Life would be so much easier if we could only set our own guidelines. You could define the average weight as 10 pounds higher than your own and, voilà, no more obesity! You could raise the speed limit to 90 miles per hour and never worry about a ticket. You could call a cholesterol level of 250 “normal” and celebrate with a bag of fried pork rinds. (You could even claim that cutting government spending would increase employment, but that might be going too far.) You could certainly turn junk food into something “healthy.
That’s what the food industry is doing.
Back in May I wrote about the voluntary guidelines for marketing junk food to kids developed by an interagency group headed by the Federal Trade Commission. These non-binding suggestions ask that the industry market real food to kids instead of the junk they so famously favor selling. But the industry argues that the recommendations are effectively mandatory because non-compliance would lead to retaliation and eliminate all food advertising to adolescents, as well as 74,000 jobs.
On the phone last week, Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, told me that even though the guidelines are “without teeth,” the pushback from the industry has been formidable: “We have seen political showmanship, misinformation about the impact of these voluntary guidelines, insistence that the industry has been successful in self-regulation and that these efforts would violate the First Amendment.”
That voluntary guidelines could curb the right to free speech is absurd, but not as wacky as letting the industry set its own standards. Yet that’s what has happened: The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a group of food manufacturers that includes McDonald’s, Burger King, PepsiCo and Kraft Foods came up with its own guidelines defining foods healthy enough to market to kids. (It’s worth mentioning another group, too — if just to admire its name, The Sensible Food Policy Coalition — led by PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, General Mills and other big companies, evidently created solely to prevent the voluntary guidelines from gaining a foothold.)
CFBAI is a champion of “self-regulation,” which means repeating a series of mantras that include “facts” like “there is no such thing as good food and bad food,” or that Cookie Crisp cereal (or dozens of others) “can be a part of a balanced diet,” all the while micro-adjusting hyper-processed food so that “more fiber” and “less sugar” aren’t outright lies, even though the food itself can hardly be claimed to be “less junky.” With self-regulation, even Kraft Singlescan be considered “part of a balanced diet.”
And guess what? In general, the companies fare well in meeting their own standards (which, pathetically, the F.T.C. sees as a “significant advance”): two-thirds of the products they advertise are A-O.K., with the remainder requiring just modest adjustments. See? Mission accomplished! Corn Pops are now healthy!
Another example: last week, McDonald’s promised a minor tweak of its Happy Meal, (which, of course, “can be part of a well-balanced diet for kids”) adding a few apple slices, removing a few French fries and making milk — chocolate or regular — a more prominent option. It still comes with a toy, and soda will remain a choice. (I’m not sure anyone is claiming soda is part of a healthy diet, but stay tuned.) The move received widespread praise, with Michelle Obamaleading the cheers.
But despite the seal of approval of our first lady/self-appointed nutrition expert, a Happy Meal with a piece of apple is still a box of branded, overpriced junk food sold not by its value but by its marketing scheme. (Forty percent of McDonald’s advertising budget is spent on marketing to kids.)
This is not “progress,” but a public relations victory along with — as Michele Simon points out in her blog — an attempt to short-circuit regulations and laws that have some guts, like the one in San Francisco that forbids the inclusion of toys in meals that don’t meet reasonable nutrition standards. The last thing McDonald’s or any like corporation wants to see is a strong, activist government protecting consumers, whether or not they’re capable of adult judgment or are habituated (a harsher word is “addicted”) to self-destructive products.
Self-regulation may be immediate, non-threatening and magical, but it doesn’t work. A study published earlier this week in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine by Dr. Lisa Powell and other researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago tracked changes in exposure for all food, beverage and restaurant TV ads seen by kids from 2 to 11 years old, from 2003 to 2009. It found that, overall, daily exposure to the ads declined but the percentage among companies that had pledged to self-regulate was higher than those that didn’t. And in 2009, 86 percent of these ads still featured unhealthy foods.
What’s worse? Self-serving self-regulation or toothless guidelines set by an agency that appears to be complicit in maintaining the status quo? Hard to say. What’s better is having grass roots movements that drive agencies toward real regulation.