Big Food would much rather regulate itself than have legislation rammed down its throat. The big Israeli food manufacturers plan to impose rules on themselves that would reduce the promotion of less-than-healthy edibles on television shows designed for the under-12 set. It sounds laudable, but there's a snag: Israeli commercial TV hardly has any programming for children under the age of 12.
The auto-restrictions appear in a draft agreement designed and signed by Osem chief executive Aviezer (Gezi) Kaplan. The idea isn't entirely original: In late 2007, the European Commission started taking action to ban junk-food ads on kiddie TV, prompting major European manufacturers to agree to refrain from running campaigns during television shows whose target audiences are children younger than age 12.
One of the companies taking part in the treaty is Nestle, which is Osem's parent company. Others include Danone, Coca-Cola and Unilever, all of which are intensely active in Israel's food sector.
Several of Israel's other major food firms are expected to join Osem in the endeavor, which is essentially the same as the European initiative.
Figures from the Israeli ratings commission, however, reveal that prominent kiddie shows, such as "Pyjamas", do not "chiefly" target children under 12. Only about a third of its viewers belong to that age group. Another third are aged 13 to 17.
Therefore, a resolution to eschew advertisements for fattening foods, on shows that target children on commercial TV, is meaningless.
There is another aspect of the European precedent that may be less devoid of content. Big Food in Europe also undertook (again, to avoid legislation) not to market high-fat, sugary or high-salt foodstuffs in schools, except where the school solicits it, and even then, only under the supervision of committees of parents and pupils.
Kaplan means to emulate that example, too ("Why reinvent the wheel," he suggests.) But from that point, the Israeli draft pact's emulation is softer.
In Europe, aside from the giants mentioned above, Kraft, Burger King, Pepsico and General Mills are also part of the pact, and that isn't the end of the list. Their undertakings include to completely halt advertising of foods that objective nutritionists define as "unhealthy" on children's shows on both TV and radio, as well as on Web sites that target children. None of that appears in the Israeli version.
Behind the whole drive to eschew the pushing of junk food to kids lies a legislative drive by Knesset Member Orit Noked, which has in fact already passed its first of three readings required to become law. Her proposal would completely ban ads for drink or food targeting children before 9 at night.
If the Noked bill passes into law, it would be a harsh blow for the makers of Bamba, Bissli, Coke and Cheetos, which today strut their stuff mainly during prime-time for the dewy-eyed set.
Moreover, Noked would have a label slapped on all foods defined by a public committee to be unhealthy, that declares: "Excessive consumption of this product is bad for your health." The committee also aspires to ban the food-makers from using celebrities to promote fattening foods.
Irit Speisman, communications manager at Strauss Group and also manager of the in-house Strauss brands, believes that if the Advertisers Association of Israel accepts the challenge, so to speak, the companies will fall in line and join the pact.
Indeed, the person spearheading the campaign against Noked's bill to regulate responsible advertising is Talma Biro, leader of the Advertisers Association. "I am convinced that the Israeli food manufacturers are capable of self-regulation," Biro says. The companies already know that today's consumers want healthier foods, she argues, but the law would cause damage to the companies - and to the commercial TV networks - to the tune of millions of shekels.