Health experts have slammed the self-regulation of the food industry, saying children are being bombarded with advertisements for junk food.
Despite the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) introducing the Responsible Marketing to Children Initiative (RMCI), the number of junk food ads aimed at children has not slowed, according to a new study by the University of Sydney and the Cancer Council.
The researchers have come out swinging at the food industry, saying the findings of the first comprehensive review of the effectiveness of self-regulatory pledges by food brands and industry show the industry has no credibility and has failed to protect children against obesity, and that there are no incentives for food manufacturers to avoid targeting children.
Despite the introduction the RMCI and other self-regulation pledges in 2009, the frequency of junk food ads remained unchanged from last year, the researchers found.
In a separate study published this month in BMC Public Health, researchers audited food and beverage ads during peak children's programming times, and found various ads which went against mandatory and voluntary advertising regulations.
There were a total of 951 breaches of combined regulations in just two months of data collection in 2010 and more than 80 per cent of all food and beverage ads shown in Australia were for items defined as ''extras'' in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.
On of the researchers, Kathy Chapman, said there was barely any independent monitoring to ensure guidelines and codes were enforced, and more needs to be done to ensure companies are abiding by the rules.
The study looked at all ads on three television channels over five years and found children were exposed to the same number of advertisements for junk food brands now as they were before ''regulation''.
''We know that parents have the most important role to play in terms of what kids eat but it is a bit like road safety,'' Chapman, a nutritionist and director of health policy at the Cancer Council, said.
''Parents can teach their children road safety but it doesn't mean we don't also have speed limits and crosswalks to make their job easier.
“Messages for unhealthy foods on television, the internet … means there are lots of ways messages from parents are being undermined.
''These studies combined show industry codes of practice are not having an impact and we are seeing such big loopholes for the food industry to get away with this.”
Many slammed the AFGC’s RMCI after it was implemented, saying companies would not voluntarily self regulate, but rather, government needed to step in to implement regulations.
The AFGC blamed a scheduling error after the number of junk food ads targeted at children last year actually increased rather then decreased.
Earlier this year, Cristel Leemhuis from the AFGC said the industry needs to work towards improving obesity rates if it wants to avoid being forced to make changed.
“The food industry is definitely part of the solution, particularly when you look at overweight and obesity,” she told the Food Magazine Industry Leaders Summit.
“We’re not part of the problem, we’re part of the solution and I think the more that we can collaborate the better our outcomes will be in the future.
“Responsible marketing to children is absolutely essential, so we do limit what children see in this area, and the research is very much showing that marketing in those areas decreased dramatically since we implemented that in 2010.
While many argue that the only way to improve such marketing in the industry, as well as other issues, is to get the government to legislate around it, Leemhuis thinks the industry can be responsible without such intervention, as is evident from the number of manufacturers and fast food outlets already making significant health changes.
“It’s not voluntarily, the consumer is demanding it,” she said.
“Consumers push these businesses, so they’re responding to that consumer demands.
“I’m a fan of minimum effective regulation if we do need it lets go down that track, but let’s see what we can do without the regulation to start with.
“Can we actually address the issue without regulation?
“That’s the path we should take first.
“If that doesn’t work then we should step into these other areas, but we really need to try this other area first before we just straight down to [regulation].”
While the latest reports have found the industry is not doing enough to self regulate itself, the director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute in Western Australia, Mike Daube, said he was ''profoundly pessimistic'' that governments would be heavy handed with food manufacturers.
''The food industry is so large and powerful that it will get away with the cynical pretence of self-regulation for the foreseeable future,'' he said.
Daube slammed the codes, saying they had no credibility, were not well enforced, and failed to protect children from obesity.
The AFGC maintain international regulations of advertising to children have not resulted in positive public health results so they would not work in Australia and chief executive Gary Dawson, said industry has been successful in removing non-core food advertising that was directed at children.