The Food Industry and Self-Regulation: Standards to Promote Success and to Avoid Public Health Failures

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FRAMING HEALTH MATTERS

The Food Industry and Self-Regulation: Standards to Promote Success and to Avoid Public Health Failures Lisa L. Sharma, MBA, MPH, Stephen P. Teret, JD, MPH, and Kelly D. Brownell, PhD

Threatened by possible government regulation and critical public opinion, industries often undertake self-regulatory actions, issue statements of concern for public welfare, and assert that self-regulation is sufficient to protect the public. The food industry has made highly visible pledges to curtail children’s food marketing, sell fewer unhealthy products in schools, and label foods in responsible ways. Ceding regulation to industry carries opportunities but is highly risky. In some industries (e.g., tobacco), self-regulation has been an abject failure, but in others (e.g., forestry and marine fisheries), it has been more successful. We examined food industry self-regulation in the context of other self-regulatory successes and failures and defined 8 standards that should be met if self-regulation is to be effective. (Am J Public Health. 2010;100:240–246. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2009.160960)

Alarmed by links between poor diet and disease, as well as striking increases in obesity, policymakers, the public, and health professionals have challenged food industry practices.1–3 Although many forces contribute to obesity and poor diet, food industry behaviors such as marketing unhealthy foods to children, promoting large portions and betweenmeal snacks, and exploiting schools for commercial gain have raised calls for government regulation and paved the path for actions such as requiring calorie labeling in restaurants.4,5 Industry practices affecting children have raised special concern, particularly regarding food marketing.6 According to a recent report by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), businesses spent $9.6 billion marketing food and beverages in 2007. Of this, nearly $1.7 billion was spent on marketing specifically targeted to children and adolescents, most of which promotes items such as sugared breakfast cereals, fast food, and soft drinks.7 The average young person views more than 40 000 television advertisements per year. Young people are also exposed to promotional messages via the Internet, magazines, and video games.8 This avalanche of marketing persuades children to prefer, request, and consume calorie-dense, nutrientpoor food and has triggered urgent calls for change.9

In response to public outcry and calls for government intervention, the major food industry players acted as other businesses have in the past: they pledged to adopt self-regulatory initiatives. Such voluntary actions are characteristic of threatened industries and typically involve promises to follow self-generated rules and standards. There is a long history of such pledges across industries as disparate as tobacco, alcohol, motion pictures, forestry, and marine fisheries. Self-regulatory pledges by the food industry are relatively new and may, as industry claims, benefit public health, or they may be self-serving and deceptive, stall needed government action, and protect business as usual.10–14 The food industry is in full self-regulatory mode and since 2006 has issued a series of highly publicized pledges. Both risks and opportunities are embedded in this environment, and much is at stake. It is instructive to examine how other industries have approached selfregulation and to define the conditions under which the public’s interest is protected or harmed. Here we discuss existing self-regulatory pledges made by the food industry, note their strengths and weaknesses, and evaluate successful and unsuccessful attempts at self-regulation in other industries. We examined selfregulation in 2 industries that, like the food

industry, manufacture products whose consumption is linked to health concerns (tobacco and alcohol), along with 2 quite different industries (marine fisheries and forestry), which have developed extensive self-regulatory...
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