Kid with big burger.Big burger, little bugger: Fast food marketing to small children knows no borders.Photo: (C) sean dreilingerI just returned from a two-day meeting in Brussels. I was asked to participate with other experts from around the world (mostly from Europe) to address the problem of cross-border marketing of unhealthy food to children. In the age of satellite TV, the internet, and other technologies, one country’s standards may be insufficient to protect children from being exposed to junk food marketing. Because the meeting was not open to the general public, I cannot share all of what was discussed (the standards are still in draft form), but I can highlight a couple of presentations made to a larger group of “stakeholders.”

The only industry presentation was made by Rocco Renaldi, the managing director of a PR firm called Landmark Europe, which apparently is handling the food industry’s self-regulation charade there. Mr. Renaldi briefly described the voluntary program, which bears some similarity to the American version. In the U.S., it goes by the lofty name of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, under the rubric of the Better Business Bureau, and consists of a series of “pledges” by various companies on how they market their products to children. Oddly, while McDonald’s takes part in the U.S., it has not joined in the U.K., at least one not-so-subtle difference.

By way of showing off about how great the system is working in Europe, Mr. Renaldi explained how food ads aimed at children on TV had declined from 2005-2010. (Note the industry program didn’t start until 2009.) I thought this was misleading data for another reason so I asked him during the Q&A: what about other forms of advertising, did they look at anything else? Because the evidence suggests in the U.S. that when TV ads go down, children are still plenty exposed to junk food messages through other forms of media, such as the internet. He had no good answer, except to admit he only had data for TV, saying “how hard” it was to measure other forms of media. Well, it certainly is hard for actual researchers and advocates, but if you’re working for industry, maybe not so hard? Just convenient to be selective.

Next, a researcher named Ileana Sondergaard from the Metropolitan University College of Copenhagen, Denmark essentially tore apart everything the industry PR guy had just said. She explained how bad the standards are, how companies use misleading information while breaching their own standards, and that overall, the system suffers from an inherent lack of transparency. (All of which sounded painfully familiar as problems I described in my book and we continue to see in the United States.)

Nine of the 11 original corporate members of the voluntary pledges in Europe use distinct nutrient-profiling systems that are conveniently set to match each company’s own products. (This is the same game industry plays in the U.S.: 16 companies, 16 different pledges.) For example, Unilver sets an upper limit for sugar at 20 grams per 100 grams of product, and then magically its Calippo Orange popsicle clocks in at 19 grams. Also, the upper limit for calories is 110 and Calippo contains 100, how convenient. Sondergaard also showed how Nestlé products often listed different nutrient information in different places on the web and elsewhere, making it impossible to get reliable information. Finally, she explained how she tried to contact many of the companies, to no avail. (Her research is not yet published, but I will share it when it becomes available.)

Back on the home front, Mary Engle of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission gave an update on the stalled federal voluntary guidelines process here. In 2009, Congress authorized the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children, to “develop recommendations for standards for the marketing of food” to children age 17 or younger, mandating that a report be submitted “no later than July 15, 2010.” Oops. (The three other federal agencies involved are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which put out the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 2011.)

The committee did release this draft [PDF] proposal back in December of 2009, which was actually not bad as far as nutrition standards go. And this of course explains the delay. As Engle noted: “Industry was not happy; companies complained that under these guidelines, no products could be marketed.” (Isn’t that the point?) Engle said they heard from critics warning that industry would just ignore the standards, which seems likely in any case, because remember, it will be voluntary.

So now what? Engle predicted we should see the proposed guidelines released in the next 2-3 months, followed by a 45-day comment period. (Why we need regulatory comments for voluntary guidelines is unclear to this lawyer, but OK.) While Engle said the proposal “won’t be radically different,” from the draft, she also noted the standards “have to be feasible, something industry will adopt on a voluntary basis, and cannot be dead on arrival.” Translation: the final document will be watered down. (And then likely to be ignored by industry anyway, even after all the whining.)

I left Brussels with the impression that the food industry is engaging in the same charade all over the world: setting weak, self-serving, voluntary guidelines designed to ensure companies can keep right on marketing their unhealthy brands to children while mollifying regulators and distracting researchers with evaluating their useless pledges, commitments, and initiatives.

While none of this is surprising, more disappointing was the realization that advocates throughout Europe haven’t figured out how to address this serious problem any more than we have in the U.S. The junk food industry is way out in front of all of us, having co-opted the process the world over. Meanwhile, children continue to be exploited as the global public health crisis deepens.