The food marketing industry meets today to consider a raft of measures to combat growing levels of obesity as part of its strategy to counter the worldwide groundswell for curbs on junk-food ads.
A centre to explore existing research in the area of advertising and children and a public charter in which food companies can pledge that their advertising meets industry guidelines are just some of the proposals to be discussed at the meeting of media and advertising interests.
The discussions come just weeks after Kraft announced that by the end of this year it would ditch advertising for snack products such as Oreos biscuits worldwide to under 12s and in the following year extend the ban to other products in its portfolio that fail to meet nutritional targets.
In Europe the food industry has been given a year to stop advertising junk food to children and improve labelling or face possible legislation. In the UK the industry has until 2007 to curb advertising and promotions.
In the US other companies are set to follow Kraft's self-regulatory route to head off consumer backlashes against foods high in fat and sugar and avoid possible litigation in major class actions.
But in Australia no such conditions have been placed upon the companies that annually spend an estimated $200 million on advertising snacks and high-fat foods.
"The key word is responsible," said one source close to talks between the industry and the Federal Government. "If we show that we can be responsible in our advertising, then the Government will not feel the need to step in."
Yesterday the Government's anti-obesity taskforce met advertising and food executives as well as dietitians and other health professionals to discuss what to do next.
At the summit McDonald's chief executive Guy Russo revealed that since 2001 the company had cut back its advertising in children's television viewing by 60 per cent while Nestle said it now employed nutritionists to work alongside its marketing department.
The Australian Food and Grocery Council said it wanted its members to be able to make healthy claims in the marketing of products. The Government is reviewing guidelines that currently prohibit health claims being made about food.
Meanwhile, the Federal Government has been sitting on an industry-backed ad campaign featuring a character called Joe Lively since August 2003, when it was presented to then health minister, Kay Patterson. Lively was created as an industry response to promote healthy eating and exercise in one message. The character and the campaign - made by McCann Erickson - has since been bogged down in bureaucracy. The eating component has been handed over to Vegie Man, a character in use in an existing campaign running in Western Australia. It is not known if Lively will ever be used by the Government.
"Having recently recommitted to support the Prime Minister's Healthy Active Australia initiative, the advertising and media interests that brought Joe Lively to life aren't going to run away because the Health and Ageing Department has decided to take a different creative approach," said Ian Alwill, president of the Australian Association of National Advertisers, which is leading the industry-wide discussions.
Joe Lively is, however, expected to feature in more initiatives such as a school education campaign run by the coalition of media and advertising interests.
Newspaper groups as well as the peak body for the media buying industry, Media Federation of Australia, will also be present at tomorrow's meeting for the first time.
There is a growing sense among those behind the initiatives that even if the Federal Government is not pressuring the industry to change its tune, consumers will vote with their feet if they don't see change in the food industry.
Even though the initiative marks an escalation in activity by the marketing industry, critics have reservations.
"I'd like to see them not expand the product ranges as that only encourages people to eat more," said dietitian Rosemary Stanton.
"I would also like to see them not trying to make healthy claims on everything - it's misleading.
"I would much rather see them label something as an indulgence. It's not all right to say that you can eat anything in moderation."
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