US food industry delegates, attending a two-day seminar probing the role food and fast-food marketing plays in childhood obesity, liked what they heard from Federal Trade Commission representative Thomas B Leary.

In his opening address on day two, commissioner Leary told attendees he would not be "comfortable" if the FTC was required [by legislators] to decide what foods can or can't be advertised based on criteria other than whether the advertising is deceptive or unfair.

"I don't want to be part of a nanny agency or a nanny state," he said, apparently singing from the same hymn-sheet as Democrat senator Tom Harkin (Iowa) who had earlier told delegates he wants to see more action from the food industry itself to curb ads targeting children. The senator is previously on record as favoring legislation that would empower the FTC to limit such advertising.

Harkin's apparent climb-down pleased Brock Leach, svp at PepsiCo and Mark H Berlind, his opposite number at Kraft Foods. Leach commented that the food industry and Senator Harkin weren't really very far apart in their respective aims.

Berlind, for his part, told the seminar the issue isn't that of the volume or content of food advertising - but rather the attitude of consumers who are demanding healthier products. "Consumers are telling us loud and clear this [demand] needs to be addressed," he said.

Less sanguine was Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "We are feeling optimistic that in the future there will be change, but they [the food industry] haven't changed yet. A lot of food marketing is out of control."

Wootan urged food manufacturers to look beyond the issue of whether ads are fairly presented. They should instead address "which foods are being marketed to children" and whether those ads are having a negative effect on diet and health.

Meantime, the Grocery Manufacturers Association unveiled new initiatives, among them a ban on product placement in TV shows for children. Marketers and industry representatives at the seminar said progress is already being made on marketing healthier products to children.

"This is the best you can get right now," said GMA president/ceo C Manly Molpus - although it is not certain to which segment of the audience his words of wisdom were addressed.

Data sourced from AdAge (USA); additional content by WARC staff