On Wednesday, First Lady Michelle Obama convened a first-of-its kind White House summit to encourage large food corporations to rethink the way they market to children by encouraging kids to make healthier food choices. Obama argued that food makers and the country at large would reap the benefits of marketing campaigns aimed at increasing consumer demand for healthy products.
“I’m here today with one simple request — and that is to do even more and act even faster when it comes to marketing [healthy food] to kids,” Obama said during her opening remarks. She added that “[w]e need you to help lead the way to creating” a climate where children naturally choose healthy products over junk food.
The White House did not release the full list of summit attendees, but said they include representatives from the food and media industries, public health advocates, government officials, and a variety of other experts.
The First Lady’s direct appeal to the food industry is a departure from a separate initiative aimed at encouraging Americans to drink more water that she announced last week. Critics have pointed out that simply drinking more water has no scientifically-proven medical benefit and that the only way such a campaign would be effective from a public health perspective is if it were accompanied by a concurrent call to cut down on sugary and unhealthy drink intake — something that Obama’s water initiative explicitly refuses to do.
Obama’s comments today reflect a more hands-on approach when it comes to the food industries’ marketing tactics, which the World Health Organization (WHO) criticized in June for promoting products high in salt, sugar, and fat. The WHO report noted this advertising has been “disastrously effective” in exacerbating worldwide obesity rates.
While Obama did not call on food companies to stop making or marketing junk food and unhealthy treats, she said that corporations which try to expand the healthy food market through advertising would be capitalizing on existing trends toward healthier food options in school while helping create a healthier future workforce that will be more productive and less afflicted by obesity-related illnesses. “If anyone can get our kids to eat their vegetables, it’s all of you,” said Obama. Obama emphasized that the companies could remain just as profitable selling healthy products as they do selling items high in salt, sugar, and fat as long as them employ effective marketing strategies.
U.S. food and beverage companies tend to focus ad campaigns for their unhealthy products toward children — particularly minority and low-income children who already suffer from higher obesity rates than the national average. A report from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that black youth were exposed to somewhere between 80 and 90 percent more ads for some of the least healthy products, and that Latino children saw almost 50 percent more television advertising for sugary sodas and energy drinks.
This is the first time that the Obama administration has tackled the politically perilous issue of food marketing since proposed voluntary guidelines for food advertising faltered after meeting strong GOP congressional opposition in the latter half of 2011. According to the Associated Press, those guidelines — which included provisions such as removing cartoon-like branding and cutesy mascots from unhealthy products — were slammed by Big Food companies for being overtly broad and restrictive, and the industry countered with far more limited proposals than what had been urged by the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control, Federal Trade Commission, and the Department of Agriculture.
Whether the First Lady’s calls for self-imposed reform will actually bear fruit is an open question. Just 50 firms in the powerful corporate food and beverage industry have spent $175 million on lobbying over the course of Barack Obama’s presidency. That sort of influence is why watchdog groups like the FDA are often stymied in their attempts to regulate the amount of salt, sugar, and fat in food.
The Clinton administration also produced draft voluntary guidelines for food marketed at young children in the 1990s. The Grocery Manufacturers Association balked at the guidelines — which were not even binding — and made killing them a priority. Congress sided with the grocery manufacturers over the children.