Voluntary business commitments fail to ‘effectively protect children’ from the marketing of ‘unbalanced foods’. That is the conclusion of a new report commissioned by the Federation of German Consumer Organisations (VZBV).
The research, authored by Dr Peter von Philipsborn, an MD and nutrition expert from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, found existing voluntary commitments exclude ‘important forms of marketing’ – such as packaging targeting children and digital exposure - and offer ‘numerous loopholes’ due to vague definitions.
The report examined foods targeted at children and found the majority of advertised products are highly processed foods with a high energy density and a high content of sugar, salt and saturated fats. It noted that German children are exposed to between 2,700 and 7,800 online marketing measures for such foods on the Internet each year.
So-called ‘loopholes’ include the use of guideline values for sugar, fat and salt ‘far below’ the nutritional criteria developed by the World Health Organization. It also stressed that packaging is an important tool to communicate brand appeal that falls entirely outside voluntary commitments.
'Voluntary commitments cannot work': VZBV
This has prompted calls for the federal government to ‘strictly regulate’ marketing to children.
“So far, the federal government has relied on the voluntary self-restraint of the industry to limit the marketing of unbalanced foods to children. But unbalanced, highly processed products often generate higher profit margins than healthy foods. It is therefore clear that voluntary commitments cannot work,” German Consumer Association board member Klaus Müller argued.
VZBV stressed that, despite the short fallings of a voluntary approach, the Federal Ministry of Food continues to rely on reaching consensus with industry, for example, calling on the German Advertising Council to revise its rules of conduct for food with a focus on children.
“The sponsors of the German Advertising Council are associations that represent the confectionery and sweet drinks industry as well as the food, advertising and tobacco industries,” VZVB insisted.
Müller said now is the time for regulators to take a tougher stance: “The Federal Government must finally better protect the health of children and strictly regulate food marketing aimed at children.”
What would this look like? According to VZBV ‘comprehensive legal regulation’ should mean food can only be marketed to children if it meets WHO nutritional criteria. And this should extend to ‘all forms of advertising’ – TV, online, posters, influencers – as well as product design and sponsorship.
The consumer organisation believes it has public opinion behind it. One 2020 study conducted on behalf of the group found 83% of German consumers are in favour of legal maximum levels of fat, salt and sugar in foods marketed at children.
Advertising not the ‘main’ cause of obesity: ZAW
The German Advertising Federation – ZAW – has an opposing view.
“Demands for further legal restrictions on food advertisements aimed at children continue to be vehemently put forward in Germany. These demands are to be rejected for several reasons,” ZAW said in a policy statement.
The association argued voluntary commitments and the existing legal framework already ‘limit’ the advertising of HFSS food ‘down to the last detail’.
It also insisted that advertising bans fail to tackle the root causes of childhood obesity. “The main causes of childhood obesity are the lack of exercise and the family lifestyle, which have a decisive influence on the socialisation of children.”
To scapegoat advertising essentially lets parents ‘who must not be released from their responsibility’ off the hook, ZAW argued.
“New advertising bans are the wrong way to change unhealthy eating habits. Instead, focus must be placed on promoting a healthy lifestyle.”
German food industry association BVE did not immediately respond to requests for comment.