German minister wants to ban junk food ads for children

Marketing targeted at children and advertising food with too much fat, sugar, or salt could soon be banned in Germany, according to plans presented by Green agriculture and food minister Cem Özdemir.

In an effort to fight obesity and diseases linked to nutritional habits in children, the Green minister presented plans to ban the marketing of unhealthy foods targeting under-14-year-olds.

“During childhood, dietary and exercise habits are formed – this phase of life is the key to sustainably effective measures to prevent obesity, adiposis, and other diet-based diseases,” Özdemir told journalists on Monday (27 February).

According to Özdemir’s plans, any advertisement for food with an “exceedingly high” sugar, fat, or salt content geared towards children would be banned.

“Geared towards children” would include advertisements whose content is adapted to children, through childlike language, design or children as actors, as well as marketing presented in a context where children are especially targeted, for example, billboards near schools, social media advertisements or TV spots during kids shows.

The draft put forth by Özdemir’s ministry also explicitly includes influencer marketing.

“Advertisements for foodstuffs with too high content of fat, sugar, and salt have a proven impact on children’s and young people’s diets,” he stressed.

How to define unhealthy food?

Similar to debates surrounding nutritional labelling – where EU countries are split into camps on whether the contentious, colour-coded Nutri-score label represents a healthy diet and should be mandatory EU-wide – one of the key contentious aspects of Özdemir’s push is what constitutes unhealthy food.

According to the minister, the thresholds for maximum amounts of sugar, salt, and fat should be based on the recommendations set out by the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) nutrient profile model, developed specifically to establish criteria for marketing to children.

But for the food industry, this is not a convincing basis.

In a statement, the German Food Association called the WTO criteria “opaque” and warned that 70% of products could be affected if they are applied.

“Cem Özdemir is apparently not even clear yet on the ramifications of his plans,” said the organisation’s manager, Christoph Minhoff.

The industry association also argued that “no robust scientific studies exist on the effectiveness of advertising restrictions on overall diets and the development of childhood obesity”.

However, the minister clapped back: “If marketing does not have any effect, why are millions spent on this? This I find illogical, to say the least,” he said during the press conference.

Meanwhile, consumer organisations and green campaigners welcomed Özdemir’s push.

Environmental organisation WWF called the plans “a milestone on the path towards healthier dietary conditions for children”.

“Children eat around double the amount of sweets, but only half the amount of fruit and vegetables recommended,” the organisation’s sustainable diets campaigner Elisa Kollenda said in a statement, adding that “we need to reverse this trend”.

A question of getting everybody on board

Consumers’ organisation Foodwatch also welcomed the fact that Özdemir “cracks down on the food industry, which pushes burgers, sweets, and lemonades onto children using aggressive marketing tricks”.

In a statement, the organisation also called on the Green minister’s coalition partners, the Social Democrat SPD and the liberal FDP, not to oppose or water down the plans.

However, pushback from within the ruling coalition came shortly after Özdemir’s presentation.

While the Social Democrats showed support, with rapporteur Rita Hagl-Kehl saying the parliamentary group “fully supports” the plans, the Liberals (FDP) in government were less than happy.

“From my point of view, bans are useless here,” the party’s general secretary, Bijan Djir-Sarai, told public TV broadcaster ARD, adding that more weight should be given to people’s self-responsibility.

The FDP agricultural spokesman, Gero Hocker, bluntly promised that Özdemir’s plan “will not find a majority within the coalition”.

This is despite the fact that the three parties’ coalition agreement states that marketing of unhealthy food to those under 14 should “no longer be allowed to exist”.

For his proposal to be passed, Özdemir would need the approval of both the government and the German parliament, and the support of the coalition partners is needed in both cases.


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