Tough European legislation on junk food advertising to children could become a reality, if the food industry fails to produce an effective self-regulatory framework to help society deal with increasing obesity in children.
In an interview this week with the Financial Times, the EU's newly inaugurated commissioner for health and consumer protection said the food industry was the fastest, and most effective, route to slicing into the obesity problem.
"The signs from the industry are very encouraging, very positive. But if this doesn't produce satisfactory results, we will proceed to legislation," Markos Kyprianou told the UK newspaper.
Concerns on obesity are based on mounting evidence that obesity is becoming an epidemic. If the rapid increase in childhood obesity in the last decade continues, more than 50 per cent of British children will be obese by 2020, according to a recent British MPs' report on health. It is also estimated that up to 8 per cent of health budgets in the EU are spent tackling the epidemic.
In recent years food and drink manufacturers operating in Europe have come under increasing pressure from consumer groups and government to review their policies on advertising of 'junk foods', those with high sugar, salt or fat content, to children.
The CIAA, that represents Europe's €600 billion food industry and said to be the largest manufacturing sector in the region, confirmed to FoodNavigator.com that the industry is already working with the commission, to develop new proposals for more rigorous advertising and labelling regimes.
But they are add: "One of the objectives of the CIAA is to ensure competitiveness in the food and drink industry of the EU."
Industry is pressing for self-regulation rather than legislation. But the Commission, Europe's legislative body, could propose a raft of new rules, if it feels industry is failing to bring about rapid change.
And while Kyprianou appears to support self-regulation, some consumer campaigners disagree, believing this will not go far enough to contribute any real difference.
Consumer rights campaigners Which? told FoodNavigator.com: "We don't think self-regulation will work. Instead we are calling for strong restrictions, rather than a complete ban."
Which? has lobbied the UK government for several years to push for change. According to a spokesperson, although the government has been slow to make recommendations, it appears "keen to see real progress in this area."
Recommendations for tighter rules governing food adverts to kids in the UK are currently with Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK, that has until early 2007 to produce a 'change in the nature and balance of food promotion.'
There are already signs that change is underway. A recent report from market analysts Mintel shows a significant change in some advertisers' spending on promoting their products to children.
Masterfoods, for example, spent £5.7 million (€8.21m) on promoting its Mars bar in UK children's media in 2000, according to Mintel, but this had dropped by 71.4 per cent by 2003, to £1.2 million - a change attributed squarely to growing consumer concerns about health.
But children are still a hugely attractive target market for advertisers, no matter how many restrictions are imposed on what they can and cannot say. TV advertising data from Nielsen Media Research in the UK - based on monthly estimates from TV stations - suggest that the leading food company advertisers are continuing to spend large sums of money on children.
Estimated total TV adspend by the top 10 food advertisers in 2003 was £22.1 million (€31.8m), according to Nielsen Media, a 37.9 per cent increase on the previous year, with breakfast cereal manufacturer Kellogg the number one advertiser, accounting for £4.8 million, roughly the same level as the year before.
According to the FT article, the commissioner said he will announce a new "platform" in March with the food industry to agree the new self-regulatory standards, which he hoped would produce commitments by the end of this year, or early 2006.