Focus - Pressure to grow for global approach to soft drinks in schools

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Coca-Cola has been criticised for making a misleading claim in an ad in the US over its policy towards selling soft drinks in schools. While the company has agreed to change the wording in the ad, Ben Cooper writes, campaigners are set to ramp up the pressure on both Coke and PepsiCo over the issue of selling full-calorie soft drinks in schools in an attempt to force the companies to adopt globally consistent policies in this area.

The recent spat between the consumer advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and Coca-Cola Co over the wording of an issue ad is about more than whether Mexico should correctly be classified as North America rather than Latin America.

The ad in question related to Coke's policy towards selling full-calorie soft drinks in schools and claimed it no longer did this in North America. CSPI pointed out that the company's policy does not extend to Mexico.

Coke said it groups Mexico in its Latin American operations but recognised the confusion and agreed to change the ad. When it appeared again on Sunday (6 Dec) CSPI wrote to Coke once more. The company has said a re-worded version will run next Sunday.

So the ad itself should cease to be an issue after Sunday. But this was never really about Coca-Cola's apparent confusion over the precise location of the Equator. While taking exception to what it saw as a misleading claim, CSPI was using the issue to highlight the inconsistency between how Coca-Cola approaches vending in schools in the US, Canada and European markets and other countries where it operates.

"When steps are taken in one country that are relevant from a public health standpoint to other countries then there's just no excuse for treating kids in different parts of the world differently," says Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs at CSPI, which launched the global 'Dump Soft Drinks' campaign in December 2007.

This campaign has been effectively held in abeyance while negotiations have been taking place between soft drinks industry representatives and international NGOs, led by the Geneva-based World Heart Federation (WHF), aimed at developing a global agreement on the sale of soft drinks in schools. The WHF and the other NGOs have put a draft set of principles to Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, with the hope that this could form the basis of a Memorandum of Understanding and eventually a global agreement.

A report commissioned by the WHF in the course of these deliberations revealed a mixed picture globally of the availability of soft drinks in schools.

It concluded that soft drinks are most widely available in secondary schools but are also available in primary schools in many countries. This included all the Latin American and Caribbean countries surveyed. The report said that in Asia soft drinks are available in primary schools in some countries and not in others.

As might be expected given the voluntary codes in place, the report said soft drinks are found "relatively rarely in primary schools in Western European and North American countries". However, it said soft drinks were still available to primary school children in some European countries.

What the report clearly shows is that, notwithstanding the presence of voluntary codes and statutory regulations in many countries, principally the developed ones, the sale of full-calorie soft drinks in schools remains very much a live issue.

Of course, this is not purely about Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. In spite of their massive market share, other drinks companies are obviously also involved in selling into schools. Also, in countries with less developed infrastructures the informal sale through wholesalers into school tuckshops and kiosks certainly adds to the challenge any company-led approach might face. But CSPI believes the two giants have a leadership role to play.

The disparity between the approach in certain developed markets and that in other countries clearly puts Coca-Cola in a very difficult position. There is no way it would or could justify valuing the health of American children more highly than those in Mexico.

When just-drinks asked Coca-Cola to explain its current position, the company said: "We work closely with school officials to honour their requests of us and provide products that meet these requests." The spokesperson conceded that it sold its products in primary schools in some markets and had voluntarily opted not to do so in others. It said the range of products it offered in schools varies from market to market.

"In some markets we are working with schools on undernourishment school feeding efforts, and we provide fortified beverages specifically designed to meet nutrient deficiencies in local children." the company stated, adding that it was also providing philanthropic support for schools in some countries.

The spokesperson concluded: "As a business we make decisions at the local level.  Every enterprise is linked to the well-being and prosperity of each community in which it lives and serves; ours perhaps more than any other."

Notwithstanding the company's philanthropic activities, it is clear that this rationalisation of the situation as it stands will not satisfy the campaigners.

In its first letter to Coke, CSPI asked the company to give a more specific response to the WHF draft principles. In its response, Coke said it was "actively engaged in discussions" with the WHF on this matter and planned to "share a proposed approach" with the WHF by the end of the year. However, when just-drinks asked the company to elucidate, Coke declined to make any further comment.

According to inside sources, the WHF has received a response to its draft principles from the International Council of Beverages Associations (ICBA), which is also involved in the negotiations, suggesting the initial focus should be on primary schools only and that there should be a staged approach targeted at certain specific countries to begin with.

The pressure that Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are now under is not unlike that which the companies were subject to in developed markets some years ago, which played a part in them adopting more socially responsible policies towards school vending in those countries.

Whether or not that pressure results in global undertakings by the companies remains to be seen. It may be that national organisations and campaigners in the US, Canada and in Europe were able to bring more intense and direct pressure to bear on the companies in their own particular countries.

The question is whether a similar level of pressure can be created by international institutions such as the World Heart Federation. The World Health Organization is already actively engaged in improving nutrition in schools. The degree to which it engages on this specific issue may also be critical.

However, it is likely that the pressure for change will be felt keenly by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo in the countries where they have already acted. The growth of the Fairtrade sector, ethical consumerism and growing public interest in issues such as deforestation and working conditions in supply chains demonstrates how consumers in developed countries are increasingly aware and concerned about how the practices of large corporations impact on people in the developing world.

The companies may therefore find themselves under increasing pressure from consumers in the US, Canada and in Europe to adopt a more consistent approach in all countries over the coming year or so.

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