The new pledges include mobile marketing

The new pledges include mobile marketing

Companies including Nestle, General Mills and Mondelez International this week extended voluntary restrictions on how they market food to children. Ben Cooper argues the new pledges are a step forward but wonders how the World Health Organization, which has criticised what it calls Big Food, will react.

The enhanced global commitments on food and drink marketing to children, announced by the International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA) on Monday (22 September), represent a further stepping up of the food industry's engagement on the issue of diet-related health issues at a global level.

Three new commitments pertain to key concerns that have been consistently raised by campaigners regarding how the food industry markets to children.

The IFBA has extended its previous policy on marketing to children to additional media, including outdoor, mobile and SMS marketing, interactive games, DVD/CD-ROM, cinema and product placement. Here, the inclusion of interactive games is significant as "advergaming" has been identified as an area of particular concern by health campaigners.

Another bone of contention among campaigners is also addressed in the enhanced commitments, with IFBA members committing their use of "certain techniques, such as licensed characters, movie tie-ins and celebrities that appeal to children under 12, that are primarily directed to children under 12 in the media channels covered" will be limited to products meeting "better-for-you" nutritional criteria.

Thirdly, the IFBA has committed "wherever possible" to harmonise nutritional criteria, where such criteria do not yet exist, defining the "better for you" products that they will market directly to children under 12. A similar harmonising of nutritional criteria by the US food industry coalition, the Children's Food & Beverage Initiative (CFBAI), which was precipitated by some fairly tough debate between the industry and government agencies, was welcomed by campaigners and government alike. 

Many of the member companies of the IFBA, which include Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills, Mondelez International, Nestlé and Unilever, are already engaging with national governments on health and wellness issues. Initiatives such as the CFBAI and other examples in the UK and elsewhere of governments' preparedness to support self-regulation and voluntary action bear witness to their positive view on private-sector engagement on these issues.

However, the industry coalition is stressing its continued willingness to engage with the World Health Organization (WHO), which is leading the global effort to tackle the problem of obesity, overweight and other dietary health issues under the broader WHO Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases 2013-2020.

The IFBA announcement was accompanied by an open letter to WHO director-general Dr Margaret Chan, outlining its commitments and expressing its willingness to engage with the WHO. In the letter, the 11 IFBA signatories stressed the importance of multi-stakeholder engagement in addressing diet and health issues.

The letter stated: "We believe that finding and implementing solutions to the world's highly complex and multi-factorial health and wellbeing issues requires a whole-of-society effort and multi-stakeholder collaboration. The challenge is simply too great to be tackled by one sector alone. 

"Our belief in the power of partnerships underpins each one of our commitments. We will continue leading our industry and look forward to working with all stakeholders to understand the most helpful role we can play and to bring to life our commitments toward realising our ultimate shared goal of improving public health. We look forward to meeting with you and your team in the near future to discuss our progress and enhanced commitments."

It is now a question of how the WHO might respond, and what form active stakeholder dialogue might take. 

While the public announcement was made only on Monday, the letter to Dr Chan was sent on 15 September, and as of today (25 September) no response had been received by the IFBA. 

When asked by just-food whether the WHO welcomed the enhanced commitments and whether Dr Chan intended to respond to the IFBA's letter, a WHO spokesperson said: "We do not have a comment at this stage. We have not assessed the announcement."

An IFBA spokesperson told just-food today (25 September): "We have always received a response to our past communications and expect to receive one to this letter as well."

It is difficult not to consider the relationship between the WHO and the food sector in the context of the way in which Dr Chan has spoken of the global food industry in the past. 

Dr Chan told the 8th Global Conference on Health Promotion in Helsinki in June 2013 that "efforts to prevent non-communicable diseases go against the business interests of powerful economic operators," and that in her view, "this is one of the biggest challenges facing health promotion". 

She also likened the approach of the food industry to regulation to that of the tobacco sector. "It is not just Big Tobacco anymore. Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda, and Big Alcohol," Dr Chan said. "All of these industries fear regulation, and protect themselves by using the same tactics."

This form of rhetoric is in marked contrast to the open stance so many of the UN member governments take towards engagement with food companies on dietary heath issues. 

The IFBA points out it has been invited to engage with other UN institutions. The coalition is in special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC),  the UN's platform for inter-governmental debate on sustainable development.

The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), which jointly announced the new commitments on marketing to children with the IFBA, also stands ready to engage further with the WHO. "WFA has already been invited to a number of open and constructive stakeholder meetings by WHO and we welcome the opportunity for ongoing dialogue," WFA managing director Stephan Loerke told just-food. 

Loerke also emphasised the positive contribution the private sector can make to a multi-stakeholder response to diet-related ill health. "Of course, the private sector has an important role to play. We share the WHO's goal of reducing the impact on children of the marketing of foods high in fat, salt and sugar and we believe these reinforced commitments go a long way to achieving that objective."

At a time when the WHO is taking such an important lead role in tackling one of the most frightening epidemics the world has faced in recent years, it is worth bearing in mind that non-communicable diseases, many of which will have strong correlations with poor diet, were responsible for 68% (38m) of all deaths globally in 2012, up from 60% in 2000. 

It is for that reason that the WHO's Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases 2013-2020 exists, and faced with disease on such a scale one would imagine the organisation would wish to utilise every resource at its disposal.