Food companies have been in a headlong rush to prevent government from enacting policies that would affect sales of items such as sugar-sweetened beverages and fast food. One of their tactics is for the companies to issue pledges to protect children, saying in so many words, "You can trust us to police ourselves so government can back down."
The marketing of junk food has been the focus of many such pledges. In the U.S., the pledges are made through the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative run by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. The two largest fast food companies, McDonald's and Burger King, take part in this initiative. A new report from our group at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity help answer the question about whether these and other fast food companies have made any meaningful changes.
This study by Yale researchers was the largest ever on the marketing of fast foods to children. A major finding is that the amount of marketing of fast foods to children is going up, not down. The average preschool child sees three ads for fast food, every day. For teens the number is five. Much of the advertising is to create brand loyalty as much as it is to promote certain foods. The companies want people in the door. And once they enter, it is not a pretty sight. A few more of the key findings:
• Only 12 of 3,039 possible kids' meal combinations meet nutrition criteria for preschoolers. Only 15 meet nutrition criteria for older children.
• At McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Taco Bell, employees automatically served French fries or another unhealthy side more than 84 percent of the time. A soft drink or other unhealthy beverage was served at least 55 percent of the time.
• Snacks and desserts often marketed directly to teens contain as many as 1,500 calories, which is five times more than the American Dietetic Association's recommendation of a 200- to 300-calorie snack for active teens.
• McDonald's and Burger King have pledged to reduce unhealthy marketing to children, but children ages six to 11 saw 26 percent more ads for McDonald's in 2009 compared to 2007. The increase for Burger King was 10 percent.
• African American children and teens see at least 50 percent more fast food ads than their white peers. McDonald's and KFC specifically target African American youth with TV advertising, targeted websites, and banner ads.
There is no longer doubt that children and teens need protection. Marketing of both brands and foods is relentless and the nation is paying a terrible price. The industry has had time to prove itself trustworthy, and government can look the other way only so long. Children's health and well-being are essential to the future vitality of the country and their erosion by some food industry practices must be stopped.
The fast food industry can do several things to help. One is to steer people toward healthier items, for instance offering fruit and milk as the default choices in kids' meals rather than fries and sugared drinks. Posters inside restaurants can promote healthier items. Healthier foods can be priced more attractively and deals that encourage purchase of large burgers, servings of fires, and sugared beverages can end.
Most important is for companies to remove children and teens from the list of groups to be recruited as loyal customers. It seems unlikely that industry will do so voluntarily—there is simply too much money at stake. More weak and ineffective promises from industry will hurt more than help. Charlie Brown kept hoping Lucy would hold the football in place. Government can keep hoping that industry will make meaningful changes, or it can step in.
There is much government can do. It has the authority to restrict marketing aimed at children and also has sway over what goes into food (for example, a number of cities in the U.S. and the entire country of Denmark have banned trans fats in restaurant foods). It is only a matter of time before government exercises this authority, driven by grave concern over rising health care costs, recognition that children need protecting, and legislators responding to public outrage as people learn just what industry is doing. Children's health is not something to be auctioned off to big food companies.