj.com/article/SB119458164755287687.html.

3.Soft Drinks and Obesity—Global Threats to Diet and Health. The Global Dump Soft Drinks Campaign.http://www.dumpsoda.org.

4. Should Government Limit Marketing of Soft Drinks to Children? Fox TV News Debate. Washington, D.C. Nov 16, 2007. Available at http://www.dumpsoda.org/media.html.

 

Photo Credit:
United States Federal Government, Public Domain.

McDonald’s and Children’s Health: The Production of New Customers

In a recent study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 1 researchers found that low income 3 to 5 year old children preferred the taste of hamburgers, chicken, French fries, carrots or low fat milk if they thought the products were from McDonald’s, whether or not they actually were. Thus, in their first years of life, children had come to associate McDonald’s branding with desirable foods, creating a lifetime potential for obesity and over consumption of the high fat, low nutrient products that McDonald’s features. To understand its success in imprinting even the youngest children, Corporations and Health Watch investigated the range of McDonald’s activities geared towards children. By focusing on the specific ways that one company goes about reaching children, we hope to gain insights that can guide public health strategies to reduce childhood obesity.

According to its 2006 Annual Report, McDonald’s is the leading global foodservice retailer with more than 30,000 local restaurants serving 52 million people in more than 100 countries each day. Its 2006 revenues were $ 21.6 billion, up 16% from 2004.

 

McDonald’s leads in food advertising to children

Marketing directly to children began in the 1960s. McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, along with Walt Disney, has been credited with recognizing that children constitute a valuable and distinct market segment. Kroc observed that, “A child who loves our TV commercials and brings her grandparents to a McDonald’s gives us two more customers.” 2(p. 41) Developing brand loyalty in children influences both later purchases and the buying patterns of parents. At the forefront of marketing to children, McDonald’s spends more on advertising in general than any other brand. 2(p. 4) In 2006, McDonald’s spent almost $2.5 million a day on traditional advertising in the United States. About 40% of McDonald’s total advertising budget is directed at children. 3(p.102)

The use of cartoon characters and icons

Ronald McDonald, the face of McDonald’s, is a symbol of the corporation’s dedication to reaching young customers. The only fictional character with a higher degree of name recognition by children is Santa Claus. 2(p.4) A study of 9-10 year old Australian youth demonstrated that more than half believed that Ronald McDonald knew what was best for them to eat. 3(p.100) To reinforce the association of fun and entertainment with its fast food, McDonald’s offers a line of videos featuring Ronald McDonald and the McDonaldland characters. McDonald’s use of cartoons to market to children extends to the Internet as well. An earlier version of the McDonald’s children’s website told young visitors Ronald was the “ultimate authority on everything” and they were encouraged to send Ronald an email telling him their favorite food items, their favorite sports team, favorite book and their name. 2(p. 45) Directly soliciting children for personal information is now prohibited without parental approval thanks to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 2000. One of the McDonald’s current websites aimed at children, Ronald.com, tells children they can “learn, play and create while having fun.” On the site, children interact with “adver-games” which are designed to engage children with both the game and an advertisement. The site’s games all feature Ronald McDonald somewhere in the game. Happymeal.com, a site designed to encourage children toward physical activity, also prominently features the “Happy Meals” logo each time a new game is opened.

Restaurant design

The atmosphere of McDonald’s itself is designed to be “family friendly.” McDonald’s operates more than 8.000 playgrounds around the United States, more than any other private American corporation and far more than any municipality. Originally modeled on Disney World, the playgrounds provide an environment that is designed to appeal to children through bright colors, toys and clowns, and also to parents by providing a safe place for children to play. For children who live in low-income neighborhoods without safe or adequately maintained public parks and playgrounds, McDonald’s may offer one of the few opportunities for such forms of play and sociality. Birthday and other parties can be held at many McDonald’s which provides, on a cost per child basis, the food, invitations, paper and plastic wear, party entertainers, party favors and clean-up afterward. These design elements contribute to associating McDonald’s with fun and socialibility.

Toys and entertainment

In 1979, McDonald’s launched its first “Happy Meal,” which included numerous toys such as a “McDoodler stencil,” a puzzle book, and McDonaldland character eraser in a cardboard box with a circus theme. By 2003, 20% of McDonald’s meals sold were Happy Meals and they accounted for $3.5 billion in revenues. The fast food giant stands as one the United State’s largest distributors of toys. 2(p. 4) In addition to toys, McDonald’s appeals directly to children through cartoon characters, catchy jingles, and food shaped and colored to appeal to children. In addition, McDonald’s develops strategic partnerships, sponsorships, character licensing agreements and endorsements with celebrities and corporations such as NBA stars, Disney, the Fox Kids Network, DreamWorks and the Olympics. 2 Among the celebrities who have done product endorsements for McDonald’s are Venus and Serena Williams, Cedric the Entertainer, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Through such alliances, McDonald’s aims to have children associate the good feelings they have about celebrities, characters and companies with McDonald’s itself. That fit and celebrated athletes promote its products further associates McDonald’s with health and fitness.

In addition to television commercials featuring celebrities and promoting cartoon character toy give-a-ways, McDonald’s targets children through product placement and sponsorship. The fast food company has paid to have its food products featured in such children’s films as “George of the Jungle,” “The Flintstones,” and “Richie Rich.” 3(p.113) McDonald’s also sponsored the children’s show “The Teletubbies” and distributed toys representing the four characters. As with the Teletubbies, the company produces multiple versions of toys associated with movies and television. 4(p. 181) Children are encouraged to collect them all to obtain the full set, thus encouraging return visits—and more Happy Meals. In 1999 alone, McDonald’s released eighty different versions of Furby. 2(p.47)

McDonald’s marketing to children extends beyond television commercials, kid-friendly websites, toys and playgrounds. In 1987 McDonald’s launched their “McKids” line of clothing that was initially sold at Sears, Roebuck & Co. It was later picked up by Wal-Mart which dropped the line in 2003. Now McKids is offering a line of branded toys such as bikes, skateboards and scooters designed to encourage children to be more active between their visits to the Golden Arches.

McEducation

In their 2005 study of the clustering of fast food restaurants around public schools, Bryn et al reported that “Fast-food restaurants are concentrated within a short walking distance from schools, exposing children to poor-quality food environments in their school neighborhoods.” In the early years of McDonald’s, founder Ray Kroc actually flew in a Cessna scouting for new sites near schools. 2(p. 66) Like other fast food companies, McDonald’s does more than just place itself close to schools; in recent years it has opened outlets within high school cafeterias. According to a recent CDC survey, in 2006, 24% of the nation’s high schools and 19% of its middle schools offered on-site brand name fast foods.

McDonald’s also sponsors Channel One programming, provides educational curricula that feature information about working at McDonald’s and offers incentive programs, like “McSpellit Club,” whereby students can earn meals at the restaurant for spelling, reading and good attendance. 4,5 In addition, McDonald’s is a client of Cover Concepts, a company which provides branded textbook covers free to students and schools. 5 Finally, in 2005, with 31,000 elementary schools around the country, McDonald’s launched its “Passport to Play” program, aimed at encouraging physical fitness for third through fifth graders. Each time children play a game from around the country, they receive a golden arches stamp on a pretend passport. The website states, “Passport to Play is a fun way to keep kids’ minds engaged and bodies active. Teach your students how kids from around the world play, snack and grow [emphasis added].” Bryn Austin, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Boston Children’s Hospital suggested the program might be a “Trojan Horse” created to keep McDonald’s name in schools.

But McDonald’s doesn’t just take money from students; it raises money for them. In New Haven, CT, a group of teachers and staff from the New Haven Middle School participated in a McDonald’s educational program working a 4 hour shift at the counters and the drive-up window. By doing so, their school received 20% of the profits during the time they staffed the establishment. While the teachers worked, students decorated the walls of the restaurant with pictures of the golden arches. 3(p. 130) On October 13 of this year, 450 McDonald’s establishments in Tennessee participated in a similar “McTeachers Night” program. In addition, the corporation sponsors young people’s sports teams such as the McDonald’s All American High School Basketball Team.

Strategic Locations and Charity 

To keep its name in front of young people, McDonald’s develops partnerships with institutions where children are likely to be found. In August 2001, the fast food corporation began a 10 year, $16 million contract with the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum. The museum features McDonald’s food as well as food from two other companies owned by McDonald’s, Boston Market and Donatos Pizzeria.3(p. 300) The Philadelphia Children’s Hospital and other children’s hospitals around the country feature a McDonald’s in their facilities. Finally, The Ronald McDonald House Charities has provided housing and meals to families with more than two million seriously ill children, further reinforcing the idea that Ronald McDonald and the McDonald’s corporation care about children’s health.

Influencing parents to reach children

Children are believed to influence approximately $500 billion of spending each year. 3(p. 101) Thus, while McDonald’s focuses much of its marketing on children, the fast food giant also seeks to influence parents’ purchasing decisions. Corporate memos discuss the company’s desire for adults to feel like “good parents” by taking their children to McDonald’s in order to make them happy. 2(p. 50). To counter criticism that fast and junk foods contribute to obesity and other health problems, McDonald’s recently launched a contest to recruit mothers for three day paid field trips where they will be given access to the farms “where our fresh ingredients are grown, to our world-class suppliers and to our restaurants.”

McWorld

As McDonald’s saturates US markets and succeeds in attracting young Americans as lifetime customers, growth increasingly depends on expanding its consumer base through overseas marketing. McDonald’s opens about four new restaurants every day overseas. 2(p.229) The table below shows the growth in McDonald’s outlets in various parts of the world between 1991 and 2001. 3(p.58)

Growth in McDonald’s Outlets by World Region, 1991-2001

In preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, McDonald’s is promoting aninternational contest for 300 children, 100 from China, to win trips to the games.

The increased visibility and availability of McDonald’s around the world has succeeded in reaching greater numbers of children. At one primary school in Beijing, all of the children recognized and liked Ronald McDonald, and believed that “Uncle McDonald was funny, gentle, kind and…understood children’s hearts.” 2(p. 231) In Japan, 98% of children recognized Ronald McDonald; In England the figure was 93%. 3(p. 99) Ronald McDonald speaks to children in twenty-five languages including Russian, Portuguese, Tagalog, Hindi, Cantonese and Papiamento. 3(p. 13) A 1996 survey of children’s television programming in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, UK and the United States found that McDonald’s was the most prolific advertiser overall.

But does it work?

Commenting on the results of the previously mentioned study of children’s preference for food with a McDonald’s packaging, company spokesman Walt Riker stated that McDonald’s had been “actively addressing” the issue of children and nutrition and that McDonald’s was “providing solutions.” However, Dr. Victor Stasbuger, an author of American Academy of Pediatrics policy calling for limits on marketing to children argued that the study illustrated the success of fast food marketing to children: “Advertisers have tried to do exactly what this study is talking about–to brand younger and younger children, to instill in them an almost obsessional desire for a particular brand-name product.”

Impact on health

In 1998, 89% of children in the United States eight years of age or younger had visited a McDonald’s at least once a month. In response to this information, R.J. Milano, a McDonald’s Vice President stated that their goal for the following year was to reach 100%. He boasted “I’m going to own every kid transaction out there.” 3(p. 291). The health impact for both youth and adults of increased intake of salt, fat and sugar associated with the consumption of fast and junk foods has become clear as rates childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes have escalated. At least 30% of calories in the average child’s diet are currently derived from fast food, salty snacks, sweets and soft drinks. In response to increased media attention and legal action, fast food companies such as McDonald’s claim to be offering healthier alternatives. In addition, McDonald’s was one of 11 major food companies that recently agreed to limit voluntarily its food advertising to children . Recently McDonald’s began offering Happy Meals with slices of apples and milk. However, while the new Happy Meals did reduce overall fat and calorie content, the “Apple Dippers” included in the meal increased the sugar content. Additionally, while McDonald’s has done away with its “supersize” option for adults, in 2001 it introduced “Mighty Kids Meals” which offer more food for only slightly more money.

Regulations around the world

More than 50 other countries currently regulate marketing directed at children. Twenty-five European states prohibit advertising during children’s programming of a duration of 30 minutes or less. In 1992, Sweden banned all television marketing directed at children twelve and under. Similarly, advertising in children’s programming have been banned in Ireland, Norway, Belgium and Holland.1 Since 2001 Broadcasting Commission of Ireland has prohibited the use of celebrities and cartoon characters to advertise food. Regulations disallowing advertising to children 13 years or younger have been in effect since 1980 in the Canadian province of Quebec. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission lacks the authority to restrict television advertising. Given the previous failure of voluntary guidelines to reduce growing rates of obesity, numerous advocacy and public health groups have called for government regulations.

Recommendations

Many public health organizations in the United States and elsewhere have made specific recommendations. In December 2005, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a comprehensive report on the impact of food marketing to children in the United States. The report found that American children are not achieving basic nutritional goals both in terms of underconsumption of important nutrients and overconsumption of fat, salt and sugar. While the dietary patterns of children are a complex in origin and include cultural values, economic status, social environments and media environments, the IOM concluded that food and beverage marketing “influences the preferences and purchase requests of children, influences consumption at least in the short term, is a likely contributor to less healthy diets, and may contribute to negative diet-related health outcomes and risks among children and youth.”

Strategic Alliance, a coalition of nutrition and physical activity advocates in California, recommends that all marketing and advertising of junk and fast foods be eliminated for children and youth. Amongst other measures, International Association of Consumer Food Organizations (IACFO)—an international association of non-governmental organizations representing consumer interests in the areas of nutrition, food safety, and food policy—urges governments to restrict or ban all food advertisements to children and prohibit the marketing of soda, junk and fast foods in schools. The IACFO also points to the importance of global action on this issue, noting that restrictions in the developed world often send multinational corporations overseas to the global south where they market unhealthy products with greater ease. Given escalating global rates of diet related chronic disease, public health and advocacy calls for more stringent and federally and globally enforceable standards seem warranted. In the words of Gro Harlem Brundtland , former Director General of the World Health Organization: “Marketing approaches matter for public health. They influence our own–and in particular our children’s–patterns of behavior. Given that they are designed to succeed, they have serious consequences for those at whom they are targeted.”

Zoe Meleo-Erwin, MA is graduate student in sociology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

 

References

1. Robinson, TN; Borzekowski, DLG; Matheson, DM & Kraemer, HC. Effects of Fast Food Branding on Young Children’s Taste Preferences. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. 2007. 161(8):792-797.
2. Schlosser, E. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. 2001. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
3. Brownell, K. & Horgen, KB. Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America’s Obesity Crisis & What We Can Do About It. 2004. New York: McGraw Hill.
4. Nestle, M. Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. 2002. Berkeley: University of California Press.
5. Story, M. & French, S. Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the US. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2004;1:3. Available at: http://www.ijbnpa.org/content/1/1/3. Accessed October 21, 2007.

Photo credits:

1. La Fotodama 
2. Sama Sama – Massa
3. Petite-Tomo

New Report Calls on United Kingdom to Tackle Obesity More Forcefully; Advocates Urge Action Now

If current trends continue, warns a new British government report released in October 2007, 60% of men, 50% of women and 25 of children in the UK will be obese by 2050.  Changes in food production and marketing, fewer opportunities for physical activity, and current eating habits have made obesity the default option. “If we just behave normally we will become obese,” said Sir David King, the UK government’s chief science adviser.

The report, “Tackling Obesities: Future Choices” was prepared by Foresight, a government research group, to examine how the UK can deliver a sustainable response to obesity over the next 40 years.  The project has assembled evidence and expertise from academic disciplines as diverse as epidemiology, food science, genetics, psychology and sociology, and from professionals and interested organizations within and beyond Government.  While the report acknowledges that reducing the prevalence of obesity will require long-term action from numerous stakeholders at multiple levels, it concludes that “the lead must come from Government.”

The report attracted extensive media coverage and the UK health secretary Alan Johnson warned that the public health threat posed by obesity in the UK is a “potential crisis on the scale of climate change.”  However, in recognition of the report’s pessimistic outlook for obesity and the epidemic’s  deep roots in British society, UK public health minister Dawn Primarolo announced that the UK was delaying its goal of halting the rise in childhood obesity from 2010 to 2020.

Advocates charge report lacks blueprint

In response to the report, the Children’s Food Campaign, an alliance of more than 300 organizations, urged stronger and more immediate action.  It suggested three specific steps the government could take to reduce obesity.

First, the Campaign called on the government to ban all TV junk food advertising before 9 pm.  Second, the UK should act to reduce children’s exposure to online and cell phone junk food advertising. Third, it should enact a simpler “traffic light” food labeling system that provides consumers with clear guidance.

Finally, British schools should make food skills a required part of the curriculum so that every child leaves school knowing how to make simple nutritious meals.

According to Dr. Mike Rayner, Director of the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group at Oxford University and Chair of the Children’s Food Campaign, “the government has to make a philosophical leap.  It should no longer see its role as gently guiding the food industry towards more responsible behavior, but instead as the protector of children’s interests, ready to take action to improve children’s diet and well being.”

Sue Davies, chief policy adviser to the UK consumer organization Which? also urged the government to go “further and faster” by enacting tougher rules against promotion of unhealthy food to children within three months.  “Obesity is a complex problem, she said, “but the solutions currently on the table are not up to the task.”  Which? recently initiated a campaign to force the British food industry to market food more responsibly and produced a campaign toolkit to help parents groups and community organizations to pressure government and industry to act more forcefully.

New Public Debate on Food Policy and Role of Food Industry

In many ways, the British debate on food policy mirrors the discussions in the United States.  However, the new Foresight report and the forceful and widely covered criticism by public health and nutrition researchers and advocates has put the question about the roles of government and industry in reversing the obesity epidemic squarely on the public agenda.  Whether the US 2008 Presidential election as well as the local, regional and national mobilizations to improve children’s diet, promote food justice and reduce obesity can provide a similar opportunity here in the United States remains to be seen.

Interview with Richard Daynard

In March 2006, the newsletter Informed Eating interviewed Richard Daynard, professor at Northeastern University School of Law.

Food activists often ask what lessons they can learn from the fight against Big Tobacco. In this interview, published in March 2006 in Informed Eating, a newsletter of food politics and analysis, Richard Daynard, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law, chair of the Tobacco Products Liability Project, and director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute’s Law and Obesity Project, describes his views on the similarities and differences between the public health advocacy on food and tobacco.

Commentary: Voluntary Guidelines vs Public Oversight: Finding the right strategies to reduce harmful corporate practices

Last July, in an effort to reduce obesity, eleven major food and drink companies announced plans to restrict television advertisements to US children under the age of 12. Federal Trade Commission Chair Deborah Platt Majoras hailed this voluntary move, claiming that “industry action can bring change more quickly and effectively than government regulation of speech.” Since advocates seeking to reduce the harmful health consequences of the food, tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, firearms and automobile industries need to make decisions about the relative merits of voluntary industry action and public oversight, it is worth considering the evidence on this issue.

One way to assess the truth in Commissioner Majoras’s assertion is to examine other examples of industry self-regulation of products that harm health. For example, in his new history of the tobacco industry, The Cigarette Century, Harvard historian Allan Brandt explains that for decades, the tobacco industry claimed that its voluntary advertising guidelines precluded the need for stronger government regulation. For decades, until the 1970s, industry arguments  – and their political contributions – persuaded Congress not to act. Smoking continued to increase until restrictions on advertising, bans on public smoking, and tobacco tax hikes helped to bring smoking rates down. Had the government resisted tobacco industry pressure by instituting these measures two decades earlier, when most of the scientific evidence against tobacco was already established, hundreds of thousands of premature tobacco deaths could have been averted.

Beer industry self-regulation

To avoid regulation of alcohol marketing, the beer industry established voluntary guidelinessetting rules on advertising content and placement. A 2006 independent review of the beer industry’s compliance with these guidelines found that beer makers met three of its 15 recommended standards, partially met four and failed to meet eight, hardly strong evidence for compliance. Research shows that exposure to alcohol advertising contributes to increased youth drinking. Each year about 4,500 young people die in the United States from alcohol-related causes, and two million more are injured.

 

Oversight of global food companies

Returning to the food industry, in 2005, the World Health Organization asked three nutritionists to evaluate how well McDonalds and Kraft, signatories to this week’s agreement, had kept their own promises to improve practices related to obesity. The reviewers found that the companies had, at best, made modest changes and continued to market unhealthy products to children. They concluded that “for business reason alone,” food companies “cannot” and “will not” “stop making and marketing nutritionally questionable food products to children” and therefore only regulatory intervention could protect children’s health.

Corporate arguments against public oversight

Interference with free speech. Corporations offer three main arguments against stronger public oversight of their health practices. First, they claim limits on advertising interferes with their right to free speech. The legal theory that the First Amendment protects corporations – commercial activities is relatively recent. Not until 1976 did the Supreme Court assert that corporate commercial speech warranted constitutional protection (Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Council, 1976). In that decision, the court found that a Virginia regulation banning advertising of pharmaceutical prices was unconstitutional. A consumer group argued that people had a right to pricing information, and the Supreme Court agreed. However, whether the right to provide consumers with factual information about a product also applies to speech promoting unhealthy food to children or potentially dangerous drugs to patients raises different legal issues. Since the current Supreme Court is more favorably disposed to corporate interests than at any time in its history, in the short run, the prospects for reducing successful challenges to expanded protection are slim. In the long run, however, giving commercial speech similar protection to political speech has created new threats to public health that require public consideration. Public health professionals may have the credibility to initiate this debate.

Nor is the FTC the only regulatory agency to take on a more pro-business slant during the Bush Administration. On September 1, 2007, the New York Timespublished a story on its investigation of the capacity of the Consumer Products Safety Commission to fulfill its mission. According to the Times, under President Bush, the CPSC has “blocked enforcement actions, weakened industry oversight rules and promoted voluntary compliance over safety mandates.” At a time when imports from China and other Asian countries surged, creating an ever greater oversight challenge, the Bush-appointed commissioners voiced few objections as the already tiny agency – now just 420 workers – was pared almost to the bone. By weakening the agency and failing to enforce its legislative mandates, charge consumer advocates, this Administration has turned its belief in the superiority of voluntary guidelines versus public oversight into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Restriction of personal choice. The second principal argument against public oversight of harmful corporate practices is that it will prevent Americans from enjoying their freedom to eat, drink, or smoke what they want. In fact, in past decades, the loudest and most consistent influence on health and lifestyle today comes not from the “nanny state” but from corporate America. McDonalds spends more than a billion dollars a year to persuade children and their parents to fill up on high-fat Happy Meals that contribute to the nation’s obesity and diabetes epidemics. Philip Morris targets young people with ads that show smoking is fun, sporty and sexy while warning them that smoking is only for adults, a sure way to encourage experimentation. While courts force governments to use the least restrictive method possible to regulate private behavior that harms public health, corporations face no such limits in their efforts to persuade us to consume. Advertisers expose children to more than 20,000 television ads a year, placing their advertising in formerly non-commercial spaces such as cell phones, school classrooms, the sides of busses, taxis and even private SUVs, and use “viral marketing” techniques in which teens are hired to persuade their friends to buy certain products.

Leave it to Markets. The third argument against public oversight is that market forces are sufficient to modify harmful corporate practices and that well-intentioned but inadequately informed oversight will disrupt the market and produce unwanted and unintended side effects. The most frequently invoked historical example is the prohibition of alcohol, which is alleged to have created a black market, encouraged organized crime and promoted disrespect for the law. In the case of tobacco, however, market forces appear to have played a small role in controlling a product that contributed to 100 million premature deaths in the twentieth century. In fact, the market has been the principal savior of the tobacco industry, allowing it to find new populations to addict when public oversight restricted access in one place or to one group.

Public Health Arguments for Voluntary Guidelines

If only corporate leaders and their allies supported voluntary guidelines over public oversight, the task of public health advocates would be straightforward albeit challenging. We would need to make public arguments for oversight, mobilize constituencies who supported this position and convince policy makers to enact measures to protect public health. In fact, however, the public health community itself is divided on this question. Thus, it is necessary to examine the public health arguments for voluntary guidelines and to encourage open dialogue on this question within the profession.

Useful step in the right direction. Supporters of voluntary guidelines to modify corporate behavior advance several arguments. First, some claim that voluntary guidelines, even if inadequate, are a useful step in the right direction. When the advertising industry revised its voluntary guidelines for ads targeting children last November and several major food companies announced a new “healthy lifestyle” marketing campaign aimed at children, Dr. J. Michael McGinnis, a distinguished public health leader who served as chair of the Institute of Medicine’s Children’s Food Marketing Committee, said, “This is a move in the right direction. . . . It would be a pretty substantial change.” Critics responded that the guidelines didn’t go far enough. “I don’t see any substantial changes,” commented Susan Linn, a Harvard psychologist and author of Consuming Kids. Companies “will continue to be able to market junk food to children — and their marketing is going to be even more confusing for children because it will be linked to ‘healthy lifestyle’ messages.” In the case of tobacco, advocates argued that the industry crafted its voluntary guidelines to advance its business interests, limit future liability and avoid future regulation, not to protect public health, making the guidelines a step in the wrong direction.

Best possible deal under circumstances. A more pragmatic defense of voluntary guidelines is that however inadequate, such rules are better than nothing and perhaps the best option possible given political and economic constraints. Proponents of this position maintain that public disclosure of voluntary guidelines encourages political debate on the issue or sets the stage for later regulation. For example, in 2005, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene called on the restaurant industry to reduce voluntarily the use of trans fats. When a later survey showed that its call had gone unheeded, the Board of Health successfully instituted mandatory rules to eliminate trans fat.

Only public private partnerships have power to make meaningful changes. The belief that any public health successes require collaborative partnerships between the public and private sectors is deeply ingrained in mainstream American ideology. For example, Drs. Simon and Fielding, two leaders of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, assert that “all businesses and public health agencies share an interest: ensuring a healthy population. Businesses should have a financial interest in supporting organized public health efforts, and collaborative efforts can increase the reach and effectiveness of public health.” For those who believe that business and public health have an inherent confluence of interest, it is natural to seek partnerships. By allying with the power of big business, say the supporters of this approach, public health has a better chance of achieving its objectives.

Some advocates have a more critical view of partnerships. They argue that business can just as easily co-opt as support public health and that voluntary partnerships can be used as a substitute for more substantive protection. In a review of lessons for reducing obesity from advocacy efforts to modify tobacco, alcohol, firearms and automobile industry practices, Dorfman and her colleagues conclude:

Clearly both extremes – working too closely with the industry, or considering the entire industry a monolithic enemy – have downfalls. The best approach is to deal with the industry from a base of power. After the community organizing effort gels and there is a strong base of support in the community and solid strategic direction, then advocates can talk with the industry on their own terms.

In this view, the question is not whether to engage in discussions with industry about voluntary changes but rather under what circumstances, when and with what goals.

Conclusions

In summary, public health professionals offer compelling but contradictory arguments for and against voluntary corporate guidelines and stronger public oversight as strategies to reduce harmful corporate practices. To move beyond ideological assertions of the merits of one path or another will require systematic evidence that analyzes the outcomes of each option in a variety of circumstances. By focusing public health research on this question, public health officials and advocates can move towards evidence-based decisions that are based on concrete analyses of specific situations.

The stakes for finding the right balance between the two could not be higher. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine warned that if current trends on obesity and diabetes continue, our children and grandchildren will have shorter lifespans than we do. Choosing the right path to reduce the promotion of unhealthy food can help us avoid this prediction. Similarly, it is estimated that one billion people will die from tobacco-related diseases in the 21st century, a fate that can be changed only if the tobacco industry plays a different role in this century than in the last one.

Thus, providing more definitive guidance on how to choose when to support voluntary industry initiatives and when to insist on strong public oversight is literally a matter of life and death.

Nicholas Freudenberg is Distinguished Professor of Public Health at Hunter College, City University of New York.

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Free trade, the food industry and obesity: How changes in US – Mexico food trade contributed to an epidemic

Like other countries, Mexico has seen a dramatic increase in obesity and diabetes in the last decade. While obesity has many causes that operate at multiple levels, this report examines how new trade agreements can lead to changes in the practices of multinational companies that can then contribute to health problems. It also illustrates how these global changes interact with national and local trends to influence health.

At the global level, the food market integration between Mexico and the United States that began in the 1980s accelerated after the two countries signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 (1). NAFTA removed trade barriers between the US, Canada and Mexico, making it easier for Mexico to export flowers and tropical fruits, for example, and for US companies to sell Mexicans low-cost corn, processed food and other goods and to invest US dollars in the Mexican food industry. Between 1988 and 1997, U.S. foreign direct investment in the Mexican food processing industry increased from US $ 210 million to US $ 5.3 billion, a 25-fold increase (1). This increase had a major impact on the types of food available in Mexico.

Most NAFTA-inspired US foreign direct investment in the Mexican food industry supported production of processed food. Between 1995 and 2003, sales of processed food increased by 5 to 10% annually (1). In the same period, the Mexican diet changed considerably. Between 1992 and 2000, for example, calories from carbonated soft drinks increased by almost 40%, from 44 to 61 Kcal per capita per day. By 2002, the average Mexican was drinking more Coca Cola servings per year, 487, than US residents, who drank 436 8- ounce serving (1).

Increased globalization and consolidation of the Mexican retail food sector and the growing consolidation of supermarkets affected others sectors of society, including agriculture, where small farmers had trouble selling to large supermarkets (2). As a result, many left their farms and moved to the city, leading to more urbanization, decreased access to fresh foods and loss in family and community food self-sufficiency.

How did these changes influence food intake? Between 1988 and 1999, the total energy intake from fat in Mexico increased from 23.5% to 30.3 % (1,3). The increase in urban Mexico City was 32%, compared to the poorer more rural South, where it was only 22 % (3). In this same period, the national prevalence of overweight/obesity increased from 33% to 59%, a 78% increase (4). The overall prevalence of diabetes in Mexico increased from 8.8% in 1993 to 11.4% in 1999, a 30% increase.

In Mexico and other developing nations, urbanization can contribute to higher prevalence of obesity by increasing access to energy-dense fatty foods, especially for low socioeconomic populations groups moving from rural areas (5). Between 1970 and 2000, the proportion of the Mexican population living in urban areas increased from 58% to 75%, the highest rate in Central America. By 2000, Mexico City, the capital, was the second largest city in the world. Furthermore, longitudinal studies suggest that the rapid transition from rural to urban and from high rates of early malnutrition to later childhood overnutrition serve as independent risk factors for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adulthood (6). Thus, the particular pattern of economic development that Mexico pursued facilitated gains in weight, especially in the growing urban low income population. When food markets then made high calorie low nutrient foods readily available to newly urbanized, mostly sedentary people, the stage was set for rapid weight gain.

Impact on Health

Growing rates of diabetes, fueled by the epidemic of obesity, consumed larger portions of the nation’s health care budget, depriving resources from other health problems. In 2000, the annual cost of diabetes care per person per year in Mexico was US $607 and one study estimated that total diabetes costs in Mexico in 2000 were US $15.1 billion (7).

At the municipal level, changes in the economy and food availability led to price increases. Between 1992 and 2000, in part as a result of economic changes precipitated by NAFTA, the cost in pesos per megacalorie of food tripled in both urban and rural areas but remained twice as high in urban than rural areas – making low-cost low-nutrient foods more attractive (8). Aggressive marketing of soft drinks and other high calorie, low nutrient snack foods by global and national beverage makers, especially to urban children and young adults, the fastest growing segment of the population and industry’s best hope for increased market share, further encouraged consumption (1). Cities, with dense populations, established media markets and numerous retail outlets, made particularly suitable venues for advertising. Often ad campaigns were planned by increasingly globalized advertising companies (1). In Mexico City, the first McDonald’s restaurant opened in the early 1980s; twenty years later there were 200 Golden Arches in the city (9).

At the neighborhood level, rapid urbanization, loss of green space, the decline in physical labor and high crime rates combined to discourage physical activity, further contributing to obesity. This social environment where diets included more high calorie low nutrient foods and less fresh produce as well as reduced opportunities for physical activity led to weight gain.

Genetic characteristics of the Mexican population also contributed to rates of obesity but it was environmental exposure to a rapidly escalating obesogenic environment that precipitated the phenotypic expression of genotypic vulnerability (10). Moreover, those with Indian ancestry, at higher risk of a genetic predisposition to diabetes, were often concentrated in the low-income urban and rural areas as a result of socioeconomic and ethnic segregation, precisely those areas where food availability was changing most rapidly. For example, a study of diabetes prevalence in a low-income barrio in Mexico City found that 59% of the population had some Native American ancestry (9). Thus, global, national and municipal factors intersected to create a new environment for a specific population with a higher genetic risk for obesity and diabetes.

This case also shows how changes in the practices of global food companies – e.g., increased exports to developing nations; aggressive marketing of high calorie, low nutrient foods and beverages; and expansion of retail outlets to reach diverse sectors of the population– created an obesogenic environment that contributed to the explosive growth of the epidemics of obesity and diabetes in a genetically vulnerable population. Rising rates of obesity and diabetes affected both urban and rural Mexico, but as a result of dense urban markets that facilitated aggressive food advertising, a growing urban middle class that could afford more processed food and a working class population whose food choices became more constrained and less healthy and the declines in physical activity, these epidemics left a distinct footprint in Mexico’s cities. Reversing these trends will require intervention at the multiple levels that have triggered the changes.

Popular mobilization is one potential source of change. In Mexico last year, corn tortillas, a crucial source of calories for 50 million poor people, doubled in price, precipitating protests, demonstrations and eventually government price controls. Whether similar global food changes will lead to a Mexican food justice movement that takes on hunger, obesity and the growing corporate control of food remains to be seen.

By Nicholas Freudenberg, Hunter College, City University of New York.

References

1. Hawkes C. Uneven dietary development: linking the policies and processes of globalization with the nutrition transition, obesity and diet-related chronic diseases. Global Health. 2006; 28;2:4. 
2. Schwentesius R, Angel Gomez M: Supermarkets in Mexico: impacts on horticulture systems. Development Policy Review 2002, 20:487-502.
3. Rivera JA, Barquera S, Gonzalez-Cossyo T, Olaiz G, Sepulveda J: Nutrition Transition in Mexico and in Other Latin American Countries. Nutrition Reviews 2004, 62:S149-S157.
4. Rivera JA, Barquera S, Campirano F, Campos I, Safdie M, Tovar V: Epidemiologial and nutritional transition in Mexico: rapid increase of non-communicable chronic diseases and obesity. Public Health Nutrition 2002, 5:113-122.
5. Jimenez-Cruz A, Bacardi Gascon M, Jones E: Fruit, vegetable, soft drink, and high-fat containing snack consumption among Mexican children. Arch Med Res 2002, 33:74-80.
6. Jimenez-Cruz A, Bacardi Gascon M,: The Fattening Burden of Type 2 Diabetes on Mexicans.Diabetes Care 2004, 27:1213-1215. 
7. Barcelo A, Aedo C, Rajpathak S, Robles S: The cost of diabetes in Latin America and the Caribbean. Bulletin of the WHO 2003, 81:27. 8. Arroyo P, Loria A, Mendez O: Changes in the household calorie supply during the 1994 economic crisis in Mexico and its implications for the obesity epidemic. Nutrition Reviews 2004, 62:S163-S168.
9. Williams K, Stern MP, Gonzalez-Villalpando C. Secular trends in obesity in Mexico City and in San Antonio.Nutr Rev. 2004;62(7 Pt 2):S158-62.
10. Gonzalez-Villalpando C, Stern MP,Gonzalez ME, Rivera MD, Simon J,Andrade IS, Haffner SM. The Mexico City Diabetes Study: a population-based approach study of genetic and environmental interactions in the pathogenesis of obesity and diabetes. Nutr Rev 1999;5:S72 – S77 

 

Spotlight on the Food Industry: Coke, PepsiCo, and McDonald’s Pledge Healthier Ads for Kids; Critics question impact

In April 2007, 15 food companies, including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo, announced that beginning in 2008, they will devote at least half of their ads directed to children under 12 toward promoting “healthy dietary choices” and/or physical activity. Does this new pledge represent a change in direction or is it simply an effort to avoid stronger public oversight?

At least some companies worry about the growing public focus on obesity. In a recent talk at the Venice Festival of Media, Coca-Cola Company Chief Creative Officer, Esther Lee admitted, “Our achilles heel is the discussion about obesity. It’s gone from a small, manageable U.S. issue to a huge global issue. It dilutes our marketing and works against it. It’s a huge, huge issue.”

A recent study of television advertising for children conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that for children under the age of eight , only one ad out of 26 promotes fitness or a healthy diet and for children 8 to 12, it’s even worse, one ad out of 48. Furthermore, the food and beverage ads directed towards children overwhelmingly promote high fat and sugary snacks or fast food. The study looked at 8,854 commercials aimed at children, none of which promoted fruits or vegetables.

Do these ads affect eating behavior? A recent study at the University of Liverpool found that children who had been exposed to food advertisements on television were more likely to overeat than children who had not been so exposed. In the study, 59 nine to eleven year old children of varying weights were exposed to 10 food or 10 toy ads. The children were then allowed to eat a range of snacks at will – from fruit to potato chips and candy. Results showed that total calorie intake was significantly higher after the children were exposed to the food ads. Children of normal weight increased consumption by 84 percent, overweight children by 101 percent, and obese children by 134 percent even though the foods that the children were allowed to eat were not the ones that were advertised.

According to Dr. Jason Halford, Director of the University of Liverpool’s Kissileff Human Ingestive Behavior Laboratory and an investigator in this study, “That’s important because what we’re showing goes beyond branding effects. Advertisers have always argued that food ads do nothing but get kids to change from one brand to another for the same thing – the same argument tobacco companies used. This study shows that that’s completely incorrect. It doesn’t matter if the ad is for a specific product. It produces consumption. Kids consume after they see them.”

These studies suggest that to reduce over consumption and obesity, children may need to see fewer ads, not different ones. According to Marion Nestle, Professor at the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, the main nutrition message Americans need to hear is “Eat less” yet the food industry consistently encourages Americans to eat more, the necessary message for healthy profits if not healthy children.

Several recent and current government investigations have scrutinized food advertising to children. For example, this summer, the Federal Trade Commission will be issuing compulsory requests for information from 44 food, beverage, and quick-service restaurant chains. The FTC is especially interested in marketing practices of in-store promotions, events, packaging, internet marketing and product placement in video games, movies, and TV programs. According to the Institute of Medicine, annual sales of food and beverages to American children was more that $27 billion in 2002. Some researchers have calculated that children are exposed to 27 food ads a day and that most promote foods high in fat, sugar, and calories. As a result, children begin to make their first request for a product by two years of age, and 75 percent of those requests are for sugary cereals.

School foods have also become a new battleground. In an effort to lower the rates of childhood obesity, in April, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommended strict standards to cut calories, fat, and sugar in all snacks and beverages sold in school vending machines, at fundraisers, and as a la carte items in school cafeterias. In school systems around the country, parents, teachers and food activists are struggling to clear schools of unhealthy food.

Many food industry executives resent government involvement and dread the close attention. One executive told Advertising Age, “It’s clearly a witch hunt.” He said if anyone is to be picked as the scapegoat it’s likely to be the fast food outlets that buy as much media for the 6-to-11-year-old set as other marketers spend on their entire annual budget.

The April announcement is in part a response to this growing government attention. Food industry leaders hope that their voluntary measures will stave off further oversight. Yet, research evidence suggests that voluntary guidelines developed by industry often fail to achieve their objectives. Recently two nutritionists reviewed changes in portion sizes of sodas, hamburgers and French fries at McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s and found few changes despite pledges by these companies to improve their offerings. The authors concluded that “voluntary efforts by fast-food companies to reduce portion sizes are unlikely to be effective, and that policy approaches are needed to reduce energy intake from fast food.”1

Historically the food and beverage industry have shown their capacity to respond quickly to public concerns about health. In 1991 the industry was called to introduce 5,000 new reduced fat food products by the year 2000 to support the Healthy People 2000 initiative – a goal they met by 1995. Yet as these new products came on the shelf, obesity rates continued to grow.

The Coca-Cola Company has been particularly adept in responding to new market forces. The Company’s global beverage portfolio now includes 400 brands that include soft drinks, diet soft drinks, juices, juice drinks, sports beverages, waters, teas, coffees, milk-based drinks and fortified beverages. However, no advertiser has yet promoted reduced consumption of such beverages or encouraged use of tap water, two messages that nutritionists support.

In fact, soft drink companies have been especially eager to promote physical activity, another avenue to weight reduction, rather than reduced consumption. For example, in its Get Active/Stay Active program, Pepsi Cola encourages young people to engage in sports and other physical activities while it still signs pouring rights contracts that require high schools to serve only Pepsi. The effort to divert blame for obesity to physical inactivity is reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s attempt to point the finger at air pollution as the main cause of lung cancer. Both air pollution and physical inactivity warrant attention but the self-serving goal of the focus makes the message suspect.

Some countries have chosen alternatives to voluntary guidelines. In November 2006, the British food regulator agency banned advertising of high fat, salt and sugar foods in television programs made for children or of particular appeal to children under age 16. In announcing the new regulations, outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair said, “Particularly where children are concerned, I have come to the conclusion we need to be tougher, more active in setting standards and enforcing them.” The British regulatory agency also decided to prohibit the use of licensed characters, celebrities, promotional offers and health claims in food advertising to children. Whether the United States is ready for such a step could make an important issue for the 2008 election.

 

1 Young LR, Nestle M. Portion sizes and obesity: responses of fast-food companies. J Public Health Policy. 2007;28(2):238-48.