The role of the global food and drink industry must be limited when it comes to regulations that cover the marketing of unhealthy food and drinks to children, according to experts who came together at a recent one day conference titled ' Food Marketing Regulation and Childhood Obesity Prevention' in London.
The event brought together international experts from Europe and the US in addition to high level speakers from the World Health Organisation and the European Commission to discuss the best ways to implement WHO Recommendations on the marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverages to children.
The line taken was clear from the outset: If self regulation is going to work, then it must be government led self regulation, warned several experts.
In this context and form of 'self regulation' mean that governments would initially set the criteria for any regulation, and set up monitoring agencies, before leaving industry to adhere to these rules.
"The issue of self regulation itself has to be discussed, because many Member States do not have the capacity to start anything in this area," said Godfrey Xeureb of the WHO. "We must ensure that this is not just industry led. "
"We have to ensure that we don't have situations, like those that we have already seen, where industry comes to a government and says ... 'Don't worry, here are guidelines we already have, leave it to us'." he warned.
"We have to ensure that self regulation needs to be linked with government led set of rules," said the WHO expert - who added that there needs to be international agreement on certain criteria that relate to regulations on marketing to children, for example: what age groups are covered, what formats are covered (TV, print, online) and what foods are covered (rules on nutrient profiling).
"I strongly feel that these definitions have to be government led,"said Xeureb. "Although there should be input from the industry, it should not be industry led."
A level playing field
Speaking to FoodNavigator at the conference, Neville Rigby of the International Obesity Forum commented that while govenments must take the lead, there is 'of course' a role for industry to play.
"Self regulation is useful in showing who is willing to make the effort. But it doesn't cover whole industries," said Rigby. "There are notable examples of companies that have not signed up for previous pledges of self regulation, and what you end up with is that they then have a commercial advantage over their competitors who do sign up."
"If you have legislation that applies to everybody, you have a level playing field." he stated. "At the moment you have a real mish-mash of who will do one thing and who will do another, pledges that are all different."
"It's time that we had a level playing field, that the consumer got a fair deal, and that everybody knew that the industry was now required to work for the benefit of the public's health rather than for their own profit."
In order to achieve this, Rigby suggests that traditional approaches taken by the industry need to change: "I think the message needs to be turned on its head: instead of telling consumers that they need to be educated and make healthy choices, it's time for the food industry's board rooms to be better educated. It's them who should be making the healthy choices to deliver healthy foods for their consumers."
Where is industry's role?
"If we talk about food marketing, then I think there is quite a lot of evidence that has simply shown that industry should not be the ones setting the parameters," commented Professor Amandine Garde from the University of Liverpool.
"What could work - perhaps - is a system where industry implements the rules that are proposed by government."
While Malcolm Clark of the Children's Food Campaign reiterated the common stance that it is government's who 'very much' need to take the lead and set the parameters for industry to then pick up.
"That's where we have to start from," he said. "Not just on industry, but on governments to be willing to play their role rather than just bringing in a group from the industry and some NGO's and to let them decide."
Such a way of working, simply will not work said Clark, who urged industry to 'step up' and show that it is responsible.
"If you call yourself a responsible retailer or a responsible industry, then actually show that. If that was already the case then we wouldn't need to be having these conversations."