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Happy Meals Given the Chop

Melissa Singer
Sydney Morning Herald
April 30, 2010

Parents and health experts have urged the federal government to ban all marketing of junk food to children after a US community took the historic step of outlawing happy meals.

Government officials in Santa Clara, near San Francisco, will issue fines of $US1000 ($1075) to restaurants caught selling toys with any meals that fail to meet health guidelines.

"Unhealthy" meals include those containing more than 2037 kilojoules or 600 milligrams of salt, or those with more than 35 per cent of their kilojoules from fat or 10 per cent from added sugars. The ban, which comes in from July, is believed to be a world first.

In Australia, the fast-food industry is largely controlled by self-regulation, which critics say has only encouraged companies to develop more subversive marketing methods that pit children against their parents.

Karen Sims, manager of Australian group The Parents Jury, said Santa Clara's "brave" move was necessary in the fight against childhood obesity, which affects one in four children.

"Food and toys should be separate entities: food is for nutrition and toys are for play," she said.

Ms Sims said fast-food chains were hiding behind a smokescreen of loss-leading "healthy bits", such as apple slices when "what they're really selling are burgers and fries".

Kaye Mehta, a senior lecturer in nutrition at Flinders University, said self-regulation had a minimal impact on reducing junk food marketing and led to conflict among families.

"Marketing works to undermine parental authority and set parents up to be in constant conflict with their children," she said. "Children should learn to choose food for its inherent value, not for playing games."

One of the industry's self-regulatory mechanisms, the Quick Service Restaurant Responsible Advertising and Marketing to Children initiative, prohibits fast-food advertisements during TV shows targeted at under-14s.

But Ms Mehta said the code ignored children's actual viewing habits or the role played by non-traditional media in influencing young people's eating habits.

"The reality is children are not watching kids' programs ... [but] prime-time programs that are classified G and PG. The efforts made by the industry through self-regulatory codes are just tackling the problem around the edges," she said.

Last year, the government's National Health Preventative Taskforce recommended a blanket ban on junk food TV advertising before 9pm but is yet to rein in food manufacturers and advertising companies or establish the agency tasked with creating campaigns to fight obesity.

A spokeswoman for McDonald's said that, as part of the QSR initiative, the hamburger chain "only promotes foods/beverages that are healthier options, as determined by the one industry-wide nutrition criteria".

A spokesman for Yum! Restaurants, which manages KFC and Pizza Hut, said toys are included only as incidentals with meals and were not "the primary driver of purchase".


 

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