Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) renewed his promise Tuesday to push legislation to restrict food marketing to kids unless advertisers' self-policing efforts are strengthened to include sanctions against companies that violate industry guidelines.
"It is still my hope that real restraint will come from within your industry," the Iowa Democrat told a gathering of advertising trade groups in Washington Tuesday. "Create an enforcement body that has independence and teeth."
Harkin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, says irresponsible advertising of junk food plays a role in a a childhood obesity epidemic that has lead roughly 15% of American children and teenagers to be overweight.
Advertising industry officials have countered that self-policing measures conducted by the privately sponsored Children's Advertising Review Unit of the is sufficient to prevent irresponsible promotions to children.
CARU reviewers review ads after receiving complaints and frequently ask marketers to modify ads or pull them from rotation if they are judged inappropriate.
For instance, advertisers can be asked to modify ads depicting kids preferring candy and sugary cereals to fruits and vegetables. Compliance is voluntary, but CARU refers extreme cases for review by the Federal Trade Commission.
Far from the solution, Harkin said CARU's existence is "an acknowledgement b the advertising industry that irresponsible food marketing to children is a very real problem," he said. "CARU is not cutting it. It has no legal authority--it has no teeth."
Harkin is sponsoring legislation that would reinstate the FTC's explicit authority to regulate advertising to children, a power eliminated in the 1980s when the commission last considered the issue.
To head off legislation, advertisers should "sit down with the food and broadcasting industries, and hammer out tough, rigorous, age-appropriate standards to govern the marketing of junk food to children." Monday, the American Advertising Federation and other ad trade groups wrote a letter to Harkin that described self-policing as sufficient to prevent inappropriate message that discourage unhealthy eating habits. After yesterday's speech AAF President Wally Snyder promised to continue the dialogue with Harkin.
In questioning by reporters after his speech, Harkin defended todays agriculture subsidies. Some health researchers say subsidies for corn, soybeans and wheat lead to oversupply of cheap sugary, high-calorie, high-fat foods.
Harkin said subsidies were overhauled by the 2002 farm reform bill to discourage over-planting of major crops and to encourage sowing of more fruits and vegetables.