by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: FTC (Federal Trade Commission)

Dec 5 2009

Food agencies at work (or not): FTC

The Federal Trade Commission is the third agency dealing with food policies, this time advertising.  As I’m fond of saying, the FTC is not exactly a consumer protection agency.  Its main purpose is to make sure that businesses stay competitive.  In 1978, under the leadership of Michael Pertschuk, the FTC made a valiant attempt to regulate food marketing to children.  That disaster, which I have discussed in previous posts, kept the FTC from doing anything about marketing to kids – until recently.

On December 15, it is holding a forum on food marketing to children in Washington, DC.  Here’s the agenda and information about registration.  They will also do a webcast linked to that site.

Guess what?  A forum like this isn’t necessary, says the industry-sponsored Children’s Food and Beverage Initiative. We are doing just fine, it says, and we don’t need regulation.

But that’s not all the FTC is doing. It had so much fun trying to get information from food companies about their marketing-to-kids practices that it is trying the same thing with quick service and fast food restaurants.  The FTC says it is seeking “Information from those companies concerning, among other things, their marketing activities and expenditures targeted to children and adolescents and nutritional information about the companies’ food and beverage products marketed to children and adolescents.”  This sounds easy, if a bit confusing, but my guess is that the FTC will have to pull teeth to get it.

In the meantime, a few comments have already been filed in response to the notice.   The ones from industry are predictable: too expensive! Too difficult! My guess is that they have this information readily available but are embarrassed to reveal it. Why? It undoubtedly will show that the companies spend the most money on the junkiest (and most profitable) products.

Michael Pertschuk, by the way, is still going strong.  In June, he wrote an article on the FTC for The Nation. His article has much to say about the way the FTC is operating these days and is well worth a look.  As he explains, the FTC was

created in 1914 during the Progressive Era, [and] was endowed with a potent authority for promoting competition and consumer protection that it has never fully used. This includes investigative authority over virtually all businesses, backed by subpoena power and the capacity to demand reports of data that corporations would rather withhold from public view…For the first time in decades, the Senate and House authorizing and oversight committees and the judiciary committees are pressing the agency to act more aggressively on the consumer-protection and competition fronts and are prepared, as needed, to strengthen its enforcement powers….But Congress needs to take action to unleash the FTC’s full potential. First, it remains a small agency with broad and complex responsibilities and cumbersome procedural burdens, especially in rule-making. Here, the FTC’s champions in Congress can make certain that Congress supplies more resources and streamlines the FTC’s authority. The agency also has a chronic problem of setting priorities: wherever it turns, there are corporate malefactors, large and small, deserving of prosecution.

But read the whole thing and see whether you think his optimism is justified.  Better yet, go to the workshop on the 15th!

Nov 13 2009

FTC looks at marketing to children

Thanks to Margo Wootan of CSPI for sending me the text of a speech by David Vladeck, the new director of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Bureau of Consumer Protection, in which he discusses his agency’s priorities.  One of these is marketing to children.

And about time too.  The last time the FTC wanted to restrict advertising to kids was in 1978.  Then, Congress ridiculed the agency (What?  Restrict free speech?  Horrors!), and promptly passed a law preventing the FTC from taking action.  The head of the FTC, Mike Pertschuk, was fired and that was that (see Giant Killers, for his version of what happened).

Well, times have changed.  Kids are a lot fatter.  Trying to stop relentless food marketing aimed at children now seems like a pretty good idea.  Can’t wait!

Mar 22 2009

Food marketing: cartoons, scholarship, and action

First, the cartoons: this week’s question from Eating Liberally’s kat has to do with whether it makes sense to put cartoon characters on eggs or, for that matter, fruits and vegetables.  I vote no, of course, and the illustrations alone explain why.

Next, the scholarship: The latest volume of Annual Reviews of Public Health contains excellent reviews of studies of the influence of the food marketing environment on child and adult health.

Sara Bleich et al explain why obesity has become so common in the developed world.

Kelly Brownell’s group reviews the effects of food marketing on childhood obesity.

David Katz discusses school-based obesity interventions.

Mary Story et al describe policy approaches to creating healthy food environments.

And the American Association of Wine Economists (a group new to me, but interesting) forwards its Working Paper #33:

Janet Currie et al on the effect of fast food restaurants on obesity.

Finally, the action: Perhaps in response to all this, language inserted into the congressional spending bill asks the Federal Trade Commission to set up an interagency committee to set nutritional standards for products allowed to be marketed to children age 17 or under.  According to Advertising Age, the food industry thinks this is not a good idea.

Jul 31 2008

The FTC number: $1.6 billion to market to kids

The FTC has released its new report on food marketing to kids.  The big news?  The food industry only spends $1.6 billion for this purpose, a figure nobody I know believes.  The FTC had to subpoena this information and I’m sure that companies gave the lowest number they could.  Kellogg may spend $32 million just for media advertising for Cheez-Its, but I’m sure it’s hard for the company to figure out how much of that goes for packages with cartoons on them.  The FTC press release compliments food companies for all the great things they are doing to protect kids from what they used to do.  It makes recommendations that begin with words like “work toward,” “encourage,” “continue,” and “consider,” but nothing much that says “stop!”  I think $1.6 billion is likely to be an underestimate but it doesn’t really matter.  The number should be zero, no?

Jul 28 2008

FTC food marketing report–Tuesday!

Thanks to Michele Simon for the heads up on the Federal Trade Commission’s new report on how much the food industry spends on marketing to kids.  The FTC is releasing the report Tuesday at 11:00 a.m.  I can’t wait to see what it says.  View the webcast!

May 20 2008

The Washington Post’s series on childhood obesity

My mailbox is flooded this week with notices about the Washington Post’s front-page series on childhood obesity, in so many parts that it’s hard to keep up with. The series will run all week, apparently. Here’s are the starter links for the multiple stories on Sunday, May 18, for those on Monday, May 19, and for those on Tuesday, May 20. I’ll add the others later, but you have to scroll around to find all the parts. One, well hidden, was sent to me by Mike Pertschuk, who was the head of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1978 when it tried to regulate food marketing to kids. One reason his efforts failed was opposition from the Washington Post. Here is its 1978 editorial ridiculing the FTC for even suggesting that food marketing might have something to do with childhood obesity. Times have changed and let’s hope the FTC has another chance to deal with this question.

Here’s the link to Wednesday, May 21And the one to Thursday, May 22.

Sep 3 2007

FTC Wants Info From These Companies!

Margo Wootan from Center for Science in the Public Interest and Lori Dorfman from the Berkeley Media Studies Group send the latest request from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC is asking food companies to say how much money they spend on marketing to kids and for a bunch of other information. And now here is the list of companies that have to provide that information. What is so interesting about this list is that it is not only aimed at Kraft, PepsiCo, and other such makers of junk foods but also at Boskovich, Grimmway, and other vegetable companies that put SpongeBob SquarePants and other such cartoon characters on their product labels. It will be interesting to see how much money goes into marketing carrots as compared to breakfast cereals or junky snack foods. Stay tuned.

Aug 17 2007

Whole Foods Scores a Win

Despite the efforts of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to block purchase of Wild Oats stores by Whole Foods on anti-trust grounds, a federal judge is allowing the merger to go through. As reported in today’s New York Times, Whole Foods believes that it needs the purchase to keep the company competitive. If Whole Foods’ competitiveness seems distasteful and inappropriate to its stated mission (as reportedly documented in FTC filings and reports of its CEO’s sometimes covert bloggings) , consider that it is a publicly traded company. Like all such companies, its primary responsibility it to stockholders and that means that it not only must make profits, but must grow and report growth to Wall Street every 90 days, or else. Shares of Whole Foods stocks rose yesterday by $3.33 so Wall Street thinks it’s doing something right. And you?

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