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This week, in a bid to display their seriousness in tackling child obesity, the EU’s biggest food firms signed up to a set of marketing commitments. Similar moves in the US are, after initial fierce criticism, slowly gaining support and, as Ben Cooper reports, the European initiative will also have to overcome the sceptics. 

The debate over whether advertising to children should be controlled by self-regulation or by legislation was in the spotlight once again this week after a major food industry initiative was unveiled – this time in the EU.
The EU Pledge is an undertaking by 11 major food and beverage companies to make changes to how and what they advertise to children.
The participating companies – including Danone, Kellogg and Nestlé – have undertaken not to advertise food and beverage products to children under the age of 12 on TV, print and the Internet, with the exception of products meeting specific nutrition criteria.
The companies, which also include General Mills, Kraft Foods and Unilever, have also agreed not to promote products in primary schools, to publish their commitments online and commission the independent monitoring of the pledge on advertising.

While this is a self-regulatory programme, not dissimilar to the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative launched in the US last year, it follows calls for industry action by European lawmakers. In his pronouncements on the problems of obesity among children, EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner Markos Kyprianou has been open to the idea of self-regulation, setting up the multi-stakeholder EU Platform on Diet, Physical Activity and Health in 2005. The EU Pledge announced earlier this week can be seen as a concerted response from industry to that olive branch.
Consumer groups, such as the European Consumers Association (BEUC), have expressed scepticism and have continued to call for legislation rather than self-regulation. But such initiatives cannot expect to elicit generous support from pressure groups at their inception. It is only once they have demonstrated that they can be effective that they start to gain credibility.
However, the EU Pledge does face some stern challenges in producing the kind of results that are hoped for and that will silence the self-regulation sceptics.
In the first place, like many self-regulatory initiatives, it will have the problem of not representing the entire industry. The participating companies believe they represent about two thirds of the food and beverage advertising spend in the European Union. While many major companies have signed up, there are some notable absentees, not least McDonald’s, a major advertiser to children and a company that often attracts negative comment from pressure groups.
The third of the industry not covered by these guidelines will of course remain subject to the existing advertising codes in member states. Most of the national guidelines are self-regulatory themselves and do not go as far as the EU Pledge undertakings.
It is hoped that more companies will join the scheme as it gathers momentum, as happened with the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative in the US, but this remains to be seen. “It is true that one third is not covered by the initiative,” says Rocco Renaldi, a spokesman for the initiative. “We would hope that others would join. One point we would make is that once you have a critical mass there is an incentive for others to join.”
The question also remains as to whether the measures themselves go far enough to make a tangible impact on reducing over-consumption of HFSS (high in fat, sugar and salt) foods by children. The BEUC believes that mandatory measures are required but advocates of self-regulation would counter that if voluntary moves go far enough, then they can legitimately claim to take the place of legislation.
The level at which self-regulation is pitched is, as Renaldi himself concedes, a value judgment. The problem is that in order to gain consensus, self-regulation often has to set the bar quite low, which only fuels the scepticism of consumer lobby groups.
Renaldi states that in setting up the programme, a “pragmatic approach about what is feasible to self-regulate” had to be adopted. Sceptics would argue this shows how self-regulatory guidelines are arrived at by negotiation and consensus among interested parties.
“It’s always possible to revise self-regulatory commitments,” Renaldi adds. “At the moment, we took the view that this judgement was appropriate.” However, any tightening of the guidelines would be problematic. One could assume that the stipulations in the EU Pledge were a step too far for some; drawing in those companies who wished to remain outside the tent will be tricky.

Over half of Europeans are overweight

To its credit, the requirements of the EU Pledge do go further than current advertising codes of practice in most EU countries. One exception is the UK, where the Ofcom’s guidelines set the age limit for advertising food on dedicated children’s programming at 16. The Swedes also go further, having banned food advertising during children’s programming.
Renaldi also points out that it is the first time in Europe that a group of companies has set up a common framework and the first time a unified age benchmark has been agreed. The decision to use nutritional criteria to determine what products to advertise represents, he adds, a further milestone.
Nevertheless, the decision not to opt for a self-imposed time watershed will attract criticism. As highlighted in recent research by UK consumer group Which?, many TV programmes that are not deemed children’s television have a large audience among kids.
The EU Pledge undertaking not to advertise to children under-12 will identify the programming to be avoided in terms the proportion of under-12s watching. If a programme has an audience comprising 50% under-12s or more it will fall under the guidelines.
However, this leaves a considerable amount of family TV that is not covered by the EU Pledge. Renaldi says that an important distinction is that children will be watching these programmes under adult supervision rather than on their own, but this qualification is unlikely to cut much ice with pressure groups.
The situation in the UK, as highlighted by Which?, has already attracted the attention of politicians – Ofcom is to review its guidelines during the course of next year – and this aspect of the EU Pledge could be a weakness that critics of the scheme will look to exploit.
In terms of convincing Commissioner Kyprianou of the merits of self-regulation and the EU Pledge specifically, the member companies have until 2010 when the Commissioner will review the situation. This, of course, does not preclude the introduction of legislation in the meantime by member countries, though at present, with the possible exception of some change in the Ofcom code in the UK, there seems to be little in the way of national legislation on the horizon.
For its part, the Commission has been fairly non-commital in its response to the EU Pledge. When contacted by just-food, a spokesperson for Kyprianou’s office said: “The Commission will examine and evaluate this, and after looking into the detail it will come up with a conclusion and a reaction. At this stage, it is very early to make any comment.”

One thing is sure – it’s a topic that does – and will continue to – make for compulsive viewing.