A self-regulatory initiative by 11 food and beverage companies launched in the US last week has received a mixed response from campaigners. While the initiative can potentially make a valuable contribution to tackling childhood obesity, Ben Cooper writes, weaknesses in terms of its scope and coverage have exposed it to criticism from pressure groups.

The announcement last week by a group of 11 food and beverage companies in the US of pledges regarding how and what they market to children embodies the main problems that such self-regulatory initiatives encounter.
 
The Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which was launched under the auspices of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) last year, sees the eleven companies - Kraft, Kellogg, PepsiCo, Campbell, General Mills, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Cadbury Adams, Hershey, Mars and Unilever - make some significant undertakings regarding the kinds of products they will and will not market to children and the media they will not employ to promote what might be termed as less healthy products.
 
The principal problem facing such initiatives is that the response from pressure groups inevitably focuses on what is not being promised, and who is not participating. And the more the companies protest their social responsibility and promote the virtues of the scheme, the more it sounds like so much PR.
 
It is a genuine dilemma. In truth, such initiatives have to stand or fall by the results they achieve but here too the companies face a problem in that quantifying success is not easy. Monitoring compliance is always a bone of contention in self-regulatory programmes, while pressure groups that remain sceptical of self-regulation are more likely to base their judgments on how these measures affect levels of childhood obesity. Even if restraint on the part of the companies were to lead to fairly swift changes in consumption patterns, such epidemiological shifts inevitably take longer to register.
 
In the meantime, the non-participation of many companies represents a very real problem. However responsible some are in their marketing, others will continue to market irresponsibly, and, regardless of any interventions whether voluntary or mandatory, many children will continue to eat unhealthily because there are plenty of irresponsible parents too.
 
At the outset, however, all such initiatives can do is undertake to make changes and hope that they will be given the time to show they can deliver on those promises, and that the changes will yield results.
 
While the initiative received a surprisingly positive response from the CSR advocacy group the Center For Science in the Public Interest, other pressure groups, such as Commercial Alert and Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), were far more sceptical.
 
In fairness, the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative should score quite highly in terms of its coverage. The 11 companies - one more than was originally announced last autumn as Mars has subsequently been added to the list - together are estimated to have accounted for two thirds of children's food and beverage television advertising expenditures in 2004, according to the CBBB.
 
But sceptics will naturally look to the one third which is not represented, and the significant names that are missing from the list. For example, while McDonald's is there, Burger King is not, and the absence of both ConAgra and Nestlé from the initiative has also been highlighted by critics.
 
While one might hope that a significant proportion of the companies making up the other third of advertising revenue may be adopting more socially responsible practices, for the same reasons as the 11 companies but independently of this particular initiative, the fact that they remain outside the tent is a problem, both for the credibility and the efficacy of the initiative. It may be a somewhat pessimistic observation but the restraint being shown by the participating companies may represent a commercial opportunity for less scrupulous companies who are still prepared to target areas of the market now being eschewed by powerful competitors. Campaigners would argue that legislation does not have this problem.
 
The other main criticism focuses on what and what is not being promised, and here perhaps the scheme also has weaknesses. While the initiative has baseline requirements, with participants agreeing to devote at least half of their advertising primarily directed to children under 12 to promoting healthier dietary choices or healthy lifestyles, it is framed as 11 separate pledges by the different companies.
 
Elaine D. Kolish, director of the initiative at the CBBB, said that "collectively these pledges will improve the mix of foods advertised to children under 12 and reduce the number of food advertisements run by participating companies".
 
However, pressure groups have rounded on the fact that each company has made a different pledge as a fundamental weakness in the scheme, as each participant focuses on slightly different criteria, and words their pledges in different ways. It is clear that a standardised, uniform undertaking might have had more impact. Moreover, the CBBB is committed to monitoring and reporting on compliance, and this task is made a lot more difficult by the diffuse criteria employed by the different companies.
 
"Each company is setting its own standards on what is acceptable for marketing to children which is going to make it very hard to monitor," said Susan Linn of the Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood. "Universal undertakings would have made it more easy to monitor and made it more accountable."
 
Where this appears to be leading is that for such schemes to gain maximum credibility, and in particular to be taken seriously by pressure groups, they have to be as comprehensive and standardised as possible. Judged on those criteria, while undoubtedly a positive move, this initiative may still have some way to go.