This article is part of our special report Food & Responsible Marketing.
The European Union is due to assess the advertising industry's commitment to self-regulation when it comes to marketing unhealthy foods to children, as concerns mount over child obesity.
"In recent years Britain has become a nation where overweight is the norm," points a study by the UK government's Office for Science.
The study says some 60% of adult men and about 25% of all children under 16 could be obese by 2050, increasing the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes. In turn, it predicts that annual healthcare costs to treat all the new cases will reach £50 billion.
The European Childhood Obesity Group (ECOG), a research organisation, argues that there is "a direct relationship between advertising and higher rates of obesity in children".
But the advertising industry disputes those claims. The UK study, they claim, gives a far more complex picture of the factors influencing obesity, with only around 2% of food choices attributable to marketing and advertising.
Marketing of food and drink in the EU is currently based on a self-regulatory approach, whereby companies voluntarily agree to follow certain codes of conduct and restrain themselves from promoting unhealthy foods, in particular to children.
The EU's Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AMSD) asks member states and the Commission to "encourage media service providers to develop codes of conduct regarding inappropriate audiovisual commercial communication" of foods and drink high in fats, sugar and salt in and around children's programmes.
Meanwhile, a regulation was recently adopted to eliminate misleading health claims from the EU market.
Examples of such claims include 'good for your heart', 'low fat' or 'source of calcium'.
In order to bear such claims, food packaging will have to carry appropriate nutrient profiles. This means that a product with a high sugar or salt content, for example, cannot bear the claim 'zero fat' or 'high in fibre' – even if that is the case – because the other ingredients do not correspond to a scientific description of a balanced diet.
After years of scientific assessment, the European Commission is expected to table a list of permitted health claims by the end of 2011. Once the list is out, food manufacturers will have six months to take false claims off the market.
Some 80% of the claims submitted to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for approval so far have received a negative opinion.
Consumer advocacy groups say this clearly demonstrates the industry's failure to self-regulate nonsense claims such as 'good for beauty and your inner harmony'. Consequently, they are calling for advertising of food using health arguments to be more strictly regulated.
Earlier this year, French food group Danone withdrew health claim applications regarding two of its best-selling dairy products, citing confusion about what scientific evidence was required from the company under the process to validate the claims.
Activia is a yoghurt which Danone claims "aids digestion", while its dairy drink Actimel allegedly helps "strengthen the body's defences".
Observers say the withdrawal was tactical, amid fears that the well-known claims would be officially unsubstantiated and their removal ordered by EFSA.
Industry initiatives on obesity
As the UK example shows, sedentary lifestyles and over-eating have made obesity the number one public health challenge of the 21st century. The European Commission has also decided to tackle the issue.
In its 2007 EU strategy to tackle being overweight and obesity, the EU executive confirmed the existing voluntary approach to regulating food marketing and advertising, arguing it can be more efficient at tackling the issue.
In an effort to ward off regulation, industry groups have launched a series of initiatives. Examples include the World Federation of Advertisers, which pledged in 2007 to limit food and drink advertising to children under the age of 12 on TV, in print and on the Internet.
Another more recent commitment comes from the European soft drinks industry (UNESDA), which recently extended to the digital sphere its earlier commitment to refrain from directly targeting children under 12 through e-mail, mobile phones, outdoor video and other digital means.
Review due in coming weeks
The European Commission has warned that the voluntary measures will be assessed this year to determine whether other ways are also required.
The EU executive is currently finalising a mid-term progress report on its obesity and nutrition strategy, in which it will outline how it has delivered on its objectives so far, including on those regarding marketing and advertising self-regulation.
The report will be presented on 8-9 December during a conference on nutrition organised jointly with the Belgian EU Presidency.
In the meantime, Commission spokespeople said Brussels was continuing to work with stakeholders via the EU platform on diet, physical activity and health. Dialogue with EU member states is taking place through the High Level Group on nutrition and physical activity.