Marketing “Unhealthy Food” to Children: Legislators Move on an Initiative that Industry Voluntarily Put in Place in 2007

March 5, 2018

By Jennifer McKenzie and Ainslie Parsons

Health Canada is proposing to restrict the marketing of food containing certain levels of saturated fat, sugars or sodium (“unhealthy” food) to children under the age of 18. 2017 was the year Health Canada moved the proposal forward.

In the summer of 2017, Health Canada asked for public comment on its document describing the marketing restriction, called “Toward Restricting Unhealthy Food and Beverage Marketing to Children”. The results of the public consultation were published by Health Canada in December 2017. With respect to next steps, Health Canada has only indicated that “[m]ore consultation will take place in 2018”.

In addition to Health Canada’s proposal, Nancy Greene Raine, a Senator representing British Columbia, (and former gold medal winning Olympic skier), sponsored Bill S-228, “Child Health Protection Act, An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act (prohibiting food and beverage marketing directed at children”.  In October 2017, the Bill passed the Senate and is now in its second reading before the House of Commons. This Bill prohibits any person from “[advertising] unhealthy food in a manner that is directed primarily at children”.

The Bill has received multi-party support; however, many of the details have yet to be fully fleshed out in the House. One issue in particular is the definition of a child. While the Bill defines a child as anyone under the age of 17, amendments have been proposed to define a child as anyone under the age of 13. This definition would be consistent with Quebec legislation which prohibits commercial advertising of all products and services to children, and not just food and beverages.

While these legislative initiatives may be laudable, they are behind an initiative that prominent members of the food industry voluntarily put in place. In 2007, the Canadian Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CAI) was launched to address how food and beverage is advertised to children under the age of 12. Participating companies have agreed that they will not directly advertise food and beverages to children under the age of 12 unless the food and beverages meet Uniform Nutrition Criteria.  Since inception, a number of changes have been made to the initiative. For example, the Uniform Nutrition Criteria was revised with participant compliance required by December 31, 2015. It includes calorie limits and limits on saturated and Trans fat, sodium and total sugars. Further the exhibiting media governed by the CAI has expanded to include not only traditional broadcast (already subject to The Broadcast Code for Advertising for Children) and print media, but also digital media. As well, participating companies have grown to 18 and includes major players such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Danone, McDonald’s Restaurants, Kellogg Canada and General Mills.  As part of the CAI, participants have agreed that Ad Standards can issue a compliance report, most recently for 2016.While the CAI continues and is further refined, the legislative initiatives push forward.

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