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The turning point was 2006, when two landmark pacts took effect aimed at improving snack nutrition standards and restricting sales to children by companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Dannon and Campbell. "We said, 'You can work with us . . . or you can be part of the problem,' " said Brian Herr, executive director of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which negotiated the deals.
A third action that fall was industry-generated, with provisions for marketing monitoring that even health advocates think could have a substantial effect. Kellogg led the way -- averting a lawsuit by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood -- when it agreed to advertise to predominantly child audiences only those foods that met certain thresholds: 200 or fewer calories, no more than two grams of saturated fat and no more than 12 grams of sugar.
Under the Council of Better Business Bureaus' initiative, a dozen other corporations are committed to similar strictures. Each will promote healthy nutrition or lifestyle choices in at least half of their advertising to children younger than 12. The council estimates that the group accounts for the bulk of children's food and beverage television advertising expenditures.
"They need to measure up, and they need to scale down to their promise, because if obesity rates continue to rise, you can be sure that the pressure for government to intervene will be hard to resist," Jon Leibowitz of the Federal Trade Commission told a forum last year. The FTC, which has noted marketers' ever-expanding online and digital venues for reaching children, will release its most comprehensive study on the subject in the summer. It is expected to urge broader and more stringent self-regulation.
Compliance on any front is no easy or inexpensive task. To fulfill the agreement reached with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, the American Beverage Association has had to retrofit containers and vending machines because 20-ounce drinks no longer will be allowed in schools. The new standard is a 12-ounce bottle in high schools, smaller for lower grades.
Although the agreement doesn't fully take effect until the 2009-10 school year, ABA statistics indicate substantial differences already. From 2004 to 2007, shipments of sugary sodas and drinks to U.S. schools fell by 45 percent; water deliveries increased 23 percent.
The more forward-looking companies are realizing that they perhaps can do well and do good. It's a position the country's acting surgeon general stresses: "Preventing obesity does not have to interfere with profit."
When McDonald's repackaged its milk into brightly decorated plastic jugs, sales doubled. Walt Riker, McDonald's vice president of corporate communications, anticipates future choices such as vitamin drinks and fruit smoothies.
Numerous companies have launched 100-calorie snack packs, and they are developing a wider array of products without cholesterol-elevating trans fats.
"We think that everyone has to work together to solve the problem," said Jim McCarthy, chief executive of the Snack Food Association. "There's not one silver bullet that's going to solve the obesity issue."
Staff writer Kendra Marr contributed to this report.